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Political maverick Alan Johnson on Brexit, the Beatles and how IRA bombs brought him to Belfast

Ahead of his third appearance at the Open House Festival in Bangor tomorrow, the former Labour minister tells Linda Stewart of his incredible rise from poverty to three of the highest offices in the land

Former Labour politician Alan Johnson
Former Labour politician Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson as a child
Alan Johnson as a child with his mum Lillian and sister Linda
Alan and his wife Carolyn Burgess
The Beatles are still popular
Alan in 2007 as Education Secretary with (left) Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane and (right) then-UUP leader Sir Reg Empey
Alan Johnson with former Prime Minister Tony Blair
Alan Johnson with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Alan as a young dad with his daughters Natalie and Emma

By Linda Stewart

Depressing", says Alan Johnson flatly when I ask for his take on the new Prime Minister and Cabinet. A former Labour Cabinet minister turned bestselling author, he is returning to Bangor for his third visit to the Open House Festival where he will discuss his latest book - In My Life.

This time of year we're usually firmly entrenched in the silly season, when hard political news tends to be thin on the ground but everything has been upended with the Conservative leadership transfer and there's no escaping politics.

"It's depressing seeing people like Williamson making a comeback," he elaborates, referring to the return of Gavin Williamson to the Cabinet as a new appointee of Boris Johnson. Sacked just a few months ago from his post as Defence Secretary over an alleged leak from the National Security Council in March, Williamson is now back as Education Secretary.

"No Cabinet minister who ever leaked information from a security meeting lasted five minutes and now this guy has got his job back," the former Labour Home Secretary says.

"It's a Cabinet that appears to be geared up for a no-deal Brexit.

"I can't believe that Boris would deliberately push this country into the recession that a no-deal Brext would cause - that would be catastrophic.

"I'm in desperation about what's happening. Cameron's folly has left the country divided in a way that I've never seen before.

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"This is the biggest peacetime crisis in the history of this country."

A former Cabinet member under both Blair and Brown, he sees little room for optimism in anything that is going on and is concerned that the drive to pull out of the EU will then lead to the unravelling of a union with Scotland that has been in existence for hundreds of years.

After standing down from his Hull West and Hessle constituency in May 2017 to concentrate on writing, Mr Johnson is no longer constrained by party politics and is free to speak his mind.

He is almost equally scathing about the failure of the Labour Party to mount an effective challenge to the Conservatives - and he is no fan of Jeremy Corbyn.

He brands Labour's recent performance "awful", adding: "From the day Corbyn was elected as leader, you just knew that Labour was going to be out of the running for a long time.

"Corbyn and his far-left clique are not the traditional Labour Party.

"Labour has never been a group of the far-left.

"This is not the party of Blair and Brown but it's also not the party of Clement Attlee either.

"It's dogmatic, it's intolerant. All they are doing now is looking for traitors in their midst rather than looking for new converts.

"As for the anti-Semitism - how has the party been reduced to that?"

The real Labour Party is not a Corbynite party, he insists.

"How we rid ourselves of this is another huge problem. At a time when the country needs an effective opposition, we are nowhere."

In these days when the veneration for the old public school tie seems to have returned in full force, it's refreshing to talk to someone like Mr Johnson, whose background is so far from the elite.

He was one of the most popular politicians of his generation, winning converts from all sides, and after winning his seat rose quickly through the Westminster system to hold three key offices of state within a four-year period.

Johnson held the post of Education Secretary from May 2006 to June 2007, then became Health Secretary until June 2009 and Home Secretary until May 2010.

It was a staggering rise to power for someone who was born into poverty and worked as a postman.

To date, there's been no need to turn to fiction in his writing - his fascinating life story has yielded enough twists and turns to furnish three memoirs, the first of which, 2013's This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood, won him the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Orwell Prize.

His second volume, Please, Mr Postman, published in 2014, won the Specsavers National Book Awards Autobiography of the Year and his third and final volume of memoirs, The Long and Winding Road, was published in September 2016.

The latest book, In My Life, overlaps these, exploring his lifelong fascination with pop music and the soundtrack of his life.

Until a few years ago, outsiders might have assumed that being born in north Kensington carries a certain cachet, but the tragedy of Grenfell Tower drove home that the London borough is filled with pockets of poverty alongside the international embassies.

Alan Johnson was born in the borough in 1950, the son of Stephen and Lillian Johnson.

"We were born into a street of houses that had been condemned as unfit for habitation in the Thirties - and this was the Fifties," he says.

"They were conditions that Dickens would have recognised, little about it had changed since the 19th century. Not having central heating was common. Ice on the inside of the windows was a familiar sight. In some there was no electricity, just a gas mantle. No running hot water. Things were very basic.

"You had six or seven of a family living in a small house, or many living in one room, as we were at first. You went to the khazi at the back of the garden.

"There was no bath, so you went to the swimming baths with a bar of soap and a towel. Or you had you a bath in the house, but it was a metal bath hanging off the kitchen hook. It was a very different world and I tried to capture that in This Boy."

The hero of the book was his mother Lillian, who was one of a family of 11, born in Liverpool to an Irish mother and a Scottish father. She moved to London to work for NAAFI.

