Alan Johnson: ‘John Betjeman was wrong about Slough’

The former health secretary and acclaimed memoirist on his rock’n’roll past, how the Litvinenko poisoning inspired his new thriller, and how he’d have handled Covid

Alan Johnson grew up in working-class Notting Hill, London, in the 1950s, raised by his teenage sister after their mother’s death. He left school at 15 and worked as a postman, a union leader and a Labour MP and cabinet minister under Tony Blair. The spry author of four award-winning memoirs, retirement is not his style. He left politics in 2017 and now, at 71, is publishing his first work of fiction – a thriller – The Late Train to Gipsy Hill.

I gather you wanted to be a writer before you ever thought of becoming a politician?
When the Beatles’ Paperback Writer came out in 1966, I wanted to be a paperback writer. I’ve dedicated The Late Train to Gipsy Hill to my amazing English teacher ­– Peter Carlin. He had natural authority, a mellifluous voice and never went anywhere near the cane. I not only admired him, he was the first teacher I liked. He treated us as adults. I submitted short detective stories to him: Inspector Andrew and Mr Midnight. Mr Carlin said: “Alan, have you ever thought of sending these off?” When I got the inevitable rejections, he said: “Don’t give up. All great writers could paper their walls with rejection slips.” I sent him a facsimile of the book’s dedication for his 90th birthday.

The Late Train to Gipsy Hill is intricately planned – was it different to writing the memoirs?
It was much more difficult because with memoir you already have the plot. Memoir depends on memory, fiction on imagination. The thing about politics and my earlier life in the trade union was that you were buffeted by events, never in control. The memoir almost offered complete control, but fiction is absolute power.

The thriller centres around a Russian poisoning – how was your interest in that subject kindled?
Litvinenko’s poisoning – I was in the cabinet at the time. Since then, nothing in my imagination would seem too far-fetched, given what’s happening in the world now and what the Russian state is doing.

Your female characters are stronger than their male counterparts. Is this your experience of women in real life?
[Laughs] It must be, yes. My mother and sister were incredible women…

Your mother died when you were 12. What image comes to mind when you think of her?
A petite Liverpudlian who lost her accent to fit in. London wasn’t welcoming in those postwar years. My older sister Linda helped me understand my mother’s history. She was able to explain the things that went bump in the night when my father was around and the various half-brothers and sisters produced as result of it.

How did having a fly-by-night father affect your own attitude to fatherhood?
I don’t think it did, except I wouldn’t have wanted to be like my father, with whom I had no relationship. We had one reunion when I was nearly 40 which was a disaster. I didn’t know him at all. By the age of 20, I’d married a single mother myself and had three children. We had a council house in Slough – it was fine. John Betjeman was wrong about Slough.

What did working as a postman teach you?
I’d never worked with so many literate people – such as Des O’Callaghan, a postman who loved poetry. But it was like a secret society – you wouldn’t wander into the canteen with WH Auden under your arm.

Are you glad you were not minister of health during the Covid crisis, or would you have made a better fist of things?
In the early days, very few people could have made a worse fist of things… I was health secretary when swine flu struck. It was H1N1 – the return of Spanish flu. It killed 452 people in this country but we were prepared. It wasn’t a party political issue. Pandemic was at the top of the government’s risk register: higher than a terrorist threat, higher than a nuclear accident… with Covid, that preparation was not in place.

You seem adept at reviving past ambitions. Is it true you dreamt of becoming a rock star as a teenager?
As a minister, I never picked up a guitar, but once the electorate had dispensed with our services, I bought a Yamaha acoustic. At 16, I’d recorded a single. My guitar was a beautiful, cherry-red Hofner Verythin that got stolen when I was 18 and about to get married. They stopped making them in the 60s. Decades later, I mentioned the theft on radio and got an email from a guy in Edinburgh. He travelled all the way to Hull [where Johnson was MP] to meet me in a Holiday Inn. When he opened the case, I knew it was my guitar. It had the little cigarette burns… I couldn’t accuse him of stealing it because he had the reasonable alibi of not having been born at the time…

Now you are retired, what books are on your bedside table?
John Banville’s The Untouchable.

Which thriller writers do you admire?
I’m a big fan of thrillers – I recently read Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton – edge-of-the-seat stuff.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read anything I could get my hands on. My mother dragged us to Ladbroke Grove library as soon as we were old enough to turn a page. She wasn’t brought up in the world of books but had this instinctive feel it was words in kids’ heads that mattered more than toys by their bedside.

What book did you last put down without finishing?
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. It’s very long. I tried, when the pandemic hit, to read 20 pages a day. I got to page 550, put it down – never picked it up again.

What books are most overrated?
Elena Ferrante’s books.

What is the last great book you read?
John Williams’s Stoner.

What book has influenced you most?
George Orwell’s Animal Farm made me a democratic socialist.

Does the writing life beat being a politician?
It beats it hands down.

  • The Late Train to Gipsy Hill will be published by Wildfire (£16.99) on 2 September. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

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