I interviewed the Rt.Hon Alan Johnson MP for our new page to celebrate people who have changed their destination: people who, despite unconventional or difficult beginnings, have flourished and determined a different life. Having long been an admirer of his, I asked Alan to be the first person to be interviewed for the page and he generously agreed. The interview was carried out at his Westminster office – full article is below:
Because I have always held firm to the conviction that childhood circumstances do not determine the adult and that if a child has just one person in their life who nurtures and protects them, regardless of the relationship to them, this is more important in helping the child thrive than the familial framework that statutory services often focus solely on.
When I heard back from Mr Johnson’s office that he had agreed – the team insisted on a “roll of the dice” system to see who would get to carry out the interview: Despite the fact that I had emailed the request, I was, delicately, ruled out straight away: “this is not one for you – you should never interview someone you admire so much, you won’t focus”. I reminded them that I had interviewed some heavyweight people in my life and that I would get in and get out without behaving like a fan meeting their favourite pop star: After listening to the tape of the interview – they now insist on starting Team Meetings with impressions of a fan meeting their favourite pop star…………
I have interviewed quite a few foreboding characters in my time, including a High Court Judge, numerous Category A Prisoners and Senior Criminal Justice professionals. Having interviewed these scary characters without a beat of nerves I was just looking forward to shooting the breeze with Alan Johnson.
Ironically, his easy charm threw me completely off course: I rambled, I gushed – he sat easily, smiled and only raised an eyebrow. I know several politicians who would have tapped the table and said “shall we move on?”
I asked him some fairly standard questions to start – so his favourite place? “Hull”
Favourite word? “Apricity: the word for “feeling sunshine on your face in winter”. I too was taken by this great, obscure word – he had come across it while reading Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages by Ammon Shea.
Alan cooks to relax: “I don’t do desserts or cakes. I like to cook for relaxation: complicated dishes that take ages – last night for instance I cooked a mushroom lasagne with five different cheeses”.
His favourite TV programme is Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and he is a Fawlty Towers man for comedy.
His favourite book? Possession by A S Byatt. If it is possible to get a glimpse of the person by their choice of literature – the plot of Possession is anything but straight forward, full of twists and turns, doubts and triumphs. But there’s the thing of it – I just wondered but didn’t ask. The team were right “never interview someone you admire so much”.
Alan was, is, a musician – did he still write lyrics or poetry? “No, I don’t. I should I suppose, but no, I don’t”
He struggled to think of his favourite song: “I don’t think its possible to have a favourite song, there are so many…..” I obviously didn’t have Kirsty Young’s skills but I reminded him of A Man Needs A Maid by Neil Young that he had quoted on Desert Island Discs and he smiled “Go on then, put that one”
He wouldn’t answer my next question: What quality do you most admire in yourself? but could answer what quality he most admired in other people: “A sense of humour and stoicism.”
I wondered about the stoicism and wondered whether he had subconsciously answered this question with the answer he wouldn’t give to the first….but I was here to interview not analyse, so I resisted but if I was analysing…..,
Whom did he most admire on the world stage? “Barack Obama”.
Alan Johnson did not have the most conventional upbringing, being orphaned very young, he was brought up by his sister, Linda, who was only 3 years older. Linda organised things so that Social Services played a minimal role in their life apart from Mr Pepper, their Welfare Officer who believed in Linda’s ability to care for herself and Alan. Mr Pepper arranged for them to move to a council flat in Battersea.
A creative, brave decision like that made by Mr Pepper would not, in all probability be made today. An Initial Assessment would have been conducted, leading to a Core Assessment, resulting in a Care Plan – which may feature a proposal to place both siblings with a foster carer together where possible or for the 11 yr old to be placed in foster care and the 15 yr old possibly into a residential care due to her age. We can just imagine the amount of professionals that would be involved: Psychologists, Counsellors, Social Worker, Education Staff, Health staff and other specialists, and the numerous weekly appointments for both children would have to attend.
The 2011 social work approach would also have the additional pressure resulting from high profile media cases and decisions would be taken by social services in order to ‘cover their back’. A Strategy Meeting would have taken place where all might have agreed that a 15 year old was ‘still a minor’ and had her own “bereavement and loss” issues and therefore incapable of rearing a younger sibling.
I think it’s also the case today that no Social Worker would have the confidence to bring such a decision to the table.
I asked Alan what he thought the strategy would have been then if Mr Pepper had been less intuitive.
