Alan Johnson Q&A: “To thine own self be true? I failed dismally!”

The former Labour home secretary talks dystopian literature, Paul McCartney, and being a man of letters.

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Alan Johnson has served as home secretary, education secretary, health secretary, shadow chancellor of the Exchequer – and a postman. He is now a writer.

What’s your earliest memory?

Waking in my cot just as my mother was returning from an evening at “the pictures”. I remember her scent and the warmth of her embrace as she settled me back down.

What were the first books that changed your thinking?

Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four  by George Orwell. They revealed the nature of totalitarianism. I began to appreciate the importance of individual liberty – that it was bound to fall victim to a “workers’ state”. I read both books in my early teens.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood heroes were Paul McCartney, George Orwell and the footballer Rodney Marsh. They’ve lasted me into adulthood.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

There are loads of them: Ernie Bevin, Robin Cook and Tony Blair, to name but three.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Proportional representation, from the single transferable vote to D’Hondt.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Early 20th-century Upper Norwood in south London, so that I could see the Crystal Palace in all its glory.

What TV show could you not live without?

Match of the Day.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m not sure if Grayson Perry paints portraits, but if I couldn’t have him, Jonathan Yeo.

What’s your theme tune?

The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. It was the theme tune to The Lone Ranger when I was a kid and I thought it was the most thrilling music I’d ever heard.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? Have you followed it?

Polonius’s advice to Laertes, including, “Give thy thoughts no tongue”; and the bit about how “the apparel oft proclaims the man”. And: “To thine own self be true.” Did I follow it? Nah – I failed dismally.

What’s currently bugging you?

Still how, having elected a Conservative government for a fixed-term parliament of five years, the British were saddled with another bloody election two years later.

What single thing would make your life better?

Full and active membership of the EU.

When were you happiest?

Right now – August 2017.

If you hadn’t been a politician, what would you have been?

I’d have liked to try my hand at teaching, but I have no complaints. I’ve ended up writing books, which is something I dreamed about as a teenager. I became a postman instead, which at least made me a man of letters.

Are we all doomed?

There are people who think that optimism is an eye disease and that guy in Dad’s Army was one of them. We’re not doomed but we need to be vigilant. The historian RH Tawney said: “What goodness we have reached is a house built on piles driven into black slime and always slipping down into it unless we are building night and day.”

The third volume of Alan Johnson’s memoirs, “The Long and Winding Road”, is published by Corgi

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia