Review by Julia Pattison: 2019 York Literature Festival talk with former MP Alan Johnson

Alan Johnson had the crowd in the palm of his hands.
Alan Johnson had the crowd in the palm of his hands.

Author Talk: Alan Johnson, In My Life: A Music Memoir

Venue: St Peter’s School, York

Review by: Julia Pattison

The queue snaked round the block at St Peter’s School on the afternoon of Saturday 23 March, such was the popularity of the speaker we were going to hear, popular politician of recent times, Alan Johnson.

Introduced by Head of Politics at St Peter’s School, Ben Fuller, we were soon captivated by Alan’s personal story as he took to the stage, and was engaged in conversation by Elly Florentini, of BBC Radio.

Time flew as, without a trace of self-pity, Alan told us of his difficult childhood growing up in a West London slum, and the way music helped him to rise above all manner of hardships. His love and admiration for the two loving and strong women in his life, his mother Lily May, and his sister Linda came through loud and clear; helping him to come to terms with his feckless father’s behaviour, and being able to be grateful, not bitter, choosing to remember his father as a dashing piano player who passed on his musical genes to his son – a remarkable, and moving story.

In this highly entertaining show we were transported back to a world that is no longer with us – “a world of Dansettes and jukeboxes, of heartfelt love songs and heart-broken ballads, of smoky coffee shops and dingy dance halls” and we learned of the tremendous musical influence his favourite musicians of the time had on him, such as Lonnie Donegan, and his beloved Beatles.

We listened, fascinated of his tales of his time as a “Totter“ (Rag and Bone Man) and a Postman, with the story of the Bay City Rollers and The Battle of the Post Box, involving “Big Lenny” being a real highlight of his talk.

An animated Q and A Session followed, and we learned of his sister’s generosity when they both had nothing, giving him their mother’s hard earned Post Office Savings (after her untimely death at 42 years old) so he could buy a cherry red Hofner Verithin from Totter Johnny Carter for £35, enabling him pursue his dream of being in a band.

That same guitar was eventually stolen, but remarkably, years later, he spotted it in a music shop, and was able to buy it back …albeit for a lot more than £35!

“When did Alan think was the best time for music?” was one of the questions put to him: “Now!” he answered emphatically, and went on to say how we can all enjoy past and present music.

A modest, self-effacing man who held the audience in the palm of his hand and richly deserved the rapturous applause before going off to meet and greet people, and sign copies of his latest book, In My Life: A Music Memoir.