Alan Johnson was one of the most significant figures in the New Labour movement. As he launched the third volume of his autobiography at Durham Book Festival, Antony Mullen watched and interviewed Johnson about the challenges of writing a political memoir.
Alan Johnson is a cheerful man, with much to be cheerful about. One of the most recognisable faces of New Labour, he was Secretary of State at five government departments. He also very nearly became Prime Minister. When the Liberal Democrats discussed forming a coalition with Labour in 2010, it was intended that Johnson would lead a 3-year Labour-Lib Dem government, but “the deal didn’t come off” in his words. This is impressive for a postman-turned-trade-unionist who had never written a CV until Tony Blair requested one.
Johnson walks out onto the stage of Durham Gala Theatre to rapturous applause. Political talk must wait though; there is more important business to attend to. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature – and Johnson is a Dylan obsessive. Alongside The Beatles, after whose songs his three memoirs are named, Dylan was the standout musician of Johnson’s youth. There was, however, also a grim side to his childhood in 1950’s London. He appears bemused as he recalls growing up in poverty in a house that was declared unfit for human habitation 20 years earlier. Audience members nod along to his description of ice forming on the inside of the windows during the winter; their agreement becomes audible when he says his experience was not unique but “could have been Durham, Newcastle or Liverpool”.
His first memoir, This Boy (2014), was the story of his youth. Reflecting on the writing process, he says that it was a biography of his mother and an attempt to “make her live again on the page”. His intention was never to talk of his own achievements: the second and third volumes, about his own life and career, were not planned until after his mother’s story was written. This rings true; he is not one to boast. Instead, Johnson is self-deprecating. At one point he recalls how a constituent asked him to pass on her concerns to the Health Secretary, entirely unaware that he was the Health Secretary.
At one point in the evening Johnson highlights a major problem with trusting some historical records. Blair had asked Johnson to stand as an MP, and he was selected by Labour’s National Executive Committee (of which he was a member) as the candidate for Hull West and Hessle. Blair had also attempted to parachute Charles Falconer into the Dudley North constituency – but was less successful in this endeavour. At his interview with the NEC, Falconer refused to say that he would send his children to state school and, as a result, he was not selected. Several months later, at a meeting of the NEC, Johnson noticed that the committee’s minutes incorrectly recorded that he had applied to be the candidate for both Hull and Dudley. Only later did it occur to Johnson that the NEC had used his name in place of Falconer’s in a bid to write Blair’s future Lord Chancellor out of Labour Party history.
At the end of the talk my friend Jenny turns to me and sums him up in two words: “he’s smooth”. Jenny and I had just been discussing the merits of a Universal Basic Income prior to the talk, but Johnson has rendered her near-speechless. She’s right: Johnson is smooth, his answers are coherent and authentic. He can, and does, list New Labour’s achievements without hesitation. It is clear that he is an experienced interviewee who has been through the New Labour PR machine. The Long and Winding Road strips the spin away and offers an honest insight into Johnson’s time at the top – and it is written for the public, not the PR men. Like its author, it is warm, funny and authentic.
I interview Johnson after his talk and ask him about the challenges of accurately reflecting the past. “Making sure my memory didn’t play tricks on me”, he says, “but it’s surprising how much you remember”. For his first volume, Johnson was dependent upon his sister’s memory to fill in the blanks; for the other two he could rely on his own, with some fact-checking to support it. In my previous blog for READ I discussed the role of literary narratives in giving an account of the past. I wonder if writing a memoir about the New Labour years felt like it was a historical document or a literary project. “It was literary. I’ve read a lot and wanted to write something that people would want to read and that would be selling for a long time… I wasn’t writing a social history”.
I’m curious about what he thinks about the role of narrative in political communication. How do politicians convince the public of their version of events? “Don’t speak in political language, don’t use phrases like ‘look…’ and ‘now…’, you need to avoid using terms that people don’t speak in. Speak in English not parliamentary English, [the latter] turns people off.” He sums up his style of communicating as “for listeners of the Today programme, not presenters of the Today programme”.
Finally, I ask him about the other topical issue of the day. Does he like Marmite? “I don’t think I’ve ever tasted the stuff”.