Please, Mr Postman: a Memoir by Alan Johnson, review: ‘beautifully evoked’
The Telegraph, By Sinclair McKay
The second volume of Alan Johnson’s personal and political memoir is required reading.
The recent outbreak of hair-pulling between the Prime Minister and Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, explains why a book such as this invokes such a fierce glow of yearning. David Cameron has accused Hunt – and I paraphrase – of being a Labour posh boy who wishes to deny future generations his educational advantages. Hunt has responded by accusing the PM of being a “low-rent PR man”. The insults mirror one another perfectly: they are about a perceived absence of authenticity.
This, the second volume of memoir from the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, is an unintended rebuke to Westminster game-players. In his first book, Johnson vividly invoked his childhood, the early loss of his mother, and being brought up largely by his elder sister in the Rachman slums of north Kensington. This volume begins in the same run-down streets in the late 1960s. Johnson, now a teenager, dreams of being a rock star, but his girlfriend Judy is pregnant and they are living, together with Judy’s daughter from a previous relationship, with her difficult mother in a house soon to be demolished to make way for the Westway motorway. Johnson gets a job with the post office and puts Judy and himself down for a council house.
The only property they are offered is not quite where they had expected; a house on an estate with a grim reputation on the outskirts of Slough. Two local bobbies tell Johnson they wouldn’t think of living there. Nor, at this point, would any of Johnson’s readers. But the truth turns out to be very different. Johnson and Judy see the house and the garden – and they fall in love with it instantly.
What follows is a beautifully evoked account of ordinary 1970s life; neighbours socialise; cars and household telephones are acquired; there is QPR football on Saturday, and beer at the pub on Sunday lunch; there are kitchen parties involving pale ale and gin but not wine, which was a rarity then. And then there is Johnson’s work in the Post Office, and his round of deliveries near Burnham in Berkshire, which he makes sound blissful – including a lady farmer on his beat who makes her kitchen a kind of political forum for all the local workmen. The startling thing is that Johnson makes the union politics sound attractive too.
Possibly because the postal union was more moderate (and indeed, judging by Johnson’s account, often the soul of conciliation), we hear less of the background roar of the decade; the coal strikes, the three-day-week, the sense of the nation’s heavy industry slowly being forced to its knees by technological advance, slippery management and aggressively intransigent unions.
Johnson’s career as a union official becomes serious; he makes his first tentative speech at the TUC conference. His first ever aeroplane flight is a shuttle to Scotland to attend to a postal dispute in Dundee. As he climbs ever higher, Mrs Thatcher wins her second term in 1983 and sets about the serious evisceration of union power. Johnson is aware of unions becoming infiltrated with well-spoken people in denim jackets with extreme hard Left views. But again, mighty moments have a slightly muted quality.
Perhaps this as it should be. For the real fascination of this book – which ends in the late 1980s – is its pin-sharp close-up details; from Johnson’s 1960s postal round where – in the manner of a Dick Emery sketch – one posh female resident stands topless by her bedroom window, staring into space, at exactly the same time each morning, for the delectation of the postie; to the grim reality of colleagues sending a workmate ‘to Coventry’; to the desperately sad story of Johnson’s brother-in-law’s alcoholism.
We hear of Johnson taking his family for their first holiday in a car; and of the transition when he stops wearing a postman’s uniform and starts going to work in a suit. A national moment of social change – when Mrs Thatcher instituted the ‘Right-To-Buy’ council house policy (Johnson points out that the previous Labour government had actually come up with the idea) – is illustrated rather poignantly in Johnson’s Slough street. The neighbours debate it all out; Johnson and his wife want to remain council residents and for the house to remain in council ownership; their friends want to take the opportunity to become owners, and to move. The recent past now seems impossibly distant. But the formation of Johnson’s political consciousness is deftly woven through.
He is wise not to batter us with excessive industrial history. None the less, the flavour of 1970s union meetings – all those agendas, and minutes, and jargon, combined with the smoking and the bottles of whisky on the tables in front of officials – is as powerful as the aftertaste of Blue Nun. And never far away from any of this is an understanding of the fragility of life, the catastrophes that could hit any family, the strength of the family bonds that enable people to overcome crushing disaster, and the impersonal forces that pull relationships apart. The third volume will be required reading too.