This is a longer version of a review that first appeared in the Henley Standard on Friday 5th October.
The audience gathered in the historic Kenton Theatre gave an enthusiastic welcome to former Labour Home Secretary turned award-winning author, Alan Johnson. Sponsored by Laithwaite’s Wine, the sold out event marked Alan’s third visit to the Henley Literary Festival, this time in conversation with journalist, Lesley Garner, about his latest book, In My Life: A Music Memoir. (You can find the book description and purchase links at the bottom of this post.)
Alan explained the book covers the period from 1957 to 1982 with each chapter linked to a song. They’re not necessarily his favourite pieces of music. For example, the Beatles song included in the book is ‘All My Loving’ but his personal favourite is ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ from the Revolver album. However, they are songs that evoke particular memories for Alan of his life at that time: listening to Two-Way Family Favourites on the family’s Bakelite wireless, playing 78’s on his sister’s Dansette record player, acquiring his first guitar, hearing about the death of John Lennon.
Starting with ‘True Love’ by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, each chapter of the book charts the evolution of popular music as experienced by Alan and other members of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. He observed that before Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele came on the scene there was no real youth music culture. Their arrival opened up a huge generation gap as singer/songwriters such as Lennon & McCartney replaced artists who sang songs written by other people.
Lesley observed that musicality was in Alan’s DNA as his father was a piano player. Alan, whose difficult relationship with his father is described in This Boy, joked that he didn’t get much else from him. He recalled that there was always a piano in every house they lived in but that his father kept the keyboard locked…until his sister, Linda, managed to prise it open with a screwdriver. Alan said he always wanted to play a guitar and was bought his first one by his mother when he was six or seven, albeit only a pink plastic one. When she later had a win on the Pools, she bought Linda a Dansette record player and Alan an acoustic Spanish guitar.
Alan agreed with Lesley that this period marked a huge change in how people listened to music. Previously, it was largely on the radio, more likely than not the Light Programme on the BBC. Now there became a ‘materiality’ about how people experienced music. Alan recalled polishing shellac 78s, reading record labels and playing records at the wrong speed on the Dansette.
As Lesley observed, the book is not only a nostalgic catalogue of music but also an account of Alan’s own musical career which seemed to have more than its fair share of setbacks (unlike his political career) despite his obvious musical talent. Alan recounted with characteristic humour some of the ups and downs of his musical exploits: his early attempts at song writing (he’s still waiting to hear back from Elvis Costello about the songs he sent him in 1982); joining his first band (the Vampires) in the hope of impressing girls; and being invited to join the In Between, a multi-racial group with a (rare at the time) female lead singer. Unfortunately, having musical gear stolen on multiple occasions put paid to most of these enterprises as did the fact Alan was shortly to get married and needed a ‘proper job’. On the advice of a friend, he joined the Post Office where he was told he could make good money, albeit in exchange for long hours.
Lesley said she understood Alan played a crucial role in the first EU Referendum in 1975. Alan recalled he was on the committee of the postal workers union at the time and the postmen (they were all men then) were ‘up in arms’ at being expected to deliver all the Referendum material – as if they were no more than leaflet deliverers. Alan was responsible for negotiations and managed to strike a deal for four hours overtime. He recalls being treated as something like a hero as a result.
Alan said he still occasionally plays the guitar and told the story of how he was reunited with his treasured Hӧfner Verithin guitar, stolen more than thirty years before, when someone contacted him after hearing it mentioned when Alan appeared on Desert Island Discs. However, it did cost him a lot more than he originally paid for it to do so!
In person, Alan comes across exactly as he does in his books: warm, witty, honest and a tireless campaigner against injustice. He has a lovely line in self-deprecating humour. For example, he mentioned an English teacher who, recognizing Alan’s love of books and fondness for writing short stories, encouraged him to submit some of stories to publishers and lent him books. In recognition of this early encouragement, Alan invited the teacher to the launch of his first book, This Boy, but was disappointed to find the man didn’t remember him at all!
From Alan’s responses to questions from the audience, we discovered:
- He doesn’t really have a favourite punk rock single, preferring artists who came directly after such as Paul Weller, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello
- He never met Lonnie Donegan although he did once see him live at the Chiswick Empire and made a TV documentary about him that was unfortunately never shown. However, Alan did once meet musical hero, Paul McCartney.
- He never harboured any ambition to lead the Labour Party although he did run for Deputy Leader on one occasion. He was beaten by Harriet Harman who he thought did a much better job than he would have done anyway.
- He is proud of the many achievements of the Labour Government in which he served. He mentioned, in particular, his successful campaign in support of the Hull trawler-men who had been battling for twenty years to get the compensation for loss of their livelihoods promised them by previous governments.
Perhaps predictably, Alan was also asked how he would solve the Brexit negotiations and gave what sounded a very realistic and well-informed answer.
The evening ended with an opportunity to purchase a copy of In My Life: A Music Memoir from Festival partner, The Bell Bookshop, and have it signed by the author. My husband was thrilled to get the chance to have a brief word with Alan and have him sign his copy of Please, Mister Postman. My husband later treated me to a signed copy of In My Life: A Music Memoir.
Alan revealed his next book will be fiction – historical fiction, to be precise – as he relishes the idea of being able to control plot and characters, something not possible in non-fiction. The details he gave about his ideas for plot and period setting sounded fascinating. However, I’m not going to reveal them here except to say they relate to the history of the area where he currently lives. You’ll have to wait for him to write it, I’m afraid. On the other hand, it sounds like the perfect reason for Alan to make a return visit to a future Henley Literary Festival.
About the Book
From being transported by the sound of ‘True Love’ by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly on the radio, as a small child living in condemned housing in ungentrified West London in the late 1950s, to going out to work as a postman humming ‘Watching the Detectives’ by Elvis Costello in 1977, Alan Johnson’s life has always had a musical soundtrack. In fact music hasn’t just accompanied his life, it’s been an integral part of it.
In the bestselling and award-winning tradition of This Boy, In My Life vividly transports us to a world that is no longer with us – a world of Dansettes and jukeboxes, of heartfelt love songs and heart-broken ballads, of smoky coffee shops and dingy dance halls. From Bob Dylan to David Bowie, from Lonnie Donnegan to Bruce Springsteen, all of Alan’s favourites are here. As are, of course, his beloved Beatles, whom he has worshipped with undying admiration since 1963.
But this isn’t just a book about music. In My Life adds a fourth dimension to the story of Alan Johnson the man.
Format: Hardcover, ebook (272 pp.) Publisher: Transworld Digital/Bantam Press
Published: 20th September 2018 Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Find In My Life: A Music Memoir on Goodreads
About 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. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)
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