First Impressions: Alan Johnson

… is a former politician, serving in the Blair and Brown governments as Work and Pensions Secretary, Trade and Industry Secretary, Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. He released his first book in 2013 and has written several more since. He lives in Hull.

What is your favourite book?

It changes regularly, but right now it’s stoner by John Williams, recently recognised as the classic it has always been.

Favourite film?

The Oscar-winning Danish film, Babette's Feast.

Favourite piece of music?

Another moveable feast, but Samuel Barber's Adagio for strings and The Beatles’ Revolver album are always in there.

Favourite meal?

I’m addicted to pork pies.

Who would you most like to come to dinner?

My wife – and she does, most days.

What is the nastiest thing anyone has ever said about you?

The only critical review of my childhood memoir, This boy, was In The News Line, the newspaper of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Its headline was, ‘From slums of London to Imperialist Minister’, and it said that I had ‘advanced my political career by serving the capitalist class as a counter-revolutionary class traitor’. If only I’d known!

Do you write thank you notes?

Yes, but I don’t feel virtuous about it. I’d much rather write than email, such is my allegiance to Royal Mail (where I spent so much of my working life).

Which phrase do you most overuse?

‘That’s not possible’ (according to my wife).

What would improve the quality of your life?

Writing a best-selling novel that is translated into 20 languages and turned into a high- grossing movie.

Tell us something people might not know about you.

I shop at Morrisons in Goole most days.

What would you like your epitaph to say?

‘From slums of London to Imperialist Minister.’

What are you working on at the moment?

As usual, I’m beginning to write the next book while promoting the current one. The difference this time is that I’m moving on from memoir to fiction – a romantic thriller that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m also making a radio documentary for the BBC about the history of education in England, as seen from the perspective of one school in a poor area of London.

When are you at your happiest?

Cooking in the kitchen while listening to a play on BBC Radio 4 or Radio 4 Extra on a cold winter’s day, when the countryside around our house is at its most bleakly beautiful.

What is your greatest fear?

Any debilitating condition.

What is your earliest memory?

My mother coming to tuck me in when she came home from the pictures. she’d been to the Royalty Cinema. She thought I was asleep as I lay in the bedroom we all shared. I particularly remember the scent of her perfume.

What do you dislike about yourself?

The two surplus stones that I’m carrying.

Who has been your greatest influence?

Growing up – my sister Linda; politically – George Orwell; musically – The Beatles.

What is your most treasured possession?

The inscribed watch given to me by the Hull trawlermen. It is in recognition of my role in achieving the compensation they’d been fighting for since being thrown out of work as a result of the agreement that the British government made with Iceland to end the so-called Cod Wars of the early 1970s.

What trait do you most deplore in others?

Littering the streets with empty sandwich wrappings and Coke cans – and it’s usually adults, not kids.

Do you have any pets?

Five cats: Kitty, Charlie, Flo, George and Jeff (aka Ken).

Alan Johnson will be talking about his latest memoir, In My Life, published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, from 5-14 October 2018: 01242-850270, www.cheltenhamfestivals.com

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