Alistair Campbell talks about Number 10 and writing novels
PUBLISHED: 15:47 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:39 20 February 2013
Alastair Campbell will talk about Number 10 and novel writing at this year's Essex Book Festival. Pat Parker spoke to the man behind the media hype
ITS with some trepidation that I approach Alastair Campbells four-storey terraced house in north London. During his reign as Tony Blairs press secretary, he gained a fearsome reputation for aggression and bullying and his general opinion of journalists is unprintable in most magazines.
But the man who greets me at the door seems much changed from the days when he was known as Tony Blairs rottweiler. He shows me into the family living room, all high ceilings and comfy sofas, and answers my questions with plain-speaking politeness. Since resigning as Blairs director of communications and strategy in 2003, during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, he seems calmer and more at peace with himself. He has also discovered an unexpected talent for novel-writing.
Im probably more spiritual than I was, but I dont have that core belief. Tonys convinced Ill get God one day
His first novel, All In The Mind, told the story of an eminent psychiatrist struggling with his own depression while trying to help his mentally tortured patients. It drew heavily on Campbells own experience of a nervous breakdown at the age of 29, and the repeated bouts of depression he has experienced since. His compelling new novel, Maya, tackles another subject with which Campbell is familiar the pressures of modern celebrity and its effects on relationships.
Alastair was born in 1957, the son of a Scottish vet whose practice was in Yorkshire. He was academically bright while mad on sport and Burnley FC in particular. Aged 11, his life changed suddenly when his dad had to give up his practice after being attacked by a sow. After a long spell in hospital, he moved the family to Leicester and worked for the Ministry of Agriculture. It was a huge wrench for Alastair, although he settled into his comprehensive and became one of its few pupils to make it to Oxbridge.
After graduating, he got a job as a reporter with Mirror newspapers, rising to become a political journalist on the Daily Mirror. Then, in 1986, Eddy Shah lured him to his about-to-be-launched Today newspaper. He was offered the post of news editor on the Sunday paper a huge promotion. The pressures of the job led to a major nervous breakdown. It was a combination of drink and overwork, Alastair confesses. I should never have taken the job in the first place. I wasnt ready for it.
He was by then drinking almost constantly. Accompanying Neil Kinnock on a Scottish conference trip, he was spotted by police behaving oddly. He can remember wandering around a foyer where Kinnock was attending a dinner, feeling paranoid and irrational. And then my head exploded. It just exploded inside. It was incredibly scary. I thought I was going to die. He was hospitalised and treated for a psychotic breakdown, which was followed by a long, deep depression. He became teetotal, and, after several months convalescence, rebuilt his career back at the Mirror, rising to become political editor.
He was about to break into broadcasting in a big way, when Tony Blair, new leader of the Labour party, asked him to become his press secretary. He took a month to consider the offer, fearing the effect it would have on his partner, Fiona Millar, who herself later worked for Cherie Blair, and their three children. He warned Blair of his temper, his breakdown and his depression. Blair was adamant he still wanted Campbell for the job.
What he hadnt anticipated was the degree to which he would become the focus of media attention. I underestimated how much interest there was going to be in me. I think the press knew quite a lot about me, but it had never been of any interest to the public. But suddenly they thought, Oh, this is interesting, and started to write about me. Throw in the controversies along the way, the way I did the job and so forth, and suddenly youve got this really quite big profile, which wasnt planned.
Blair was apparently remarkably understanding of the attention Campbell attracted. Tony said, Look, youve got to understand theyre doing this because they know youre important to me and theyre trying to bring you down. But he also became infamous for spin and his aggressive haranguing of editors and journalists who refused to toe the line. With hindsight, would he have done the job differently?
He hesitates. I certainly wish my relations with the media hadnt become so bad. But I think my reputation for bullying was overplayed. The press wants me to say were both as bad as each other. I dont accept that. The press think they should have the monopoly on judging what the news agenda is and unless you have a sense of your own agenda, and how youre able to project that to the public, theyre just going to blow you over. Look, Im a very forceful person. I will defend myself. I will present myself aggressively at times. But so do they. And every day, part of the job was to sit there in a room full of 100 or so people who were coming at you at 100 miles an hour and if you just rolled over, you werent going to last very long.
But did his obsessive, controlling personality exacerbate the situation? That may be the case, he concedes. I freely acknowledge Im obsessive. The reason Tony wanted me to do the job, and why I was able to do it well, was in part because of my personality, but there may be a downside to that. However, even parts of the media who cant stand the air I breathe, tend to put me in the effective bracket. The only question is the modus operandi.
Alastairs row with the BBCs Andrew Gilligan, who said an unnamed source had told him Campbell had sexed up the September dossier on Iraqs WMD capability, meant the media spotlight focussed on him more strongly than ever. Dr David Kelly was finally outed as the source and subsequently killed himself. Alastair announced his resignation shortly after giving evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, which later cleared Campbell and the Government of wrongdoing. The strain of the job had taken its toll on him and his family and he had committed the cardinal communications sin of becoming the story himself. He still cannot put Iraq behind him and at the time of going to press he is due to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war in January.
He has done many things since resigning novel-writing, lecturing and raising awareness for charities including MIND and Leukaemia Research. He is currently fronting the Time For Change campaign, aimed at combating the stigma and discrimination the mentally ill can face in the workplace. He was named 2009s MIND Champion of the Year.
In 2007, he published an edited version of the diaries he kept during his years working for Blair. But he left out many sections recording the feuding between Blair and Gordon Brown, unwilling to damage the latters reputation while he was Prime Minister. But Brown may not be Prime Minister for much longer and Campbell says hes now considering publishing the unedited diaries in full, as originally promised. So when will that be? He grins. Ill wait a bit.
I think probably theres one more big job in me at some point, but I dont know what it is, and until Im clear about that, Im not worried
Alastair still suffers from periods of depression. Theres no rhyme or reason to it. I used to think it was almost menstrual every few weeks it would come around. But Ive definitely learnt to stave it off better. Thats why I now say the breakdown was the best thing that ever happened to me, because if you can survive that, you know you can survive anything.
I wondered whether Alastair, an avowed atheist, ever envied Tony Blairs faith, which has clearly sustained him during his tribulations. I would describe myself as a pro-faith atheist, he replies. I dont like all this anti-religion, Richard Dawkins stuff. Im probably more spiritual than I was, but I dont have that core belief. Tonys convinced Ill get God one day. Id say that of all the family, Im the most likely to, because Ive always been open to it.
Does he miss his former life in the thick of it, so to speak? Yeah, I do, but its possible both to miss it and not want to do it, and its possible to be happier and sometimes wish you had that full-time thing going on.
For him, novel-writing is the one thing hes done post-resignation where he has felt like a round peg in a round hole. He currently has two new novels on the go, but is having trouble resolving them. Im having my first bad writers block.
So what does the future hold? His answer is remarkably sanguine. Part of the reason I feel much more settled than Ive been for a while is because Ive almost come to enjoy the fact that I cant give you a direct answer to that question. I think probably theres one more big job in me at some point, but I dont know what it is, and until Im clear about that, Im not worried. Im enjoying my freedom too much.
More from the man
Alastair Campbell will be discussing his life, his books and his support for the Time for Change campaign at Bishops Hill in Brentwood at 7.30pm on March 30. Tickets cost 6.50, concessions 4.50. For more information, visit www.essexbookfestival.org.uk.
Alastairs second novel, Maya, is published by Hutchinson on
February 4, price 18.99.