Alastair Campbell explains why drink should make us think
- Credit: Archant
After his own battle against alcoholism, the former spin doctor has written a novel that reveals how addiction touches the lives of those close by
He made the short trip from Fleet Street to Downing Street via a police cell 12 miles south-east of Glasgow, where he sat naked, drew on the walls and asked for champagne. In a matter of days, he went from a man capable of drinking 32 pints in a day to an indomitable teetotaller and, within five years, he was one of Westminster’s most prominent hacks.
His renowned ally Tony Blair once called him a “thingaholic”, as he became the defining political spin doctor of the internet age. He started running in his 40s and took on the London Marathon four months later. In 2008, Alastair Campbell wrote his first issue-led novel; released last week, My Name Is… becomes his third.
“I do tend to throw myself into things,” he muses, when we meet at his Gospel Oak home to discuss the new book, less than a year since he first alighted upon its unfamiliar concept. “I was in a taxi one day going to a meeting and I literally just wrote down the opening line in a small notepad: ‘My name is Hannah. This is their story.’”
He opens up to being “a man possessed” by the writing process, awakening memories of his unshakable demeanour while working as the prime minister’s leading communicator and strategist. For Campbell, the top of one ladder always seems the foot of another – perhaps something of his self-confessed dangerous addictive streak is a mere side effect of his determination to succeed and total dedication to “survival”.
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Powerful and passionate, My Name Is… tells the story of a teenage girl’s descent into alcoholism through the eyes of her family and others around her, who are all in some way implicated in her drink problem. The narrative starts and ends with Hannah, the enigmatic and perspicacious victim, but each chapter in between is the sometimes shocking, often tender account of a different character in the first person.
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“Everybody has a relationship with alcohol, including if you don’t drink. I don’t believe there is a person in Britain who does not worry about their drinking, know someone who should or has an experience of somebody who has drunk too much, particularly now. The marketing is all very pervasive in our culture,” Campbell professes.
He points out the four shops selling alcohol around the corner from his house and conveys little doubt that drinking has moved out of the offices and onto the streets since his stints as political editor of the Daily Mirror and Today in the 1990s: “Journalism was much more of a heavy-drinking culture than I think it is now. Even after I ended up in hospital, I had colleagues who said ‘You didn’t drink as much as I did.’”
While it wholeheartedly remains a work of fiction, the novel is bestrewn with personal and political references by the former Number 10 press chief. Set in a classic north London street on which townhouses and council estates coalesce, it explores much of his experience as a recovered alcoholic, as well as the timely issues of youth culture, class and education.
“Regularly I just don’t know where the ideas are coming from. It’s not just imagination; it must be a mix of imagination and experience,” he discerns. “I do think we as a country need to think more about our relationship with alcohol. I know that it is a brave politician who says we’re drinking too much and we should charge more.
“If you go into a busy police station or a hospital, alcohol is flowing through there like a river. If you talk to anybody who is up at the Royal Free Hospital – and not just in A&E either – a lot of the diseases people are getting, the accidents that are happening and the violence that happens to people is because of alcohol.”
Campbell regards the relaxing of alcohol licensing laws as proof that he was not pushing policy forward under the Labour government – attesting he “never bought the idea” – and cites university culture as something that “needs to change”. He believes going to Cambridge did him more harm than good and is equally critical of parents who feel they “have to send their children to private schools” instead of helping to drive up state sector standards.
He quickly reveals that he does not intend to send a copy of the book to David Cameron or Ed Miliband. But does he miss being in politics? “Yes and no – and that means no. You have to want to do it all of the time, because otherwise you can’t. I do miss it, I miss parts of it, but I’m still involved in a much looser and different way.”
Yet Campbell has long been a glass half-full kind of person. His novel refrains from delving into party politics or extended rants, and he eschews the cause célèbre of discussing the provenance of alcohol problems. Instead, he provides a considerably uplifting chronicle of a girl tentatively trying to face up to her excess drinking.
“It is very hard for a ‘middle aged old fart’ to say that young people should never drink, in the way you would definitely say one should never smoke,” explains the 56-year-old, whose three children are all adults. “If you don’t like the taste of drink, don’t drink – and if you do drink, be aware that some of you will develop an addiction.
“I hope people read the novel; I hope people like it and I hope it makes them think. I would advise people to be aware – as I became aware – that addictions can sort of hit anybody, and once you are in the grip of an addiction, it’s very, very, very hard to get out of it.
“My breakdown made me rethink a lot of things, including how political I was. I am still passionate about things but I’m less stressed than I used to be. I am actually a positive person and I have become more so. I am definitely more optimistic, although I think the world is a scarier place than it has been for quite a while.”