Alan Johnson’s Please, Mister Postman: the best political testament I have ever read

This second volume of Alan Johnson’s memoirs brings to life a world in which postal workers fed cats while their owners were away and fetched coal for old folk.

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Please, Mister Postman: a Memoir 
Alan Johnson
Bantam Press, 327pp, £16.99

In a Guardian interview with Mark Lawson in May, Alan Johnson said: “I was a cabinet minister in five different departments and no newspaper ever asked me for my recommended summer holiday reading; no one ever asked me to review a book.” Because he hadn’t been to university, he was, he felt, categorised as an unliterary type.

His award-winning memoir of his impoverished childhood, This Boy, changed all that. Johnson became a literary star, as he had aspired to be when, at 18, he paid £5 to a vanity publisher to include a rather dreadful poem in Spring Poets ’69. Now comes a sequel taking us from teenage marriage and the start of his career as a postman in the late 1960s to marital separation and becoming a union-employed official in the late 1980s.

This Boy included his father’s desertion, his mother’s death when he was 13, his 16-year-old sister’s extraordinary success in getting a council house for herself and her brother and a backdrop of violence, slum landlords and racial tension in 1950s Notting Hill. This volume tells an unremarkable story of work, marriage, parenthood and friendship in, of all places, Slough, best known for John Betjeman’s invitation to “friendly bombs” to fall on it. Yet so deft are Johnson’s writing skills that he wrests comedy, tragedy and acute social observation from such unpromising material.

He brings to life a world in which postal workers fed cats while their owners were away and fetched coal for old folk. The characters are vivid, the stories beautifully told. Among the best are the driving test examiner who, having failed Johnson four times, passed him on the fifth because “I’m sick of the fucking sight of you”; and a delivery to a closed order of nuns, when he descended to a gloomy basement, placed registered mail on a pulley-operated turntable and waited until it “slowly re-emerged bearing a signature, as if authorised by a divine hand”.

Johnson never mentions “Selsdon Man”, Thatcherism or other abstractions that then dominated political debate. Nonetheless, this is a highly political book, making its points almost entirely through anecdote. For example, when Alan Tuffin took over as general secretary of the postal workers’ union in 1982, his predecessor Thomas Jackson showed him a telephone, on which ministers and civil servants rang when they wished to consult on matters of state. When Johnson succeeded him a decade later, Tuffin said nobody had rung during his term except a woman asking if it was Sainsbury’s. Nothing could better illustrate the unions’ sudden loss of power and influence.

On council house sales, Johnson writes only that he and his then wife did not, unlike nearly all of their neighbours, buy theirs. They felt lucky when they were “allocated” a council house – his mother had striven unsuccessfully for one throughout her adult life – and they felt “an obligation not to deny future generations that lifeline”. Another passage recalls how, during a strike in 1969, one colleague, a keen snooker player, carried on working. In the sorting-office canteen, “He would rise from the breakfast table hopefully, snooker cue in hand, but nobody would play against him.” This continued for many months. “I colluded in breaking a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since,” Johnson writes.

In those two stories and many others, you have Johnson’s politics: a passion not for ideology or policy but for the values of his mother, who had so little yet told her children to be “polite and courteous and help those less fortunate than ourselves”. In an important passage, he reflects on Militant, the Trotskyist caucus that nearly destroyed Labour in the 1980s. Johnson was briefly attracted to Tony Benn’s politics but Benn’s tolerance of Militant’s antics changed his view. It wasn’t, he explains, a matter of right and left but of right and wrong. By then working full-time for the union, he knew the most effective activists weren’t those who “postured and posed on the rostrum” but “men and women who quietly got on with . . . providing [an] intelligent voice for those they represented with no concept of themselves as working-class heroes and no desire to use their members as weapons in some kind of political crusade”.

If Labour had gone into coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, Johnson could well have emerged as prime minister. It is hard to believe a government led by a man with his history would have left itself open to charges of being “out of touch” with ordinary people. But we shall never know. Instead, we have this book, the best political testament I have ever read.

Alan Johnson appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 30 November

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris