Alan Johnson: In My Life

Market Drayton Festival Centre, 31 Oct

Alan Johnson is a vintage politician who has faced hardship and many challenges but he strode onto the Festival Centre stage with what struck me as an affable boyishness. His rosy-cheeked, cheerful smile had an almost cherubic quality that said he was here to entertain, and he delivered on that promise generously.

Alan Johnson with Festival Centre volunteer Sue Dawson

A retired MP’s pension not being great, compere Andrew Wilson joked in his introduction, Alan was on tour promoting his latest autobiographical book, In My Life. All four of Johnson’s award-winning books take Beatles songs for their titles, and this latest volume puts pop music at its core, using stand-out songs for Johnson each year from 1957 to 1982 as prompts for his recollections.

Johnson copied this structure in the first half of his talk, during which he played short selections from these tunes. It was an invitation for the audience to indulge in  nostalgia and several people near me sang along to Bing Crosby’s True Love and the Beatles’ All My Loving, albeit at subdued volume. There was a fond murmur of acknowledgment at mention of Two-Way Family Favourites, listened to devotedly on those long-ago Sunday lunchtimes.

Johnson’s early years were spent four-in-a-room in a North Kensington slum that had been condemned as unfit for occupation in the 1930’s. “My father was a drinker and gambler who knocked my mother around and he left with a barmaid when I was eight.” When he was thirteen his mother died. “My sister was sixteen and we didn’t tell anyone for fear of being split up.” But meanwhile he had been given an acoustic guitar and his love affair with music took on another dimension.

His account of his developing persona as rhythm guitarist in various bands was peppered with reminders of the hardships he faced, not least from his equipment being stolen. But he managed to forge from the grimmest of anecdotes a feeling that coming of age in the sixties was exciting and fun.

This positive tone carried over into the second half, when Johnson talked of his eighteen years as a postman and the doors that opened for him when he became branch chairman of his union. He then took questions from the audience, and touched on his subsequent political career and his time in government which included holding four cabinet posts.

His answers on Brexit (he led the Labour campaign to remain), the Miliband brothers (he backed David’s leadership bid) and the rise of right-wing populism across the world (“It’s not as bad as in the 30’s and we now have international organisations giving some guarantees“) were well received. But they were clearly, it seemed to me, the answers of a politician post retirement. Time to play the Beatles’ Yesterday, I thought.