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April 22, 2019

Alan Johnson – The Spear’s Midas interview

By David Dawkins

The author and former home secretary talks Lennon and McCartney, Blair and Brown, rock stars and toilets with David Dawkins

How much is an ounce of gold?

No idea. But I am old enough to still think in pounds and ounces. Ten ounces of Old Holborn – tobacco – is the only thing I remember people buying in ounces.

What was your first pay slip?

I worked for Remington electric shavers as a clerk, taking in the shavers needing repair and sending the repaired ones back again. Aged 15 – they paid every fortnight, about £10. You say you grew up in a slum… We knew our street was a slum because it was declared unfit for human habitation in the 1930s and we were still living there in the 1950s. No electricity, no hot water, damp, wonky doors, every insect, one family on every floor with one in the basement, everyone sharing one god-awful khazi [toilet] out the back. That’s a slum. Hopefully it’s something you leave behind.

Is music an escape from life or a way into it?

Into. Always into something I loved. I don’t go along with this idea of music as an escape. It was a way into a wonderful world that I’ve remained in for the rest of my life.

Favourite songs to sing?

Wild Thing by the Troggs, All or Nothing by the Small Faces. Beatles songs are sacrosanct; too wonderful to replicate.

Who are the political rock stars?

Usually rock-star politicians are really benign dictatorships – we don’t really do that over here. But Tony Blair had swagger. It was like walking round with a rock star at times during the late Nineties. People always wanted a photo.

Greatest rock moments?

The Beatles audition at Parlophone EMI – I’d have liked to be there in studio 2 watching when George Martin sat mostly unimpressed, but saw something

Who’s your favourite Beatle?

Paul. His songs were better than John’s. He was the one I wanted to look like and be like. He has a melody running through his brain that I think John could only aspire to.

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Do good political partnerships work in the same way?

Bono from U2 said Blair and Brown were the Lennon and McCartney of politics – there’s something in that. They had creative tension between them, and they were very different personalities: Gordon brought the Presbyterian fundamentalism, whereas Tony was more relaxed.

Have you heard of Cardi B?

No. But I do like new music. I like St Vincent, I like Everything Everything, Courtney Barnett. People ask me what’s the best era for music – I’d say it’s now.

What’s your next book?

I’m looking to fiction now. Not sure I can do it. It’s a very special skill – plot, character and all that. But I love it.

Who’s the politician with the worst music taste?

I have a lot of affection for Ed Miliband – but not for his taste in music.

What would a Labour government mean for the ‘haves’ in society?

A Labour government is about the eradication of poverty and greater equality. But I don’t think that just because you’re very rich you don’t care about poverty, and I don’t think that just because you’re very rich you couldn’t give a damn about equality – whether it’s gender, social class or ethnicity. People care about these things. This is one of the problems with the far left: they look at people purely on the basis of their class and wealth. I look at people on the basis of their humanity.

David Dawkins is senior writer and assistant editor at Spaer’s magazine

Illustration by Ross Tudor

Alan Johnson is at the Essex Books Festival in March. In My Life: A Music Memoir is published by Bantam. Web

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