Top positive review
Social history made personal
on 14 April 2015
It seems appropriate that as we near another General Election, our Book club should chose this early memoir of a man who grew into a politician of stature and good repute.
As I am an exact contemporary of A A Johnson, being born only months later than him in 1950, this is a reminder rather than an education. I also lived in London then, I too played on bomb sites covered in Rose Bay Willow Herb which were littered with debris. I was not shocked by the squalor or basic living conditions as others may be, or as surprised as some by the hardships this tiny family endured. What he calls a urine bucket we called a potty, paraffin heaters were quite usual and central heating unheard of. Lino and rugs did cover floor and wall to wall carpet an unimaginable luxury. Books shut and locked away in glass cases were also de rigeur, and public libraries our spiritual homes. Schools were not concerned with domestic situations, they did not assume the role of social workers.
However it was the anguish of living with a mother who was dreadfully ill, abandoned by a feckless husband, always living on tick and trying to make ends meet, all the while hoping for rehousing and their 'own front door'. Luckily sister Linda, to whom this book is dedicated and to whom it is truly a hymn of praise, saved the day by fighting like a tiger mother for her brother, keeping them together whatever. It should be noted that sixteen years olds then were not considered children, they had to work, further education was rare and open to only a few. a large proportion left home voluntarily at sixteen, never to return.
Points I would like to make - for a boy who frequently dined on Oxo 'soup' with stale bread floating in it and had to go days with only one meal - school dinner - he looks to be a remarkably chubby, happy and well grown five year old in the photos. Also there is nothing to be ashamed of having the name Arthur, it is a fine name, not one to hide away. Plus he passed the ElevenPlus as I did, a defining success that gave him every chance he could hope for, yet he stayed away from school for long periods faking illness or slow recovery from it. Lugging coals around in a old pram, picking up horse manure, delivering paraffin and milk, he worked hard as a little man, as we all did, paper rounds for twelve years olds etc were quite usual. Different times and standards were not the same, parents let go more freely and children brought themselves up amongst hunger, deprivation, bullying from teachers and classmates alike. The strongest steel is forged in the hottest furnace.
The book closes as Alan is married, and a father not even twenty, and setting out on what looks to be a life long career in the Post Office. This generation had never heard of portfolio careers and skipping about from job to job was seen as irresponsible, disloyal and insecure. Yes, different times indeed. The next book will surely reveal the route he takes to become Home Secretary.
Light relief is provided by Alan's visions of his future as a pop star or a writer, one which ambitions is certainly come true with this prize winning read.