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

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism