Book Review: The Long and Winding Road by Alan Johnson

The Long and Winding RoadAbout the Book

From the condemned slums of Southam Street in West London to the corridors of power in Westminster, Alan Johnson’s multi-award-winning autobiography charts an extraordinary journey, almost unimaginable in today’s Britain. This third volume tells of Alan’s early political skirmishes as a trades union leader, where his negotiating skills and charismatic style soon came to the notice of Tony Blair and other senior members of the Labour Party.

As a result, Alan was chosen to stand in the constituency of Hull West and Hessle, and entered Parliament as an MP after the landslide election victory for Labour in May 1997. But this is no self-aggrandizing memoir of Westminster politicking and skulduggery. Supporting the struggle of his constituents, the Hull trawlermen and their families, for justice comes more naturally to Alan than do the byzantine complexities of Parliamentary procedure. But of course he does succeed there, and rises through various ministerial positions to the office of Home Secretary in 2009.

Format: Hardcover (352 pp.)         Publisher: Bantam Press
Published: 22nd September 2016  Genre: Autobiography, Non-Fiction

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Find The Long and Winding Road on Goodreads


My Review

I’m attending several events at this year’s Henley Literary Festival (which runs from 29th September to 7th October),  and one of them is ex-Labour Home Secretary, Alan Johnson talking about In My Life: A Music Memoir, the latest volume of his award-winning memoirs.  Before entering parliament in 1997, Alan had a career in the Post Office and was General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union.     My husband also worked for the Post Office around the same time and knew some of the people that Alan mentions in his books.  In preparation for attending the event, we’ve both been reading earlier books in the series – The Long and Winding Road (my review below) and Please, Mister Postman (reviewed yesterday).

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From its compelling opening line, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have gone’, the reader realizes this book isn’t going to be some dry political memoir but a revealing, personal and honest account of a life that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.   For example, the author makes reference to his troubled childhood and early family life (explored in more detail in the first volume of his memoirs, This Boy).

Alan Johnson is disarmingly self-deprecating when it comes to recounting anecdotes from his time as a union official, Member of Parliament and Government minister.   Not every politician would be as honest as the author in recalling campaign and policy failures or as modest about his many successes on behalf of the union members and constituents he represented.  Johnson readily admits to being a late adopter when it comes to new technology, such as mobile phones and email.  However, he describes himself as an avid reader so that makes up for almost anything, to my mind!

Alan Johnson comes across as ambitious but not for the sake of personal aggrandizement or in an ‘end justifies the means’ way.  Instead, his motivation is to use his influence to change things for the better and improve the lives of others.  He notes, ‘Leadership for its own sake was never something I enjoyed…revelling in the position and the authority and the power it brought.’  

Johnson’s time as an union official gives him valuable experience of negotiation. He observes at one point, ‘The necessary components of success in negotiating a settlement are mutual respect, and indeed trust, between negotiators, the capacity to see the situation from the point of view of the other side of the table…’  I imagine, here in the UK, many of us can think of a current political situation that would benefit from an approach like that…

The book describes Johnson’s key role in campaigns such as that against Royal Mail privatisation (although he is quick to share the praise with the team he gathered around him) and his very personal campaign to gain justice for the trawlermen of his Hull constituency, deprived of their livelihoods as a result of political decisions but still waiting for the promised Government compensation.

The reader gets a sense of a person who is not ashamed of, nor forgetful of, their roots.  For instance, Johnson proudly points out that he was the first Secretary of State for Education to have been a recipient of free school meals and the first Minister of Higher Education not to have gone to university.  Never part of any political clique, he notes that, even when a Government minister, his closest friend was still Ernie, a postman at the Slough sorting office; a friendship dating from his earliest days working for the Post Office.

The book is extremely readable and is peppered with concise, descriptive (but never mean) pen portraits of colleagues.   There’s a lot of humour in the book and, naturally, Alan Johnson’s love of music, especially that of his heroes The Beatles, shines through.  However, there’s sadness too as the author shares with the reader the personal tragedies along ‘The Long and Winding Road’ that have seen him travel from a flat in Thornton Heath, South London to the Palace of Westminster and one of the four Great Offices of State.

Alan Johnson is appearing at Henley Literary Festival on 30th September 2018 (event sold out at time of writing)

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In three words: Wry, fascinating, honest

Try something similar…Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson (read my review here)


Alan JohnsonAbout the Author

Alan Johnson was born in May 1950.  He was General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union before entering Parliament as Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle in 1997.  He served as Home Secretary from June 2009 to May 2010.  Before that, he filled a wide variety of cabinet positions in both the Blair and Brown governments, including Education and Health.  His first memoir, This Boy, was published in May 2013 and won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Orwell Prize.

Alan’s latest book, In My Life: A Music Memoir, was published in September 2018.

Connect with Alan

Website  ǀ  Goodreads

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