One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry-Up review – Wes Streeting’s memoir of hardship… and determination

The shadow health secretary’s way with a cliche doesn’t much hinder his compelling story of overcoming adversity – and bankrobbing relatives

Wes Streeting’s memoir, the cumbersomely titled One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up, pulls off the very rare trick of being both a little bit boring and unexpectedly fascinating. On the one hand, the Labour MP for Ilford North is refusing to fight as a combatant in the late Martin Amis’s war against cliche; in this book, cheeks tend to be rosy red, and working-class matriarchs are always “strong”. You know he must have written it in a great rush, against a harried background of TV appearances, leaflet drops and hospital visits (Streeting is shadow health secretary), and the gallop to the finish shows on the page, particularly when he pads things out with politics. No one wants to read this much about the road to NUS president, not even Wes’s mum.

But on the other hand, it’s also transfixing, albeit in a way I struggle fully to explain. Streeting’s rise from poverty in the East End of London to the Palace of Westminster via Cambridge University is amazingly inspiriting – even now, he’s only 40 – and there’s something so unaffected about the way he describes it, details chosen for no more writerly reason than because he remembers them: the Wall’s coleslaw and He-Man jellies he enjoyed as a treat as a boy; the skate he favoured whenever his grandfather took him down the chippy. He has no discernible self-pity and seems never to judge anyone, not even those who (the reader may think) at times let him down very badly.

And yet, there’s something missing here, which is where the fascination comes in. How did he make it, you wonder, absorbing the more chaotic details. What calmness and determination he had; what self-containment and aspiration. But if the reader cannot quite account for these things – where did they come from? – nor does Streeting, who writes as if he’s a stranger to himself. Either the inward is simply not available to him – some people, a touch robotic, are like this – or (more likely) there are feelings he still finds so painful, he can only push them away. The third possibility – that he’s some kind of saint – seems unlikely given his attraction to the knot of vipers that is party politics.

But still, his backstory makes him one to watch. Not only does he understand the kind of voters whose support his party badly needs, he is clearly ruthless, able to keep his head when all those around him are losing theirs. In the book, the key moment comes when his mother, having finally found a home that is both affordable and big enough for all her children, tells her son he can leave his father’s to live with her once again. In spite of the disloyalty he feels, Streeting announces that he’d rather stay put; he cannot face any more disruption. His clarity at this point was almost as amazing to me as the fact that his maternal grandfather used to wear a particularly grotesque rubber mask during the armed robberies he carried out. (It had long grey hair and a giant nose, and Grandad Pops called it Claude.)

The grandfather in question is one of the two Bills of the book’s title – the other is Streeting’s altogether more upright paternal grandfather, from whom he inherited his Christian faith – and he was a bad lot; Streeting’s mother was born in prison, his grandmother then in the middle of a stretch for having been an accessory to one of her husband’s crimes. But he’s hardly the only rackety character in the book. I took a shine to this Bill’s mother, Nanny Knott (Streeting’s great granny), who kept a menagerie in her council flat that included several mynah birds. “We’re out, we’re out!” one would squawk whenever the dreaded loan collector knocked.

The young Streeting at home in Clichy House, Stepney, London, 1986
The young Streeting at home in Clichy House, Stepney, London, 1986. Photograph: Courtesy of Wes Streeting

There’s no money in the family. However, maybe this isn’t the biggest problem in Streeting’s young life, for all that when it’s time for him to go to secondary school, his parents struggle to buy his uniform. His mum and dad were teenagers when he was born, and their relationship cannot survive the strain of playing grownups. But then their subsequent relationships fracture, too, and your heart breaks for their son, who’s so accommodating, so ready to accept and even to love every potential step-parent; so sweetly devoted to his baby half-siblings. If the transience that comes of several broken homes is hard, the cause of insecurity and too-long tube journeys, it’s even more agonising to watch a parent’s emotional life unravel – though Streeting never says so (I’m surmising, having been there myself). His concern for their suffering, and his admiration and gratitude for their hard graft – his mother works as a silver service waitress, and his father, variously, as a pub landlord, a minicab driver and a car salesman – is exemplary.

He has a lot on his plate. But he’s stubborn – or at any rate, not easily led. He doesn’t mind standing out from the crowd. Though he wears his Arsenal shirt to school on non-uniform days in the hope of warding off bullies, he also brandishes a copy of Tony Blair’s New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country on the coach to games lessons. Helped by wonderful teachers, and the Sutton Trust, which sends him on a summer school to Cambridge, he applies to the university, and wins a place there, at which point, life changes. He may, unlike many of his fellow students, have to work at Comet in the holidays, but he’s on his way (at Cambridge, he’s also able to come out). A career in student politics leads to a job at Stonewall, and thence to his election, first as a Labour councillor and finally as an MP. Will Streeting one day lead the party, perhaps even be prime minister? I don’t know. But I can’t see this book, and especially the way he has written it, as anything other than a statement of intent.

One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up by Wes Streeting is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Rachel Cooke

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