Book Review: In My Life – A Music Memoir by Alan Johnson

In My Life SignedAbout 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 (272 pp.)    Publisher: Bantam Press
Published: 20th September 2018   Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Find In My Life: A Music Memoir on Goodreads

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My Review

As the reader quickly discovers, music has always been an integral part of Alan Johnson’s life. The book covers the period from 1957 to 1982 (he was born in 1950) so overlaps with the first two volumes of his memoirs, This Boy and Please Mr. Postman. Those who’ve read either of those books may feel there’s some repetition. I’ve only read the third volume, The Long and Winding Road (although you can read my husband’s review of Please Mr. Postman here) but reading the early chapters of In My Life with its poignant picture of Alan’s deprived childhood has only increased my interest in reading This Boy.

Each chapter of the book is linked to a song. As Alan explains, they’re not necessarily his favourite pieces of music but are songs that evoke particular memories of his life at that time. For example, 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 or hearing about the death of John Lennon. As I said, the early chapters demonstrate how for Alan, and his sister, Linda, music was a distraction from the day to day difficulties of growing up in poverty, with a mother who suffered serious ill-health, domestic violence and eventually abandonment at the hands of their loser of a father.

Starting with ‘True Love’ by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, the book charts the evolution of popular music as experienced by Alan and other members of his generation.  He observes that before Lonnie Donnegan and Tommy Steele came on the scene there was no real youth music culture in Britain.  Their arrival signalled a huge change as singer/songwriters such as Lennon & McCartney replaced artists who sang songs written by other people.

The book charts another huge change, namely in how people listen to music.  Previously, it was largely on the radio, more likely than not the Light Programme on the BBC.  Gradually there became a ‘materiality’ about how people experienced music. Alan recalls polishing shellac 78s, reading record labels and playing records at the wrong speed on the Dansette. Later in the book, acquiring his first audio cassette, he reflects:

There is a connection between the music and the object on which it is stored. Just as those shellac 78s, and the Bachelors’ album bought for Lily [his mother] which she didn’t live to hear, had a significance of their own, so did the humble cassette. The physical shape and feel of it, the ritual of taking it out of its plastic case and snapping it into the cassette-player, peering myopically at the tiny type of the “sleeve notes” …’

The book is also an account of Alan’s own musical career which, it has to be said, seems to have had more than its fair share of setbacks such as having musical gear stolen on multiple occasions, including his treasured Hӧfner Verithin guitar. Alan joined his first band The Vampires in the hope (largely unsuccessful) of impressing girls before being invited to join The In Between, a multi-racial group with a (rare at the time) female lead singer. With his trademark self-deprecating humour, Alan recalls his unrequited passion for Carmen, the lead singer, with whom he duetted on their cover version of The Troggs’ Wild Thing:

Carmen and I were born to duet on that song, destined to be together in the centre of that stage. It should have forged the deepest, most volcanic passion since Cathy met Heathcliff. There was only one problem. Carmen was totally and absolutely uninterested in me. She was completely immune to what I was convinced was a magnetic and irresistible charm.’

Although Lonnie Donnegan retains a special place as the musical hero of Alan’s childhood, the Beatles and David Bowie as the heroes of his teen years and twenties respectively, he reserves his ‘lifetime achievement award’ for Elvis Costello. Fittingly therefore, and in another example of that self-deprecating humour, it is Elvis Costello who marks the end of Alan’s ambition to make it as a rock star. Alan decides to send Elvis ‘the creme de la creme’ of his ‘song-writing genius’. As he recalls, ‘I wrote a nice letter to Elvis, listing the song titles along with my name and address, and sent it off by first-class post in November 1982. I’m still waiting to hear back.’

As with Alan Johnson’s other memoirs, In My Life is immensely readable, honest, warm and witty. Alan appeared at Henley Literary Festival 2018. You can read my review of the event here.

In My Life is book number 6 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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.  (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

20 Books of Summer 2019

2 thoughts on “Book Review: In My Life – A Music Memoir by Alan Johnson

  1. This sounds really interesting! I love when memoirs really make you feel as though the person writing is opening up to you–I’ll have to check this out. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I heard Alan Johnson speak at Henley Literary Festival last year (and my husband got to shake hands with him and get the book signed) and he’s just the same in real life as he comes across in his books. Alan Johnson, that is – not my husband LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

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