Alan Johnson: Sometimes, the things that make us human emerge from the worst things we have to endure

Sometimes the best things that make us human emerge from the worst things that we have to endure.

I was fortunate enough to spend the first 13 years of my life with two incredible women who happened to be my mother and my sister. My sister, Linda, has been part of my life ever since but we grew up, raised families and now live on opposite sides of the world.

If you asked us to define humanity, we’d both say that it was personified in the tiny frame of our mother, Lily, who had deep compassion, enormous courage and a capacity for selfless love that is the essential element of what makes us human.

After a harsh childhood in Liverpool she faced an even harsher adulthood in the slums of Notting Hill, west London, with a feckless husband, two children and a heart condition that she knew would lead to an early death.

Our father, Steve, ran off with the barmaid from the Lads of the Village pub when I was eight and Linda was 11. There is no denying that Steve’s cruelty and his failure to provide for us reflected aspects of humanity including fallibility.

However, he had another defining human characteristic. He was a musician. Steve played the piano entirely by ear – only having to hear a song once before he could play it in the pubs and clubs of our corner of west London. The ability to translate emotions into music, art, poetry and dance brings joy to our existence, however mundane or difficult that existence may be.

We had a big old Radio Rentals contraption wired into one of our rooms in Southam Street, W10, with a Bakelite switch setting out our three options; BBC Home Service, Light and Third Programmes.

One day, unusually and perhaps unintentionally, the switch was on “3”. Out of the huge speaker in one corner of the squalid room we called a kitchen came a piece of music that enchanted me. It wasn’t the pop music that I was already fascinated by (only “classical” music had its own station in those days), but it was uplifting and inspiring in equal measure. I found out years later that it was Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. Its beauty and majesty nourished my soul.

Lily believed in God, although she never went to church. Our moments of worship came when she found a shilling piece to feed the empty gas meter; or a piece of coal as we joined her on the trail of the coal man, picking up the chunks of black gold that dropped from his sacks as he delivered to the big houses in Holland Park.

Faith and belief are very human traits, as are laughter and joy. What I remember most about my mother is her radiant smile, the way she’d try to imitate her favourite Hollywood film stars, her little homilies and her terrible jokes. Every New Year’s Eve without fail she’d tell us that she’d just seen a man with as many noses on his face as days left in the year and every year we’d try to manage an indulgent chuckle.

After Steve had started another life with his new family, my mother did an extraordinary thing. Having tracked down where he lived, she implored me to visit him on the spurious grounds that every boy needed a dad. I refused and, in desperation, she offered to go with me – to enter the home of a man who’d abused and deserted her and sit exchanging pleasantries with his new wife. She would have suffered that humiliation because she felt it was in my interests.

After Lily died, Linda displayed all her mother’s characteristics in her battle with “the authorities” (as she called them) to keep us together and out of care.

Unlike me, she eventually made contact with her father, principally because she wanted to have a relationship with our halfsister, Sandra.

The things that make us human aren’t common to every human being. I couldn’t understand how Linda, who’d suffered much more than me from Steve’s cruelty, could bring herself to make contact. But she, like Lily, was far stronger than me.

I don’t think that she ever forgave Steve but her desire to be a sister for Sandra drove her to do what was undoubtedly the right thing. If I had an ounce of that magnanimity, I would be a better human being.

My mother died almost 50 years ago. Linda and I have enjoyed an infinitely better life than hers. Sometimes .

Alan Johnson is the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Labour) and was home secretary from 2009 to 2010. This article is part of our series published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show.

Alan Johnson addresses the Labour Party conference in 2010. Photo: Getty.

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times