LitFest Reviews - Chapter Three: How Alan Johnson missed out on rock stardom - but his life has been full of music

Written by Tony Millett on .

Alan Johnson at the Town Hall (Photo © Ben Phillips)Alan Johnson at the Town Hall (Photo © Ben Phillips)There's a clue to the theme of Alan Johnson's fourth book of memoirs in the titles of the first three volumes - they all come from Beatles songs:  This Boy, Please, Mister Postman and The Long and Winding Road.


His recently released memoir In My Life: A Music Memoir tells his story from the early years in North London slum housing and how his musical taste and musical passions evolved - overcoming some severe hurdles along the way.  He was interviewed before a packed Town Hall by Caroline Sanderson.

Johnson - a former Labour Home, Education and Health Secretary - must be one of the country's best loved politicians.   His audience was, well, rapt - and very appreciative.

His account of "25 years of a passionate love of music - and trying to become a rock star - and so far failing", was not without the odd pertinent political point.  The Royal Borough of Kensington (where he grew up) is still home, he told the audience, to young boys who are likely to die fourteen years earlier than those living in South Kensington.

Even the darkest moments of his childhood - including his father leaving home and his mother's death when he was thirteen - were related in gentle words and with some wry humour.

But this was really all about music.  He told how he, his mother and his sister listened - once they were in a home with electricity - to the BBC Light Programme's Two-way Family Favourites when the 'Bumper Bundle' request could be True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.


A more serious moment... (Photo © Ben Phillips) A more serious moment... (Photo © Ben Phillips)   ...and the audience reaction to a Johnson story (Photo © Ben Phillips)...and the audience reaction to a Johnson story (Photo © Ben Phillips)

It was the Beatles that really delighted him - and influenced him.  One questioner asked why he had not mentioned the Rolling Stones: "They're in the book", he responded.  But he was a bit underwhelmed with them as they only started writing their own songs after they'd had a lesson from the all-conquering Beatles.

We heard about his time playing - guitar and singing - with local bands: first The Area and then the multi-racial In Betweens.  And he regaled us with some cringe-worthy lyrics from the song he wrote called Bad Skin - all about a boy with acne.

This session was packed with fascinating detail.  As Caroline Sanderson said, the book has in it a good deal of first hand social history.

For rollicking fun, he read a passage from In My Life: A Music Memoir about Postman Alan Johnson's confrontation with a crowd of Bay City Roller fans who had assembled round a pillar box he had to empty.  He decided discretion was the better part of diving into a mass of teenage girls. 

His boss thought otherwise, attempted to reach the pillar box and came off the worse for all his attempted bravery on behalf of the 'Queen's Mail'!

What is Alan Johnson planning to write next? "I love writing.  I've got some ideas for fiction - and I've got to get that out of my system."  He's won an Orwell Prize, a National Book Award for Autobiography and a Parliamentary Book Award - could a Booker Prize be next?

This LitFest interview with Alan Johnson was sponsored by  (You can click on photos to enlarge them)