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

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.