Alan Johnson: ‘I read Animal Farm at 14 and it changed my life’

The author and former home secretary on disliking Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and his fondness for PG Wodehouse

The book I am currently reading
The Untouchable by John Banville – a fictionalised version of the Anthony Blunt spy scandal. Banville has that rich prose style Irish writers seem to specialise in.

The book that changed my life
Animal Farm by George Orwell. When I was 14 our English teacher explained the subtext of the Bolshevik revolution and its inevitable conclusion – totalitarianism.

The book I wish I’d written
Stoner by John Williams or The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Both are as close to being the perfect novel as it’s possible to get.

The last book that made me laugh
Lots of books make me smile, few make me laugh, but The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith had me chuckling away throughout. Unsurprisingly, it began life as a serial in Punch magazine. “Why should I not publish my diary?” the gently pretentious Charles Pooter asks on the first page. “I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.” It is, hilariously so.

The book that had the most influence on me
Every book I’ve ever read.

The book I think is most overrated
I bought all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, convinced by the reviews that I was in for a literary treat. By page 20 of My Brilliant Friend, I knew I wasn’t. I am well aware of how out of step I am.

The book that changed my mind
Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Unarmed is the second volume of his masterly trilogy on the life of Leon Trotsky. It made me sympathetic towards this extraordinary man while remaining hostile to the cult that bears his name.

The last book that made me cry
Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. So brilliant but so achingly, heart-wrenchingly sad.

The book I couldn’t finish
I got further into A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth than I did with the Ferrante; to page 677 in fact. The problem was the 672 pages I still had to get through in order to finish the book. Seth writes well but I was tired of having constantly to consult the family trees so I shelved it two years ago – and there it sits, fat spine staring out provocatively; quietly imploring me to pick it up again.

The book I give as a gift
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, but only because the Faber modern classics version (2016) has a foreword by me; I’m desperate to show off about it.

My earliest reading memory
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I was still at primary school when I read Mark Twain’s classic. I remember being captivated by Tom’s clever ploy to get others to whitewash his aunt’s fence, which he was supposed to do as a punishment. I’d read lots of books before this one but nothing stuck in my mind as vividly as this scene.

My comfort read
Anything by PG Wodehouse. I’ve read so many that I struggle to keep track. I’m sure I’ve read Pigs Have Wings at least 10 times but the plot (intricate though it sometimes is) doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere that beguiles the reader, the inexhaustible good cheer that seeps from the pages and never fails in its rejuvenating effect.

The Late Train to Gipsy Hill by Alan Johnson is published by Wildfire (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Alan Johnson

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