What is an insomniac spin-doctor to do after he has stopped spinning tricks for government? Retire to his Gospel Oak exercise bike and spin yarns on his BlackBerry, of course.
Freed from his job as communications director for Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell has multi-tasked his way into completing his second novel, Maya, often on the go, in-between blogging, cycling, making speeches and driving up the motorway to watch his beloved Burnley FC. Necessity has been the mother of invention for former chaplains of the state – it worked for politician-turned-prisoner-turned-novelist, Jeffrey Archer, and politician-turned-bonkbuster-queen, Edwina Currie. But a career in fiction - and smutty fiction at that - is nothing new forCampbell.
Long before he was holding forth at the Chilcot inquiry or choking on "tears" on the Andrew Marr show, Campbell was a soft porn writer for Forum magazine, a stablemate of Penthouse, between 1978 to 1981. North London legend holds that it began as a bet with a friend over who could get into print first. Campbell won, before switching to hard facts on Fleet Street at The Daily Mirror.
With Maya, he has not exactly reprised the soft porn genre – although there is no lack of bedside titillation and descriptions of "stonking erections" and pert breasts – but he does display an aptitude in the marketable art of writing to genre. In this case, it is fast-flowing, formulaic chic-lit, with all the frills: details of which labels his men and women are wearing, what their hair is doing, where they are shopping.
The story revolves around Steve Watkins, a nine-to-fiver at a logistics company in Heathrow. His most outstanding achievement in life is having sustained a childhood friendship with Maya Lowe, an actress of stratospheric fame whose world is infused with the aphrodisiacal aura of celebrity and the accompanying whiff of a red-top press pack.
As Steve struggles with his own disappointments, Maya's life becomes an unhealthy obsession which he begins to put above his work, his pretty wife and his own peace of mind. Add to this a mix of sleazy detectives, sleazier journalists and a thunderous denouement.
As difficult as it may be to think of the former PR man turning his hand to territory usually reserved for Jilly Cooper, there is a narrative drive to the book that in the end, does what it sets out to do. It offers a commuter read with a strong, moralising plot and the heady consumerist fantasies of an OK magazine lifestyle.
The passages in which his writing most comes to life is in descriptions of the voracious press pack, and the management of this many-headed monster. Nick Sheldon, Maya's agent, gives some inspired lessons in media control. When disaster strikes in Maya's marriage, he is fast on his feet. "My desire would be to sit on this until there is a day when the news is completely swamped by something else." Sounds like "burying bad news".
Campbell appears to vent his spleen at times at the media culture he came to hate during his period as Tony Blair's spokesman ("the presenter was close to the breathless hyperventilation that accompanies 'breaking news'"), but this cynicism also gives the book its meta-narrative layer. We see the action taking place through the rabid camera commentaries on Sky and BBC News 24, alongside a critique of the devil's pact between journalists and celebrities.
By the end, the press pack sounds like a Greek chorus of Furies. Yet when Steve is disastrously exposed, it is the media - his destroyer and nemesis - that are seen as upholding a retributive justice. The readability of Maya may hail Campbell as a bright new light in chick-lit. But, after the Chilcot inquiry, he might need another image makeover for the reader to be convinced by his walk on the fluffy side.Reuse content