New memoirs by Alan Johnson and Ann Widdecombe: "Look, I'm like you, I'm human, I've lived!"

Politicians create narrative from scant facts on a daily basis - it's part of the job. New memoirs from Johnson and Widdecombe offer an example of how-to (and how not-to) use this skill.

This Boy: a Memoir of a Childhood
Alan Johnson
Bantam Press, 304pp, £16.99

Strictly Ann: the Autobiography
Ann Widdecombe
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 452pp, £20

Politicians adore narrative. They spend their careers telling stories, of a sort, in a bid to make sense of reality and create an impression of control. They tell their own stories, too: the childhood memory, the apposite encounter with the man on the street, the time they were treated so kindly by the NHS nurses when they had their tonsils removed. Anecdotes colour up a speech. It’s their way of saying, “Look, I’m like you, I’m human, I’ve lived.”

Then there’s memoir. The exceptions – such as Barack Obama – write their lives into myth before the apex of their political career. But most wheel back to the beginning from the discomfort of old age and semi-irrelevance. The perspective should help – there’s no need to win votes; honesty can prevail. Yet often they’ve been so well-schooled in the art of political narrative that they can’t resist the urge to manipulate.

Here, anyway, are two lessons in the form: a how-to and a how-not-to. Alan Johnson captures only the first 18 years of his life in This Boy but there is enough pain, poverty and hardened experience in his childhood to fill volumes. He achieves two exceptional things. First, he manages to write about stark deprivation while growing up in North Kensington – permanent hunger, no electricity, constant damp, parental abandonment – without a note of self-pity. Second, he writes about his life without dominating the story. He gives the stage instead to his elder sister, Linda, who takes charge of their unwell mother, the household and Johnson after their father leaves. Somehow, while they are both still children and then orphaned, Linda keeps the authorities at bay, finds them a home and supports them financially.

Johnson is as movingly fulsome in his admiration as he is unflatteringly honest about his fears and limitations. When he sees his mother weeping in hospital before a heart operation, he admits to being “as embarrassed as I was concerned . . . In the space of a few minutes I’d had three thoroughly unwelcome experiences. I’d seen Lily cry openly, she’d hugged me for practically the first time and now she was talking about dying.” He is the anti-hero of his own tale.

And then there’s Ann Widdecombe. You know you’re in trouble with Strictly Ann on page seven, when the author has just been born and she segues bluntly from her mother’s attitude towards friendship to her views on gay marriage (against). This is the way Widdecombe rolls: memory, negligible link, moral pronouncement. She hasn’t managed to unwind her life from her work or her real self from her public image. Instead, she reveals how smitten she is by her curious fame – framing the most cruel of political cartoons, quoting with glee the brutal criticisms of her laboured efforts on Strictly Come Dancing (“a dalek in drag” and so on).

If Johnson’s is a work of self-effacement, this is the opposite: a blast of inelegantly transcribed ego. Perhaps Johnson is saving his politics for subsequent volumes but it would have been easy for him to spin his often desperate childhood into a party political broadcast. Instead, he fills his book with vivid recollection and genuine style – recalling a shop where “ambrosia was available” for sixpence in the form of pie, mash and a “thickish clear sauce freckled with parsley”. This is not memoir as PR but as storytelling. Almost until the end of This Boy, he is convinced that his future holds rock stardom, a dream only undercut by some gentle self-mockery.

Irony isn’t in Widdecombe’s arsenal: this is political memoir played straight and dull, through long Westminster procedural chapters with the odd break for a sermon (she is particularly strong on the absurdity of linking Catholic teaching to the prevalence of Aids: “The best cure for HIV and Aids is chastity before and fidelity within marriage,” in case you weren’t aware). At last, you think, when you reach the final chapter on Strictly, some laughs! Some witty self-deprecation! But no. Widdecombe’s heavy prose and psychologically fascinating lack of humorous selfawareness means that even an account of a Titanic-inspired rumba, with Widdecombe as Winslet, falls as flat as the rest.

Public image limited: Ann Widdecombe. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear