It was with great sadness that I heard the news last weekend that Eddie Johnson had passed away. I had the pleasure of meeting Eddie on several occasions and as well as being a real gentleman he was big-hearted and generous of spirit. He was also a great story teller. Many of these stories appeared in his memoir, Tales from the Two Puddings, and as fine a book as this is, it was even better to hear Eddie tell these stories and many others in person. I had the pleasure of doing this on several occasions at events when he was reading from the book, and talking about his life as a landlord. What often struck me was that Eddie, in telling a particular story – for example, the one in his book, about ‘the Colonel’ - would finish with a pause and a look in his eye that suggested he was wondering about the untold stories that each of his own suggested. Where did these people come from, and where did they go? He was a good writer because he recognised that all good writing is essentially about the story. He was also very funny when talking at these events and would usually have the audience in the palm of his hand, like any narrator worth his salt should.
This love of stories came from his family, from a time where talking and telling stories was much more central to our social experience. Also from trips with his mum to the cinema, and later from reading. Whilst working on the docks he was amazed to find that a significant number of his fellow workers were particularly well-read. Inspired by them he read political tomes about Marx and Simon Bolivar, as well as fiction by Dickens, Tolstoy, Camus and George Orwell amongst many others. He grew up in an age where the idea of bettering oneself and improving ones station in life could be seized upon with relish and could be achieved by self-education combined with hard graft. The benefits of this, financial and otherwise, he was able to pass on to his own family. He, and his wife, Shirley, gave their children license to explore and think about the world in creative ways, and instilled a love of music, art, literature and cinema in them. And so they grew up as musicians, artists and film-makers, making him as proud of them as they were of him. It must have given Matt great pleasure to publish his dad’s memoir and thus allow a talent he had always had reach its deserved audience.
Eddie helped significantly with the early stages of the book I have written about his son, via interviews and many emails. I found his life story fascinating and it was a rewarding experience writing about it. Both Matt and I were keen to make Long Shadows, High Hopes not just a book about Matt Johnson and The The, but also one about family, and a period in history that saw the working classes benefit, through the work of the Labour movements, and in particular the post-war creation of the welfare state, in ways unique to our history. My own father, like Eddie, grew up in relative poverty but he was also unafraid of culture that was supposedly out of the remit of his class, and also unflinching when it came to seizing the day; of working hard to better himself and provide a better world for his family than the one he grew up in. Sadly, the advance of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative agendas over the past few decades has almost completely destroyed the world of upward social mobility. Having put the working classes back in their place, having diluted their identity, the powers that be are now working on the destruction of the middle classes.
As a politically astute man this current state of affairs angered and saddened Eddie Johnson, I am sure. It must be disappointing to forge a better world for your children, only to see that world diminish for your grandchildren. However, though he was a realist, I get the impression he was also an optimist, and as such believed that the struggle for truth, fairness and justice in this world will continue. At a time when we are being led to believe there is a generational divide in this country I think it is worth remembering the actual truth of the matter – that there are many, many of our fathers and mothers whose efforts are worth preserving; that generations that follow our own need to know that the world wasn’t always this bad, and that a better world is always possible.
Here’s to Eddie Johnson, and all the good and honest people like him.
Before I embarked upon Matt Johnson's biography I was working on a follow-up to my first book, about East London beyond the boundary of the River Lea. This project was never completed, but you can read a piece I wrote about Eddie here, after interviewing him one afternoon in Shoreditch