Alan Johnson has had enough of a life for two men – or more. A Labour Party MP since 1997 (for the constituency of Hull West and Hessle), he served as Home Secretary from June 2009 to May 2010, having previously served as both Health and Education Secretary, before becoming the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. His first book, This Boy, a brutally frank memoir of his childhood, was described by The Times as “the best memoir by a politician you’ll ever read”, and won both the Ondaatje and Orwell Prizes. On Wednesday night, he was in UEA’s Lecture Theatre 1 to talk about his life and second book, Please, Mister Postman.
Johnson’s love for reading, he told the audience, began when his mother would drag her children to Ladbroke Grove library out of an ‘instinct’ that books would be good for them, despite not being a particularly voracious reader herself. Another guiding force that Johnson credits with supporting his passion was (as is often the case) a former English teacher, Mr. Carling, who “kept order in the classroom just by sheer force of personality” and who, noticing Johnson’s literary inclinations, began to “suggest a structure of reading” to him.
Books also served as an essential companion, and escape, for Johnson throughout an exceedingly difficult and often tragic childhood. His father deserted his mother early in Johnson’s life, and his mother died tragically from a heart condition while he was still a teenager, at which point his sister became his sole carer, even attending his parents evenings at 16 to talk to his teachers and then scold the then 13-year-old Alan for his wrongdoings. At 17, Johnson met his first wife Judy, who he would go on to have two children with over the next three years. Please, Mister Postman begins when Johnson is 18, at the start of his career as a postman.
Of course, this career wasn’t to become a lifetime one, and in 1992 Johnson became the General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers. The evening’s compere, UEA’s Henry Sutton, put to Johnson the adage that “What makes a good Union executive is arrogance tinged with compassion”, asking Johnson whether that was a fair summation of his character, to which Johnson replied, quickly and with a smile, “compassion tinged with arrogance.”
During an election period where, as has frequently been stated, the three main party leaders are from unnervingly similar backgrounds, there have been clamors for Johnson to return to frontline politics, in the capacity of, perhaps “shadow secretary of state for working-class authenticity and having lived a bit”, as the New Statesman’s Rafael Baer put it. Quelling any talk of his ever having contended for the leadership, Johnson told the audience that “to do that job you’ve got to really want it, and if you don’t want it you’re not going to do it very well. I wanted to be Union secretary, but I’ve never wanted that job.”
For the time being, Johnson appears content to continue writing, something none of the literary-oriented audience seemed to have any problems with (although he maintained he still harbours dreams of being a singer-songwriter). Providing that fantasy doesn’t take him on tour anytime soon, Johnson’s third memoir should be with us shortly – he’s just completed the first chapter, and the book will focus on his life in politics. Asked whether he had any plans to one day write fiction, Johnson responded first with a close to the bone joke: “To which a cynic could reply I could write the manifesto”, before responding more sincerely, and saying that in his opinion “to call yourself a writer you need to have written fiction.”
Before the night was over, there was time for a final audience question, “What is your writing routine?”, which was met by Johnson with glee. He detailed how he hand writes with a fountain pen, having tried all of the other ways to no avail. He writes out his second draft in longhand also, at which point the scripts are then typed up and sent to his agent. As to what time of day suits him best for writing, Johnson’s answer follows a pattern set out by many established authors: the morning. Finally, Johnson relayed his good fortune not to have yet struggled with “the tyranny of the blank page”, arguing that because he knows he’ll return to what he’s written multiple times before submitting it, what’s important the first time around is just to get the words down: some prescient advice for us all during this coursework deadline season.