One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up: A Memoir of Growing Up and Getting On by Wes Streeting - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

From Wapping to Westminster

One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up: A Memoir of Growing Up and Getting On

By

Hodder & Stoughton 311pp £20
 

The ‘One Boy’ is Wes, of course. The ‘Two Bills’ are his grandfathers, Bill Crowley and Bill Streeting, the first a career criminal who carried a rubber mask and a shotgun, the second an ex-Royal Navy stoker. Burglar Bill wasn’t much use to anybody, but his wife, Nanny Libby, won Wes’s affection and showed him how to carry the flag for Labour. Stoker Bill, on the other hand, was a working-class Tory and, according to Wes, ‘the rock upon which our family was built’. It was he who instilled in his son and grandson the values of hard work, self-respect and independence. The ‘Fry Up’ refers to the big breakfast Wes’s mother, Corinna Crowley, made for herself one morning in order to avoid the abortion Libby had booked for her later that day. She went ahead with her pregnancy and gave us the person who might turn out to be the most important Labour minister in a generation. Eighteen years old, having a baby and sharing a council flat with her mother and siblings, Corinna didn’t even have a bedroom to call her own – though to be fair, Bill made his small contribution to this particular family housing crisis (one of many) by doing time for armed robbery. Without a cot at home, she put baby Wes to bed in a chest of drawers.

The future of the next Labour government could well depend upon Wes Streeting, now shadow health secretary. If Rachel Reeves can pay for it by growing the economy, and if Keir Starmer can regain control of our borders, and if Streeting can reform the NHS, barring catastrophes, Labour has every chance of a second term. If any one of them falls, so do they all.

Streeting’s rise is all the more remarkable when you consider how few government ministers have lived the sort of life described here. His first home did not have a carpet and the settee was infested with fleas. His mother, who spent the first six weeks of her life in prison, never had any money or qualifications. The memoir involves a large cast of characters ad places across Stepney, Wapping and Dagenham. Corinna, Libby, Mark (Wes’s father) and his partner Karen, grandfather Streeting and a group of teachers Wes not only remembers but names – all saw him through. Between them, they gave him a variety of homes, but homes nevertheless, taught him how to read before he went to school, kept him off the worst streets when it would have been easier to let him run, and never lost hope in him, themselves or life itself.

What throws ordinary families into crisis? It’s easy to make a list: bad housing, crap jobs, low wages, difficult travel, unaffordable childcare, unexpected pregnancies, domestic violence, drink, broken relationships. But no matter how long, no list can capture the way these things redound on each other to break the sinews of family life. That we look set to have a political leader who not only knows all this but has also experienced it might be considered exceptional. That he went to Cambridge, where he became president of the students’ union, might be considered a bloody miracle. The hardest part of his coming out as gay was coming out to his family, which is important because it may have helped produce the sort of candid yet cross-grained politician that we need in these difficult and contrary times.

Strangely, for a book containing such a great story, One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up is not such a great read. At times, reading it felt like bingeing on EastEnders. Not one to use a new cliché when an old one will do, Streeting’s writing doesn’t quite match the life. There are few ideas here that might take us deeper or wider. Streeting is a self-confessed Christian geek who never stopped reading and who wore his school merit badges with pride, but I was left searching for the intellect on which all his achievements were built. Maybe it will be in the next book. It seems this one was written in a hurry.

Nor does he appear to be alive to the major changes that have wreaked havoc on the class the Labour Party claims to represent. Not so long ago, the whole of British politics was geared towards the working class, not only because they made up the majority but also because they were indispensable. Now they are a minority. Deindustrialisation, deregulation, deskilling and the diminution of the trade unions have all served to remove the stability and status that made them matter. Last year, Melvyn Bragg published Back in the Day, a memoir of working-class life in the 1940s and 1950s. Although life was immeasurably poorer and harder then, Bragg’s world was richer and kinder too. The world Streeting grew up in was much more fragmented. What gems he does find, he picks from the ruins.

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