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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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