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

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Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks out the mental depth cameras can't know

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war