"That's where she met my father who was a pianist at Army concerts," Alan says. "He would wear white gloves to play the piano and he swept my mum off her feet."

He's talked many times before about the feckless father who would end up abandoning the family, leaving an eight-year-old Alan and his 10-year-old sister Linda in the lurch in 1958.

"He was a gambler, he was a drinker. He used to come home drunk and beat my mother about," he says.

"In 1958 he ran off with the barmaid in the pub where he worked and then he was out of our lives. But for my mother it was a whole new set of problems."

Alan's mother Lillian suffered from a heart condition, mitral stenosis, causing a narrowing of one of the valve openings within the heart, and was in and out of hospital.

"My sister virtually brought me up from I was very young," he says.

"My mother's mother died at 42, her mother died at 42, and my mother was convinced there was a family curse and she was destined to die at 42. And she did die at 42, during an operation to replace the valve."

The authorities intended to separate the two children - Alan to a foster home and Linda to Barnardos - but thanks to an incredible social worker, Mr Pepper, and a determined Linda, the pair managed to stay together and get a council place.

Only two years older than her brother, Linda managed to rear Alan almost single-handedly.

From there to Home Secretary was quite a rollercoaster, as the next two books revealed. Alan left school at 15, tried to become a rock star, worked at Tesco, married young and joined the Post Office, then known as the GPO, in order to earn money to support his young family.

From there, he rose through the ranks of the Union of Communication Workers, becoming a full-time union official from 1987, and general secretary of the union in 1992.

"I was over in Northern Ireland a lot in those days representing postmen and women," Alan says.

"It was during the days of the Troubles and there was a huge problem with proxy bombings, where they would hijack a Royal Mail van and put their drivers' families under threat if he didn't do what they wanted him to do.

"They would be made to drive the van past the Army patrols and in the back was a bomb. There were a lot of these issues.

"Sixteen of our members were killed during the Troubles and I was there a lot through that time."

Three weeks before what was to be the huge Labour landslide election of 1997, Alan was selected to stand in the seat of Hull West and Hessle and was appointed to his first ministerial position in the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999 before going on to hold a series of key Cabinet posts.

While this rollercoaster career has been documented in his memoirs, In My Life, steers away from the political and is a more of a musical memoir taking in a 20-year period.

Like the rest of his books, it's named after a Beatles song, yet it celebrates a much wider musical landscape, from his early fascination with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly celebrating true love on the radio, to his lifelong heroes the Beatles and his discovery in the late Seventies of post-punk bands such as Elvis Costello, Tom Robinson and XTC.

Alan made his first record at the tender age of 16 in a studio at Regent Sound in London.

"We made a record but sadly it disappeared without a trace, but it was all a very exciting period in my life," he says.

"The book has a bit of social history - it's about the way we listened to music and the music we listened to. Rock and roll was born in the Fifties - I listened to Elvis Presley, and Lonnie Donegan in the UK.

"But the BBC were not catering for what young people wanted to hear, which is why pirate radio stations came along. It was difficult to hear the music you liked at that time, it was almost a period for people who wanted to hear the kind of music I liked."

Alan recalls tuning into pirate stations such as Radio Luxembourg, twiddling the dial to try and find a way through the white noise to the pop music he loved.

"When Beatlemania came along in 1963/1964, that revolutionised everything, and I try and capture that in the book - what it was like.

"That Beatlemania is still going strong today - younger listeners are still being introduced to the Beatles, but to be there living it in real time as a teenager when all that was happening and British bands were conquering America, it was a very exciting time to be alive," he says.

"I write about Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie... it covers 25 years from the earliest music I listened to in 1957 up to 1972 when I finally decided I wasn't going to make a living out of music as a performer or a songwriter!"

It's now rare for anyone without a university eduction to succeed in politics, but part of that is because university is now an option for a much broader cross-section of society, he says.

"Back in the day, many people came through my route, through the trade union movement.

"University has transformed many lives. When I was born, only 2% of people went to university. When I left school only 6% went. The opportunities just weren't open to everyone. It's very unusual now for someone who hasn't gone to university to get into Parliament."

He does admit to some concern about the treadmill system that sees politicians move through a defined pathway from special adviser to MP to ministerial post and leadership and the need for more diverse backgrounds.

"I think party selection committees are looking much more now for people with life experience, rather than that PPE from Oxford. But it's still the case that if you're educated privately you're dominating professions such as the legal profession or politics or the media.

"Now we have an old Etonian as Prime Minster and in that sense, although more youngsters are getting opportunities to have a better education, it's not doing much to change the outcome at the top. The 7% that are going to private schools are still vastly outpacing the 93% who went to state school in terms of the judiciary and so on."

These days, he says, he's happily married to Carolyn and has left the world of politics for the world of books. Next on the list is his first work of fiction, a thriller "which I'm very pleased about".

"I like the process of writing - you are in control. It's very lonely but the fact of being in control is in contrast to my life as a politician and my life as a trade unionist where you're buffeted by events. Nothing can interfere with whatever I want to do," he says.

  • Alan Johnson is in conversation with Stephen Walker at the Open House Festival, Space Theatre, Castle Park Road, Bangor, tomorrow at 8.30pm. For tickets, costing £15 each, visit www.openhousefestival.com or tel: 028 9147 1780

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