“I suppose we would have gone into local authority care. I think the plan was that one of us would have been fostered and the other placed in a children’s home.
I wondered who, apart from Linda, had influenced him most as a child? There was no hesitation: “Lonnie Donnegan”.
I smiled at this, thinking perhaps that he was avoiding any deeper conversation but on reflection of course it would be Lonnie Donegan, the father of Skiffle, who inspired Alan to pick up a guitar – Alan played in the Soho clubs at 16 and only went on to become a postman when his instruments were stolen for a second time, because his friend – equally frustrated at their music ambitions being thwarted by frequent robberies – was going along for an interview and Alan tagged along. I think the “tagging along” is an important point because I can’t imagine the musician Johnson declaring “I am going to plan a career in the post office!” I have always thought that his bio should really read, “Alan Johnson – Musician turned Trade Unionist” rather than the “postman turned politician” tag that always introduces him.
I wondered whether he had to resist trying to influence his children in their musical taste or whether he was one of those trendy dads who know the same stuff they do?
“My eldest son Jamie, works in the music business so we discuss music of course. I often ring him and nag him about a band I have heard and suggest he listens to them. The Len Price Three for instance, was a recent band I heard that I thought he should be aware of”.
I watched the Len Price Three on Youtube later
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUghPiEfd5Y&feature=related and realised that once a musician – always a musician: no easy, middle-aged ballads for Alan Johnson, obviously.
Did he wish that he had done anything different as a young man? “Stayed on at school rather than leave at 15”
I expressed surprise at this, given that he had held some of the highest positions in government but he was adamant that he was the exception to the rule and that he would not have wanted his children to leave school early. Alan was quite emphatic that he would hate to be a role model for kids leaving school early.
At what point did he know he had the potential to be where he is today? “I don’t think there was a point really, I don’t think there ever was a point at all when I realised I had that potential – so at every plane, I just went a step further: when I became a trade union official, I thought – I could become a full time official, then when I became a full-time official I thought I could join the National Executive, then I thought I could become the General Secretary, then when I was General Secretary, I thought I could become an MP. As each position came along, I took it. I don’t think there was ever a stage when I made a long-term plan such as “I have the potential to do x,y or z”,
Not many politicians have had the experience of a real job, in the real world, before they came into politics and certainly not often afterwards – had he ever been aware that he had an insight into the lives or ordinary people that his colleagues didn’t?
“I think that’s a little unfair on many of my colleagues who have shared a similar background. Thirty or forty years ago – it would have been the norm I suppose for politicians to have had a real job before entering politics. There is of course a treadmill now of young people entering as Special Advisers, getting a Seat and becoming members of parliament much earlier but this can equally allow for seriously talented people such as the current leader of the labour party who entered parliament as a Special Adviser”.
I grew up in the same circumstances as Alan Johnson, and he has said before that although the 1950s is often referred to as a golden age, it was not a rosy time for everyone and that poverty existed in a real way.
What, I wondered, did he think was better for working class people today?
“The minimum wage; decent housing; better education; equality; better environment; protection for women from domestic violence. It’s a different world of course, young people didn’t have the internet then for instance.
I asked Alan if he was an “internet man” or an “internot” (a phrase I stole from writer Tim Foley). Alan quickly confirmed himself as an “internot”
What personal ambitions, rather than political, did he still have that have not yet been realised? As soon as I asked the question, I knew what his answer would be: “A rock star!” of course.
Alan Johnson is planning to write a book about his early life – not his life in politics but his life before that. There’s the thing of it, I realised – the reason he is so popular among the party faithful and indeed many outside of politics who I have spoken to who nominated him “the man they would most like to have a pint with”: there didn’t seem one shred of pomposity or snobbery about him which can often accompany “the boy made good” caricature that people hang on him. I was aware of that lack of “puffed chest” when I asked him whether he ever stood at his window with the view across Whitehall and the House of Commons and declared “look at what I achieved…” and he looked at me as if he didn’t even understand the question.
I have often thought that it is the dream that we didn’t follow, rather than the accomplishment we did, that continues to drive us and I think maybe Alan Johnson’s “puffed chest” is firmly in the Soho clubs, with his guitar strung low (I’m guessing here but he doesn’t seem like man who would wear it high, folk singer style).
When I left Alan Johnson’s office, I rang colleagues to tell them how great he had been and how right they had been not to trust me. And that I had a new favourite word: Apricity
© Eileen Murphy 2011