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

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.