Alastair Campbell: 'I can't change what I am'
New Labour's attack dog hasn't lost his teeth, but his trajectory after political life reveals unsuspected compassion and humility
Friday 31 October 2008
Alastair Campbell has written a novel about humility. I'll say that again. Alastair Campbell, New Labour attack dog, bully boy and Machiavellian master of that new lynchpin of the new political culture, "spin", has channelled his considerable storytelling skills into a novel which pivots on an essay, and then a eulogy, on humility.
"Humility," according to the essay, "is knowing we are all as important to each other. And even the ones we think are really important, the ones we see on the TV or put on the pedestals, in the grand sweep of history, and amid the great forces of nature, they are grains of sand." Prime ministers, press secretaries, bestselling writers – all grains of sand. "We can learn humility," the essay continues, "if we learn from mistakes."
The man who opens the door, however, is bullish. Tall and solid and, even in jeans and green shirt ("specially ironed for the photographer") imposing, he radiates the kind of alpha male energy that exploded from the pages of his Diaries, the kind of energy which, according to those diaries, had Diana, Princess of Wales, in thrall. "You can have tea, but if you want coffee we'll have to wait for Fiona to come back," he announces with the bluff lack of ceremony you might expect of a Yorkshire-born tabloid journalist turned parliamentary pit-bull. Five years since he left Downing Street and he hasn't learnt how to make coffee. Alpha male indeed.
Still, he makes me a cup of tea, and we move from his large, sunny kitchen to a large, smart, but not overwhelmingly smart, sitting room. There's a piano in the corner, a big squashy sofa and family photos everywhere. Terrified of marking the coffee table – terrified, in fact, of unleashing that famous temper – I grab what I think is a coaster, but which turns out be a swatch. "You can help us choose the new sofa," says the pit bull with a disarmingly friendly smile. "How about shocking pink?" I suggest a touch nervously, noticing the little patch of fabric nestling under the blues, greens and turquoise. "I don't think so," he says. Perhaps not.
I tell him that I liked the novel – and I did. Clearly drawing on his own experience of depression and mental illness – experiences he discussed frankly in a recent TV documentary, Cracking Up – it explores the lives and psyches of a group of characters from wide-ranging backgrounds who are all patients of the same psychiatrist. A young woman whose face has been disfigured in a fire, and a young Kosovan refugee recovering from a rape, struggle to put their lives back together. A man who works in a warehouse battles severe depression. A lawyer tackles what his wife likes to call "sex addiction", a politician combats the stresses of high office with drink, and the psychiatrist himself struggles to help all these people, and to keep his own demons at bay.
While All In the Mind is unlikely to win prizes for its prose style – which tends towards the workaday – it's an extremely absorbing, moving and compassionate portrayal of ordinary human beings exhibiting extraordinary courage in challenging circumstances. Its faults are faults of generosity: characters articulate beyond their background, outbreaks of epiphanies when one or two would be doing well. They are faults, in fact, of an excess of optimism, an excess of heart. Grumpy Downing Street bully boy real softie shock horror.
"When I left working with Tony and started thinking about what I was going to do for the rest of my life," Campbell volunteers, "I can't pretend that writing novels was on the list. It just sort of came to me, and when it did, I couldn't stop." With the all-consuming drive of the self-confessed obsessive, he was soon leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to flesh out characters and fine-tune dialogue. Once, when driving to Manchester to pick up his son, Calum, from university, inspiration struck on the motorway. "I pulled over at the first service station. All I had was my BlackBerry. I just got lost in it, because the next thing I knew the phone went and it was Calum saying, 'Where are you?'"
Amazingly, he didn't tell anyone what he was doing, but when, after a few months, he showed the first draft to his agent, Ed Victor, his partner, Fiona, and his psychiatrist, the feedback, after the "absolute shock", was "very positive". Later, he sent it to Charlie Falconer, "one of the happiest, happy-go-lucky people you could meet", who said that "for the first time he got what it feels like to be depressed" and to Stephen Fry, who said that "he'd never read anything that communicated quite so well what the human mind is like when it's not in good shape". A verdict, surely, to cheer up the gloomiest of depressives.
In The Blair Years, his gripping chronicle of life patrolling, policing and constructing the corridors of power (which has sold more than 160,000 copies in hardback), his references to his depression tend towards the laconic. "Going bonkers at one Scottish Conference fair enough, but two!" is a typically cryptic allusion to the shadow of mental fragility that always looms; "Both homicidal and suicidal" is a fleeting glimpse of how that terror could be channelled both inwards and outwards. In the novel, characters are encouraged to practise a variety of cognitive techniques: writing lists of wants and needs, pinging elastic bands against their wrists when negative thoughts prevail, and, in one memorable passage, staring at raisins.
