Paul Johnson has a well-earned reputation as a formidable critic of contemporary culture and as a historian with an extraordinary breadth of vision. He has considered the Christians, the Jews, intellectuals, the English and the Americans in a series of bestselling chronicles – each of which bears the stamp of a particularly English common sense. This shrewdness, it becomes clear in his first foray into autobiography, was inherited from his mother.
‘You have a disconcerting habit of drawing attention to yourself,’ she told five-year-old Paul on hearing he had fallen from a station platform and landed underneath a train. Despite her lack of fuss, Little Paul (as his father called him) was clearly a beloved child. Equally clear is his recognition of this fact. Gratitude and respect for his parents sing out in every line, and the cumulative effect of these tributes is to create a touching and funny evocation of a warm and devoted family. His spirited and able sisters are particularly charming. His forthright and sensible mother is a paragon of bourgeois Christian values with a delightfully skittish sense of humour. His father, a studious and earnest artist, knows the importance of earning a respectable living and abandons dreams of artistic bohemia to run the local art college. Surrounding this family are the Potteries of Tunstall, a ‘jolie-laide’ town near Stoke-on-Trent. It is Tunstall that draws Johnson out into the open as a nostalgically reverential memoirist.
Since his childhood is painted in soot-tinged, sepia tones, the characters he recalls are similarly softly hued. Their rough dialect is reproduced faithfully, lending the book, at times, the air of an Arnold Bennett novel. Lowry was a close friend of his father’s, and the working men and women Johnson sees around him are depicted with a similar empathy and comic touch. Poverty is given grace and dignity but without any real sense of the hardship and deprivation endured by the unemployed working classes. Everyone seems basically content with their lot, and cheerfully resigned to their station in life. Although the effects of the Depression were rife and Little Paul sees the evidence all around him of hunger and wasted lives, he resolutely turns away from the squalor and misery. This does not seem so much a study of 1930s northern England as a portrait of prelapsarian bliss. The result is that we lose sight of the specific era in which Johnson was raised. The book sometimes has a Victorian feel, then Edwardian, and it is a jolt when we hear, through the Johnson wireless set, Chamberlain declaring we are at war.
Nineteen thirty-nine is, effectively, when his childhood ends. At the age of twelve, boarding school beckons, and three years later his father is dead – worn down by heavy smoking and the after-effects of soldiering in the First World War. He and his mother and siblings leave Tunstall, never to return. When he finally goes back fifty years later, all is changed; his childhood love – the ‘jolie laide’ – has vanished.
The author is at his best when he writes about being a child. Johnson the adult bemoans the changes wrought by time – the urbanisation of industrial landscapes, the ensuing cultural homogeneity – and loses sight of his own preoccupation with memory, which is far more interesting both artistically and psychologically. When he remembers to remember, with the unsparing clear-sightedness at which he excels, the nuns who schooled him, the trains that took him to school, the marvellously entrepreneurial priest who lived next door to his parents, his prose wakes up again. In these episodes, the loss that underpins memory does its subtle work in recapturing the bygone joys of his childhood.