This Boy, Paperback
4.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


Alan Johnson's childhood was not so much difficult as unusual, particularly for a man who was destined to become Home Secretary.

Not in respect of the poverty, which was shared with many of those living in the slums of post-war Britain, but in its transition from two-parent family to single mother and then to no parents at all...This is essentially the story of two incredible women: Alan's mother, Lily, who battled against poor health, poverty, domestic violence and loneliness to try to ensure a better life for her children; and his sister, Linda, who had to assume an enormous amount of responsibility at a very young age and who fought to keep the family together and out of care when she herself was still only a child.

Played out against the background of a vanishing community living in condemned housing, the story moves from post-war austerity in pre-gentrified Notting Hill, through the race riots, school on the Kings Road, Chelsea in the Swinging 60s, to the rock-and-roll years, making a record in Denmark Street and becoming a husband and father whilst still in his teens. This Boy is one man's story, but it is also a story of England and the West London slums which are so hard to imagine in the capital today.

No matter how harsh the details, Alan Johnson writes with a spirit of generous acceptance, of humour and openness which makes his book anything but a grim catalogue of miseries.




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Review by

I had no idea who Alan Johnson was when I picked up this book - turns out he is a quite distinguished English politician. The book is his memoir of his early life up until the age of 18 - it is also the story of his amazing mother and sister and all that they did to care for him as he grew up. I have a hard time understanding the level of poverty that Alan (and thousands of others) lived in in post-WWII England - it definitely seems like something from the early Industrial Revolution but he survived it and made a great success of his life. People are amazing!

Review by

This is a very moving memoir by the former Labour Cabinet Minister, covering his early years up until his early marriage and entry into working life in the Post Office, both at the age of 18. It details the struggles and hardships of his upbringing, with his neglectful father Steve abandoning his family; his mother Lily working at cleaning and waitressing jobs all hours to make ends meet, despite being frequently hospitalised with the heart condition that killed her at the age of 42 (the same age at which her own mother and grandmother had also died); and his upbringing by his slightly older but very mature sister Linda. There are heartbreaking moments and it is quite shocking to read about the family's housing conditions in west London in the 1950s and early 1960s, which shocked even contemporaries, including other members of the family from Lily's native Liverpool after her death, when they discovered the suffering that she had kept secret from the wider family. The author writes tellingly of the importance of food to him, as he grew up knowing genuine gnawing hunger, cold and suffering, something that can be said of very few if any other contemporary or recent politicians in this country. That said, this book is not a grim "misery memoir", but warm-hearted and full of good humour, with the latter stages detailing his musical escapades in various bands in the swinging London of the mid 60s. A great read. 5/5

Review by

I have always enjoyed politicians' memoirs, and this must rank as one of the best I have read. I was particularly interested to read this book a Alan Johnson had, briefly, been Secretary of State in my Department. It's true that, throughout his short period in the Department for Education, he had been conspicuous principally by his virtual invisibility but I still thought that he might have some juicy morsel to dispense, with which to whet the salacious appetites of my fellow functionaries.<br/><br/>I am sure that he could offer such morsels in abundance, but there are none in this book, chiefly because it closes just after Johnson's marriage at the age of eighteen. The book does, however, offer a moving picture of his early struggles, growing up in poverty in West London in the 1950s. There has been a succession of gruelling 'misery memoirs' over recent years, most of which have left the reader feeling compassion depletion. This book is not like that at all. There are some awful incidents but the prevailing feeling is one of triumph over adversity.<br/><br/>It is also the story of two magnificent women: Johnson's mother, Lily, who worked herself into a tragically early grave in her efforts to keep the family afloat, despite her own poor health; and Linda, his elder sister who strove equally hard to try to reduce the burden on their mother and then, after Lily's death, to make sure that she and Alan could stay together and weren't consumed by the machinery of social care. Johnson's father, Steve, was absent for much of Johnson's childhood, and even before he abandoned the family home made little worthwhile contribution to their constant struggle against debt.<br/><br/>The Johnson family lived in what would now be called Notting Hill though in the 1950s it was also referred to as Notting Dale, or West Kensal, or North Kensington. Whatever the name, it was an area that would now be termed a pocket of deprivation, with much of the population being cooped up in tiny rental property owned by Peter Rachman. Johnson's father was a painter and decorator by trade, but was also an accomplished pianist and would regularly perform in local pubs. He was, however, also an inveterate gambler and drinker, and consequently was seldom able to contribute to meeting the family's weekly household bills. Lily, meanwhile, was holding down several jobs, working as a cleaner, waitress and kitchen hand, struggling to scrape together enough to feed and clothe Linda and Alan. The picture of 1950s West London is intriguing. The Johnson family lived in a 'play street' with no traffic, and much of their daily life was actually posed out in the road.<br/><br/>Notting Hill has become a byword for genteel and fashionable life, and exorbitant property prices, but this was not the case when Alan Johnson was growing up. The notorious Notting Hill riots of 1958 took place in the next street from the Johnsons' home, and shortly afterwards Lily witnessed the early stages of an alteration that would culminate in the race-motivated murdered of an African-Caribbean man outside the pub on the corner of their road. A few years later Alan Johnson took a job helping the local milkman, and his round included making deliveries to 10 Ruston Place which, until just a few years earlier, had, under its original name of 10 Rillington Place, been the scene of John Reginald Christie's brutal series of murders.<br/><br/>Johnson's writing style is simple and direct, tinged with a wry humour. Even though the basic tenet of his story is about his grim childhood, he doesn't labour the point, and his book is imbued with hope. All very entertaining.