We went to a register office wedding recently, and a joyous occasion it was: made so by dancing up the aisle, the children of the marrying couple joining in the fun, and the relaxed attitude of the registrar.  The sense of an entirely different sort of Britain – more relaxed, more tolerant – to the one I grew up in was palpable.  I mention this because I have recently read Labour politician Alan Johnson’s memoir This Boy which  begins and ends with two different register office weddings.

wedding photo 1945
Steve and Lily, Kensington Register Office, January 1945

Johnson begins his account of an impoverished upbringing in London’s Notting Hill with a him studying photograph – a black and white image taken in January 1945 with a box camera – of his father and mother outside Kensington Register Office. Theirs was not to be a happy marriage: indeed, Johnson writes of his father that ‘it could be said he helped to kill the woman beside him’.

Were they happy on their wedding day?  Surely they must have been but the hand through his arm is curled and tense, not flat and caressing; almost a clenched fist.

‘On that day’, writes Johnson, Steve and Lily ‘must have been full of excitement and enthusiasm about the life that lay ahead of them’. But, ‘as things turned out, they spent it together yet apart – and then just apart’.

Johnson concludes his account with another register office wedding, and another photo: it’s the summer of 1968, and Alan Johnson, dapper in stylish Mod clothes and haircut, is getting wed to Judy.  With them is Linda, his sister. Linda and his mother Lily are the heroines of the story that Alan Johnson narrates in this moving and beautifully-written book that avoids any trace of sentimentality or self-pity.

Alan Johnson at his first wedding, his sister Linda right

Alan Johnson’s mother Lily was the second of ten children born to  a Scotsman and an Irishwoman in Anfield, Liverpool. During the Second World War she moved to London to work in the NAAFI.   It was there that she met Steve, at a NAAFI dance in 1944.  After they were married they moved into a room at 107 Southam Street, Notting Hill – a street whose buildings had been condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1930s.  From that moment on, Lily’s life was a constant struggle against grinding poverty, loneliness (eventually abandoned by Steve), and poor health.  They had no electricity, shared a cooker on the landing, and peed in a bucket in the bedroom rather than trek down at night to outside privy in the yard. But Johnson’s book is not simply a tale of hard times; it’s a tribute to Lily’s love and determination, telling how she managed, against great odds, to bring up her children decently.

When Lily died, aged only 42, Alan was 13 and his sister Linda just 16.  The second half of the book becomes a tribute to Linda who stoutly resisted moves to separate the siblings and place them in care, and who then worked tirelessly to to keep them fed and sheltered, and ensure that Alan continued his education. In the words of his dedication, she ‘kept me safe’.

Linda held things together (even negotiating a council flat for the two of them) until Alan was old enough to make his own way in the world.  Meanwhile, Alan worked in a number of routine jobs that took second place to his abiding ambition – to be a pop star.  Remarkably, he almost made it.

Once he was bringing in a wage packet of his own, Johnson could indulge the passion for pop music which had taken hold before he was a teenager. Now he could buy, catalogue and carefully preserve precious pop singles – especially those of his beloved Beatles.  He had joined his first  band – The Vampires – when he was 13 years old.  They played the Beatles’ Thank You Girl (very badly).   He had learnt to play a cheap Spanish guitar his mother got him one Christmas, teaching himself  via the classic route (in those days) of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day manual.

Later, doing a milk round for a young man from a tough Notting Hill family, he was offered an electric guitar of dubious provenance. When he left school at 15 his musical ambitions remained strong and he played with several bands, performing  Tamla and Stax soul alongside by the Stones, Small Faces and the Troggs.  The high point in his musical career came performing in front of 1,000 young people at Aylesbury College – and  making a record at Regent Sound in Denmark Street, a studio was where many great hits had been recorded. Though the resulting single was offered to several record labels, nothing came of it.

I rarely, if ever, read the memoirs of politicians, but this is the biography of a politician like no other.  It’s gained numerous accolades and has won the Orwell prize as well as the Ondaatje award  for the book that best evokes the ‘spirit of a place’.  It’s the story of a hard upbringing, but remarkably it makes few political points, and, avoiding self-pity, is along way from being a misery memoir. Johnson is clearly a more rounded individual than the robotic clones who seem to populate the political class these days – his love of music and football flows through the book, which is beautifully observed, funny, and uplifting.

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

This is one of the photos which illustrates Alan Johnson’s account.  It was taken around the corner from where Alan lived in Notting Hill by Roger Mayne, the renowned photographer who died in June aged 85.  Johnson writes that he is convinced that the blurred image of a child in the background of this photo is Linda,his sister.  Between 1956 and 1961, Roger Mayne photographed Johnson’s Southam Street many times, recording, in Johnson’s words,  ‘both the squalor and the vibrancy of life there, the spirit of survivors inhabiting the uninhabitable’.  In the Guardian’s obituary, Amanda Hopkinson wrote that Mayne ‘had a highly original eye for elusive detail’:

Self-taught, he was passionate about photographing what he knew – most famously, inner London. His skill in absorbing the radicalism of post-second world war “humanitarian photography” and interpreting it with artistic vision established him as one of the 20th century’s leading photographers. It also made him influential in the development of photojournalism.

His photographs of west London street scenes in the 1950s captured members of the first generation to be identified as “teenagers”. The W10 series, shot mainly around Paddington, contrasted young people’s exuberance with the urban dereliction they inhabited. For five years from 1956, Mayne focused obsessively on Southam Street, later to be demolished as part of a slum clearance programme. The street takes on a life of its own through its young residents: there is a kind of innocence in the scruffy juveniles fighting with wooden swords or tipping each other out of broken prams. It is hard to relate these youngsters, boys in shorts and unlaced leather shoes, girls with school-uniform gingham frocks and kirby grips pinning back their hair, to subsequent generations of teenagers.

Fashion burst suddenly upon Mayne’s subjects, with teddy boys in their satin lapels and teenage girls who still spent all day with hair in rollers under knotted turbans.

The Independent’s obituary stated that:

Roger Mayne was one of the outstanding British photographers of the postwar period. He is best known as the photographic poet of London’s dynamic street life in the then dilapidated area of Notting Dale in North Kensington. He photographed one street – Southam Street – from 1956 until it was demolished in 1961 to make way for Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower.  This loving and extended study embraces street football and other games, bright-faced kids with bikes and barely a car to be seen, Teddy Boys (and Girls), impromptu jiving, plus the arrival of West Indian immigrants and that new phenomenon, the teenager. Mayne’s Southam Street photographs now seem like a statement of solidarity with the working class and a hymn to Britain’s new welfare state.

Here’s a gallery of some of the tremendous images which Roger Mayne captured in Southam Street as Alan Johnson grew up there.

 See also

2 thoughts on “This Boy: two weddings and a tribute to two heroines

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