Campbell has tried all of these. "Looking at a leaf and seeing it change shape and colour and all that; it doesn't necessarily lead you anywhere, but if you look at it long enough and hard enough, you start to see things differently, you start to feel different... Most of the time," he continues, "I function well and life's good and I tick over and do lots of things. And then, every now and then, I just feel like death warmed up and I've kind of reached the point now where there's not much you can do about it. The last period I had was a few days ago."
All of which makes his near-marriage with the Bambi-cum-Pollyanna of British politics all the more intriguing. Could he, I wonder, imagine "the project" working if his boss had been a little less, well, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm? "I don't know," he muses. "Tony had this extraordinary ability whatever was going on around him to put a smile on his face and go into his room and make people feel better about being there, but in a different sort of way I had that with my team. Sometimes, when we were going through bad patches, where he would be raging about what wasn't happening, what he was doing was making my melancholy, anxious, difficult side go away."
Whatever the psychological dynamics, and the political ramifications (and we'd better not go into one of those or this feral beast from the evil, anti-War Indy might be sent packing), the impression the Diaries gave was of a laddish, testosterone-fuelled culture in which Blair strode around in his underpants, occasionally leaping up to break up a fight, and balls – leather, human and metaphorical – were vigorously kicked. It all seemed a far cry from the days when Harold Macmillan could spend the day reading Jane Austen.
"Look, I love football," says Campbell, "but it doesn't mean I don't read books. Likewise, with Tony. We'd go on holiday, he'd be wherever he was and we'd speak a few times a week and it would be, 'What are you reading?'" Most of the time, of course, Campbell barely had time to wave at his family, let alone read Mansfield Park. "As far as I had any time to read at all, I probably read political and historical books," he says, "but since I left, the mix has gone completely the other way. I've just been hoovering novels." Discoveries include Peter Carey, Scott Fitzgerald and Haruki Murakami. "I read Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart," he says, "and that persuaded me to have a go at first person narration. Unreliable witness," he adds with a semi-defiant smile.
Unreliable witness. Well, who can tell? For Campbell, it was the media who were the unreliable witnesses during those turbulent Downing Street years. For the media, it was Campbell, protecting and spinning and blocking and fighting, Campbell the attack dog, bully boy etc. Doesn't this bother him? "The point," says Campbell, with just a tiny hint of the spark that could set a world aflame, "is I can't move who I am or what I am and I don't worry about what other people think or say about me. On Saturday, I followed one of those web discussions and I thought I clearly am a very deeply evil person, I am the devil, and I ended up laughing. There's nothing you can do."
(This, presumably, is the same spirit in which he displays, in his loo, a framed copy of the artwork of the Private Eye cover of him leaving Downing Street. "What did you do in the war, daddy?" are the words in the speech bubble hovering over a photo of him and one of his sons. "Started it," is the stark answer issuing from his father's mouth.)
Writing a novel, he says, is the "most fulfilling" thing he's done since leaving frontline politics. He's already started a second, "about friendship and celebrity" and wants to write more.
And how would he answer the question his fictional psychiatrist sets one of his characters? How would he like to be remembered? There's a pause. "If your parents," he says in the end, "think you are quite a good child and if your partner thinks that, by and large, on balance, it was better together than apart, and your kids think you were a good parent, I don't think you can do much more than that. I would like people to read this book and think it was a good book. I'd like to think I've got a few more books in me. I'd like to be remembered for the fact that we took a losing organisation and made it into a winning organisation and that as a result Britain was a better place."
If Campbell writes more novels, I'll certainly read them. And I've no doubt that, between the public speaking and the charity work and the "helping Gordon" he's agreed to do in order to keep "those Tory toffs" away, he'll churn them out at a phenomenal rate. But I can't get rid of this niggling feeling that the talents of this fiercely driven, complex, proud and, yes, decent, man – a man, incidentally, who "believes all of" the essay on humility in his novel, but who also tells me several times how good the novel is – might be better used in making Britain that "better place". There are lots of novels in the world. There aren't that many Alastair Campbells.
Alastair Campbell will talk about 'All In the Mind' (Hutchinson, £17.99) at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0871 663 2500) on 26 November
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