Joseph Rowntree Theatre – Monday 14 October @ 7.30pm
Just how does an orphan, growing up in a poverty-stricken west London slum, chart a path to becoming one of the most important and influential politicians of his generation?
Alan Johnson, the former postman-turned-home secretary (and self-proclaimed ‘failed rock star’), has now become an award-winning and best-selling author.
And he is lifting the lid on his remarkable journey in an autumn 2019 touring UK theatre show, In My Life.
“This is a deeply personal story about politics, pop, power and passion,” says the 69-year-old, whose memoirs have sold more than half a million copies since the publication of his debut work in 2013.
“Yes, I’ve held senior offices in Government and served through some of the most important periods of our recent history, but I don’t want people to think this is a show which is just about party politics.
“First and foremost, it’s about me; memories of my childhood, life growing up in the 1950s, the people and places which have played a significant role in making me who I am today . . . with plenty of comedy, and music.
“Music has played such an important part in my life. In my teenage years, I certainly wasn’t harbouring any ambitions to be a politician – oh no, I just wanted to be a rock star.
“I can’t imagine a life without music. I was part of the baby boomer generation which was there right at the start of rock ‘n roll, living through the emergence of acts from Dennis Lotis to Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle, and of course The Beatles in the 1960s.”
As a songwriter and a guitarist, Alan was part of two swinging sixties bands, The Vampires and The Area, playing gigs around the London area which blended original material with covers of the Rolling Stones, the Troggs, the Monkees and Small Faces. The Area even recorded a single, Hard Life, which was hawked around several record labels.
Coming just months after his beloved football club, Queens Park Rangers, lifted the League Cup in 1967, Alan looks back on these formative days during the show with great fondness. Not to mention, perhaps, a certain regret that he didn’t continue to play, or write songs beyond his 20s.
It’s no coincidence that the new tour is named after a Beatles tune; he says their music has left an indelible impression.
His first memoir, This Boy, which charted Alan’s difficult childhood growing up in the 1950s, was published in 2013 and won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, as well as Britain’s top political writing award, The Orwell Prize.
His follow-up, Please Mister Postman, published the following year, was named autobiography of the year in the Specsavers National Booker Awards.
And his third and final volume of memoirs, The Long and Winding Road, which was published in 2016, is now on the road to similar acclaim.
He says: “It’s nice to receive such recognition, although I thought it a bit strange to receive the Orwell Prize for my first book, as it’s not really a book about politics at all.
“I’ve not written these books to try to score any sort of political advantage; that’s not my style at all. With my mum dying when I was very young, the opportunity to make her live again on the page was a real incentive.
“I get a great thrill out of writing, and really do enjoy taking my story out onto the stage and talking to people about it, whether that’s in front of 1,000 people at major festivals like Edinburgh, Cheltenham or Hay, or much smaller, intimate venues in community halls.”
So what exactly can people expect from the show?
Alan says: “Nostalgia, some light-hearted comedy, and lots of talk about music, that’s for sure. There will be excerpts from many of the songs which have a particular resonance to the stories I tell, as I reflect on some of the key moments of my life.”
These include his early teenage years, when he and his sister had to find a way through life following the death of Alan’s mother when he was just 13 years old; all those teenage musical dreams; stacking shelves at Tesco; and his Post Office work which led to him becoming the youngest ever general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers.
After being elected to parliament in 1997 as Labour MP for Kingston Upon Hull West and Hessle, he went on to serve in both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s cabinets, holding a procession of senior positions including three of the most important cabinet posts – Education Secretary, Health Secretary, and finally Home Secretary until being succeeded by a certain Theresa May in 2010.
He says: “If people want to talk to me on the tour about my time in Government, of course I’ll be happy to share some of the stories. But I’m not really interested in any heavyweight blow-for-blow accounts of the rights and wrongs of things. The focus of this show is not about my time in Government.”
Alan stood down as an MP in 2017, a year after campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union. He has been a critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, and vocal campaigner for electoral reform.
He says: “Politics is not like it was in the old days. It used to be, when a general election came round, that if you wanted to connect with people, you had to stand in front of them in rallies at community halls.
“But that age of public meetings has gone. So this is a very different way of getting the thrill of being able to meet and interact with people around different parts of the country.”
He says he is enjoying the new lease of life as a raconteur, and getting the chance to re-visit many parts of the country with which he became familiar during his postal union travels.
He is also hard at work on another literary project – this time, a move into fiction writing for the first time.
“It’s still in the early stages so I can’t tell you too much about it,” he says. “But it’s based on an idea I’ve had in my head for some time – a kind of thriller, with romantic and comedy overtones, set in the 17th century.
“I’m not looking to win a Booker prize, but I like the solitude and the process of producing 80,000 words.
“Being both a Government minister and a constituency MP was an incredibly tough and demanding job.
“When I relinquished my ministerial position in 2010, it left a big gap, and was the perfect time for me to pursue my passion for writing.
“I have no idea if I’ll have the same sort of success writing fiction, but I do know one thing . . . it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.”