I might as well get this out of the way right from the start. This is the best book I’ve read this year. Anyone who doesn’t buy it will never know what they’re missing out on.
This is Alan Johnson’s fourth autobiographical book. The other three have been bestsellers and it wouldn’t surprise me if in sales terms, this volume eclipses the others.
In theory, it shouldn’t work. It consists of 25 chapters, each covering a year between 1958 and 1982. And each of the chapters looks at Alan Johnson’s life through the music of that year. Hashtag awks. What shouldn’t work, works in ways that the reader could never imagine. I am twelve years younger than Alan Johnson but I can completely relate to the music he describes in each chapter. Having said that, he believes the 1960s were a halcyon period in British music, and the 1970s was a decade which was singularly unmemorable. My musical awakening came in the mid 1970s, rather than the early sixties, so perhaps I look at things through a different prism. I also have a very different musical taste to Alan, but I totally related to how he described the various artists and songs which affected his teenage years in particular.
Alan Johnson wanted to be a rock star. Indeed, he might well have achieved his dream had a lot of his equipment not been stolen. His struggles to afford anything, let alone a guitar leave the reader absolutely spellbound. His upbringing was about as poor as you could get. His family lived in incredibly poverty stricken circumstances in Notting Hill. His father was a waster who upped and left the family to shack up with a barmaid. I don’t think Alan ever saw him again. At the age of 13 his mother died and he was brought up by his 15 year old sister, Linda. Social Services wanted to split them up and put them in care but Linda persuaded their social worker that she was capable of caring for Alan. That would never have been allowed to happen today. Linda is one of the heroes of this book, and there’s a tragic twist in her own life story before she reached the age of thirty.
Alan makes no secret of his Beatles fandom. All his four book titles are Beatles song titles. I’ll admit I’ve never really understood the Beatles phenomenon. I like some of their songs, but none of them would feature in my top 50 songs of all time. To Alan, Paul and John are heroes. No one could better them. The Rolling Stones were in the Vauxhall Conference by comparison. Linda on the other hand is a Cliff Richard fan. Alan dismisses the God that is Cliff as “an Elvis tribute act”. The cheek of it!
I loved this book, and look forward to the next one, although Alan reveals in his interview with me for my Book Club podcast that he’s now turning his attention to fiction. He is a brilliant writer, so I have no doubt he will write a gripping novel.
Alan Johnson’s book IN MY LIFE: A MUSIC MEMOIR is out now in hardback, published by Bantam Press at £16.99
To download the latest Iain Dale Book Club podcast, which includes an interview with Alan Johnson, go to iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.