Alan Johnson & the decline of social mobility

The memoirist, Orwell Prize winner and lost leader of the Labour Party revisits his childhood haunts in West London. Fine interview by the Indy’s Simon Usborne:

Johnson pauses to peer into the playground of Bevington Primary School, just off Goldborne Road. His fondness for reading – initially a gift from his mother and the few keepers of books he knew – developed here and at his third school, a grammar in Chelsea. George Orwell was an early hero. “My English teacher had taken us through Animal Farm and gave me some money from the school kitty to buy more books,” he says. “I picked up Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I loved the idea that Gordon Comstock, the hero, renounces money to spend his time writing in a garret. That’s when I got interested in writing. It only took me 50 years to do it.”

… Does he think that he could make the same leap today, from here to the heights of politics and publishing? “What, leave school at 15 with no qualifications and end up as a government minister?” he asks. “I don’t think I could. It seems impossible now to rise up. In my time, you could join the Post Office as a telegram boy, take the Civil Service exam and move into Whitehall,” he says. “You could become a court reporter on the local paper without a degree and end up as a Fleet Street editor. It doesn’t seem to happen like that any more. Clegg, Miliband and Cameron all have that same background: PPE, coming in as a special adviser, then finding a seat. We’re tackling ethnicity, we’re tackling gender and disability – but we’ve lost something of the mix of social class.”

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