Saturday, 04 December 2021

Well worth catching the late train

Alan Johnson
Baillie Gifford Marquee

ALAN Johnson offered the audience a curious statistic when he was talking about his life and writing: 18 per cent of the Labour cabinet in which he served had already appeared at Henley to talk about their new books.

Perhaps it’s natural for (Labour) politicians to gravitate towards writing. But few have done it with as much success as the man who was, variously, Home, Health and Education Secretary.

And before that, from humble beginnings, a postman and a union leader, as recounted in his bestselling volumes of memoirs.

Johnson was here to talk not about politics or memoirs, though, but about his foray into producing fiction, specifically a thriller, The Late Train to Gipsy Hill.

It’s a tale which takes Gary, an ordinary young man attracted to a beautiful woman on the aforesaid train, and plunges him into an adventure involving Russian gangsters, agents from the FSB (successor to the KGB), English coppers, as well as his own flatmates.

It’s also a love story. All this embedded in a realistic London setting. Translator and writer Daniel Hahn proved a sympathetic and practised interviewer of Johnson, drawing him out on such questions as the difference between writing fiction and autobiography, and the extent to which a thriller writer needs to plot things in advance.

Johnson didn’t touch much on politics but he did observe that whereas a politician is expected to be truthful, the mystery writer is faced with the opposite demand, and indeed is paid to “be misleading”.

This was a well-received session with an affable, self-deprecating speaker whose writing career is turning out to be as varied as his political one.

Philip Gooden

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