Hutchinson £25 (774pp) £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 1: Prelude to Power by Alastair Campbell

Blood on the tracks to the summit

Nearly 20 years ago, the then Prime Minister, John Major, was undergoing a grilling, humiliating television interview when there was a cri de coeur in the Commons office of the Daily Mirror, where I then worked. "Why do they do it?" a voice exclaimed. Why indeed? The speaker was the Mirror's political editor, Alastair Campbell, whose diaries are a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of entering the hellish life of high-pressure politics.

When Campbell was invited by Tony Blair to be his personal spin doctor, in summer 1994, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock advised him, as a friend, not to do it, because it would wreck his family life and because "you'll hate the crap, the detail, the wankers you have to be nice to." Despite that advice, he was lured into being where the action was, a career change that brought wealth and fame, but precious little by way of job satisfaction to judge by the long chronicle of exasperation, anger, depression and intermittent moments of exultation that make up the first volume of his unabridged diary.

This book is unbelievably long. In the abridged version of Campbell's diaries, published two years ago, it takes 180 pages to get from May 1994 to May 1997, which was quite enough. Here the same period fills 770 pages. This is only the first of four volumes. The complete work will be over twice the length of War and Peace.

And it is unrelentingly grim. It is not the quality of the writing that's the problem: Campbell writes very well, as a trained tabloid journalist. It is the life that he chose to lead that comes over as scarcely bearable – although it is possible that the diaries exaggerate the awfulness because he was apparently writing them as a form of therapy, to work off each day's tension. He thereby created a new form of misery memoir, a chronicle of the frustrations of ambition achieved.

Political diaries that are fun to read are written by people who were never very important, such as Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth or Chris Mullin - those who faffed around on the edges of power trying to see what was happening inside. But Campbell was never anywhere but in the epicentre of political power, where life is an endless round of meetings, crises, clashes of egos, stress and sleep deprivation.

Domestic life, as described here, was a sequence of rows with his long-suffering partner, Fiona Millar, who emerges as one of the unsung heroines of the drama. They row because she either trying to induce him to have a family life, or defending a political principle, such as comprehensive education, against Labour's rightward drift.

The first day of 1995, Campbell's first full year in the job, was a Sunday. "Woke up early, anxious about the DB (David Blunkett) situation," is the year's first written observation. "Fiona was determined I get some rest, so unplugged all the phones upstairs. I just lay there listening to them ring in the rest of the house so got up to begin another crap day."

Several times, the stress was so awful that Campbell feared he was on the edge of another nervous breakdown, like the one he suffered in 1986. "On days like today, dead days," he recorded on a Sunday in March 1996, "every single thing, getting into bed, getting dressed, putting on a sock, brushing teeth, starting the car, answering a phone, saying hello, becomes a huge challenge. You have to summon the energy and strength to do it and when it's done you wonder if it was worth it."

Four weeks earlier, Fiona had persuaded him to try acupuncture, but he had a terror of needles that almost caused him to pass out. At another point, he needed medical treatment because the stress had caused him to start "crapping blood." Crapping blood is not a bad metaphor for the job he had undertaken.

He was the human shield between a band of ego-driven politicians and a voracious 24-hour news media. He was working for a boss so eternally fretful about presentation that there was an occasion when Blair rang Campbell at 5am, worrying that an answer he had given in a BBC interview had not quite hit the right tone.

Yet for all his constant fretting, Blair comes across as saner than most others at the top of the Labour Party. Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson and Clare Short storm through the pages, throwing tantrums because they are not getting their way. Robin Cook manoeuvres slyly for position.

In the entry for 1 August 1996, Blair and Campbell discussed the lie of the land as they prepare to set off for what are laughingly called their holidays. Their conclusions - "JP was mega offside again. Peter was out of control. GB was being a pain. RC was onside only because the other two were offside. Charlie W (Whelan) was causing trouble. The Shadow Cabinet middle order were not adding much, and some of them did absolutely fuck all unless asked. TB said the last few days have been kindergarten politics..."

An interesting question is what these diaries will say about politics to anyone who reads them a decade or so hence, when the partisan passions roused by the Blair-Brown years have cooled. They will, I suspect, prompt questions about whether this is a sane way to run a country; whether democratically elected leaders and their advisers should ever be expected to live like this. In the meantime, someone should rewrite that Noel Coward song, giving it a new refrain: "Don't let your son be a spin doctor, Mrs Worthington."

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor