I’ve been reading This Boy: A Memoir of A Childhood by Alan Johnson, the Labour MP, ex-Home Secretary and former union leader. As one of the reviewers quoted on the cover says, it’s probably the best memoir by a politician that you’ll ever read: a beautifully-written, moving and often humorous account of a poverty-stricken and emotionally difficult London childhood in the 1950s. Johnson’s book can be read on a number of levels: as an indictment of the harsh conditions in which many working-class families lived before the economic boom and social reforms of the Sixties, as an account of London in the era of race riots and the early stirrings of youth culture, or even as the story of one young man’s failed attempt to break into the music industry.

This Boy cover

However, as an academic interested in questions of childhood, gender and relationships, I was particularly struck by the depiction of Johnson’s disrupted family life and its impact on him as a young man. On one level, the book can be read as an extended and heartfelt tribute, even a love letter, to his late mother, who died when Alan was in his early teens. Abandoned by her unreliable and abusive husband and suffering from the heart condition that would eventually kill her, Lily Johnson brought up two children – Alan and his older sister Linda – in appallingly unhealthy conditions in condemned housing in Notting Hill. After her death, Alan was looked after by his sister, who was herself only sixteen at the time, and it is the love, courage and resilience of these two women that shine through the book.

In a sense, Johnson’s memoir provides confirmation that women are able to provide positive role models for boys as well as girls. The reader certainly comes away with the impression that it was Lily’s clear moral sense (she was a fierce opponent of those fomenting racial discord in west London at this period), as well as her dedication to her children and aspirations for their future, that provided the inspiration for her son’s later achievements.

In the second volume of his memoir, which I’ve yet to read, Johnson writes: ‘I had the example of my own father to guide me in what not to do – a kind of reverse role model’ (thanks to Sandy Ruxton for this quotation). When his father, Steve, finally abandons the family, Alan and his sister Linda feel nothing but relief:

For me, it was a red-letter day; a Saturday I would always remember for the happiness I felt when I was sure Steve had really gone. The sense of exhilaration floods back every time my mind returns to that morning…My dread was not that Steve would be lost to me for ever but that he might come back…For Linda and me, Steve’s departure marked the end of a terrible life and the start of a brighter future.

Johnson’s attitude to Steve’s departure is something of a rebuke to those who suggest that having a father around is always preferable to not having one. Nor is there any evidence in Johnson’s story to support the theory that boys with absent fathers tend to look for alternative male role models elsewhere, often with negative consequences:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to seek an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women.

Johnson’s appreciation and admiration of women seems to have stayed with him, though his later friendships with other men suggest that his mistrust of masculinity was only temporary. However, Johnson does reflect on the kind of father he would like to have had, if things had been different: ‘But if I had been inclined to fantasise about the ideal father…Albert Cox would have been my choice.’ Albert was the father of Johnson’s close friend, Tony Cox, and he was invited to live with the family for a time after his mother’s death. For Johnson, Albert Cox ‘epitomised the kind of steady, decent, hard-working man who had fought the war in the forties and delivered the peace in the fifties…. Mr Cox provided for his family: not only did he dedicate all his wages…to ensure their wellbeing, he devoted his spare time to the same cause.’

Of course this is very much a Fifties ideal of the father as breadwinner and provider. However, from other comments we gather that Albert Cox was also an affectionate husband: Johnson describes Mr and Mrs Cox snuggling together on the sofa each evening and watching television with their ritual glass of whiskey. For Johnson, it seems to have been Albert Cox’s reliability and consistency of care, as well as his obvious affection for his family, that marked him out as something of a model father.

This Boy exemplifies the way in which personal accounts of childhood, and of family relationships, can serve to disrupt easy stereotypes about gender roles and their impact on children’s wellbeing and development. Of course, Alan Johnson’s childhood would have been materially and emotionally richer if he had experienced the care of two loving parents. But his story is a reminder that simplistic generalisations about the impact, especially on boys, of ‘absent fathers’ and ‘lone mothers’ can sometimes misrepresent the complexities of real-life experience.