x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

It's first person now

Alastair Campbell talks about life away from the political spotlight and explains why he made his new novel a story about the pressures of celebrity.

Maya, by Alastair Campbell, focuses on the pitfalls of modern celebrity.
Maya, by Alastair Campbell, focuses on the pitfalls of modern celebrity.

Alastair Campbell's voice is hoarse from cheering his beloved Burnley Football Club to an ignominious defeat at the hands of Fulham. A round of television and radio interviews about his latest book has also contributed to the gravelly tones. Apart from that, he's buoyant, relaxed and completely recovered from his recent "Diana moment" when he appeared on the verge of an emotional breakdown during questioning on live television.

The extraordinary moment - six seconds to be precise - happened on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show when the former Downing Street communications chief was being questioned about whether Tony Blair, the prime minister and his boss, had misled the House of Commons in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Campbell was invited on to the Sunday-morning show to talk about his new novel, Maya, but says he was expecting to be grilled about Iraq and the Chilcot Inquiry. His reaction he says was "sheer exasperation" at being asked the same questions again and again by people who "are not listening to the answers".

So what exactly was going through the mind of the man who was occasionally described as the prime minister's rottweiler during the Blair years from 1994 until 2003, when he resigned during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly. Campbell says that at first he though he was experiencing a repeat performance of the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1986. "It crossed my mind that it was happening again. I thought about saying things about the hypocrisy of the media from people who would not stand up to two minutes of the kind of scrutiny we get. I then thought about whacking him but that would have been a bit unfair because it wasn't an unfair question and I had predicted it.

"I wondered if my mum was watching. I did have this moment thinking 'this is really weird'. I've never felt this in an interview before. When I had my breakdown it was in private, but this was happening live on television. I said to myself, 'I don't care how long it takes. I'm not going to speak till I'm ready.' It was only about six seconds but on television it felt like a long time." Marr's line was clear when he introduced Campbell as having written a "new work of fiction", a barbed reference to the notorious "dodgy dossier" compiled as evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When he suggested that Blair had lied to parliament, Campbell started to reply and then appeared to struggle for breath.

Campbell describes the conversation as "a dialogue of the deaf." He utterly rejects the comment of another political reporter that he was "road-testing" the current prime minister Gordon Brown's "strategy to be more emotional during his interview with Piers Morgan, clearly ridiculous as Brown had already recorded that interview by then". "What I think it was about was that it was a moment of complete exasperation where I suddenly realised I was being asked these questions for the millionth time and the guy asking it was one of the people who represents this new media culture and its smugness, sanctimoniousness and self-serving nature, who couldn't care less about the answer," he says.

"It's all about impact and there is no real interest in issues. When I finally pulled myself together, he then threw out this figure of 600,000 deaths in Iraq as an official UN figure and that's just a complete lie, a total and complete fabrication." What threatens to become a tirade against the media suddenly runs out of steam and Campbell is back to his new, more relaxed self, charming the attractive female presenter who is about to interview him and enjoying the attention of make-up women and assistants fluttering around him. Life after politics is clearly agreeing with him although he misses the high-octane buzz of Westminster.

As a former political reporter who left journalism to work for Blair in 1994 when he became leader of the Labour Party, he says he doesn't hate the press as is often claimed, although the focus of Maya is about the media obsession with celebrity and involves some unflattering portraits of reporters and journalism. In one chapter, a story about Robert Mugabe and elections in Zimbabwe is bounced off the television news in favour of news that the actress in the story had split with her husband.

"It's not a polemic about the media. When I was at Sky the other day doing Adam Boulton's show the producer had read it and said, 'I'd love to say your portrayal of Sky is inaccurate but it's absolutely spot on.' They would be more interested in the Maya story than one about Mugabe. That's just the world we're in," says Campbell. "I don't hate the press as a whole but there are some journalists I hate and I hate the Daily Mail. I think that what it does to the British mindset is revolting. I hate what the media culture has become. There's no point saying it's his fault or it's her fault. It's just what's happened. With technological change, industrial change, the whole Murdoch thing, it has changed. What I can't stand is the ones who refuse to acknowledge that, like the guys at the BBC who go around pretending they're independent, fair minded and really seeking after the truth and the reason that I lost it with Marr the other day was because it suddenly dawned on me that they really don't care about the truth at all, otherwise he wouldn't have made some of the ludicrous claims he made in his questions."

So why did the arch-manipulator and spin doctor decide to turn his hand to writing novels? Maya is his second; the first, All in the Mind, dealt with mental illness and alcoholism. "I didn't actually decide to write a novel. The idea for All in the Mind literally just fell into my head when I was on my bike and I saw something happen. I had this idea that would make an interesting end for a novel. It's about a psychiatrist who goes crazy. I started to write it and about two thirds of the way through I had this idea for the second one. The impulse for it came when I was out with my daughter Grace.

"We were in a restaurant and she was getting really agitated about a couple of people who were looking at me. You can always tell when people are talking about you. We started having a discussion about whether it was possible to be well-known and have a life and if somebody like David Beckham suddenly decided he didn't want to be famous, could he go away somewhere and be forgotten? "I started writing it as a third-person narrative where Maya was the main character and it was all about these friendships and family relationships and how they changed with her fame. Then I went back and redid it as a first-person narrative by her childhood friend Steve. It just became a portrayal of fame and all the new stuff that you have to deal with if you become a megastar, like agents, money, wealth and this pervasive 24-hour media interest in you.

"Maya isn't the most loveable person but she's not horrible. I could imagine how people could become like that. Steve has a very ordinary life and a nice ordinary wife and job. The one thing in his life that makes him special is Maya, but he doesn't like to admit that. He is constantly portraying himself and her in really distorted prisms. His portrayal of himself and her isn't real." Inevitably Campbell, 52, who was born in Yorkshire, the son of a Scottish veterinary surgeon now deceased, drew from his own experience and the reactions of Maya's parents to her fame echoes those of his own parents.

"Some of my favourite bits in the book are about her parents and how they can't really understand it. I think that's definitely something out of my life. My dad got it on an intellectual level but my mum to this day can't understand why it's in the news. Maya's parents say that people kept coming in with cuttings from the Daily Mail. That happens to my mum all the time. She gets upset sometimes." Campbell admits that his family suffered a great deal because of his high profile. He met his partner, Fiona Millar, during his journalism training days in the West Country. They have three children, Rory, 22, Calum, 20, and Grace, 16.

"During the Hutton Inquiry it was absolutely terrible. Fiona just hated it. She was getting horrible letters saying 'what's it like living with a murderer?' and all sorts of really bad stuff and the kids were getting one or two letters and we had war protesters chasing Grace down the street. They were giving her photos of dead kids that had been gassed in Halabja and saying 'your dad did this'." The day that Kelly died was quite simply "the worst day of the lot without a doubt."

He says that his relationship with Millar became very difficult during his years as Blair's spokesman and her appointment as adviser to Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife, was part of a plan to make her feel more involved. "We got on very badly for a long time. She hated it when I worked for Tony. When she went to work for Cherie it was partly to make her feel more involved and she did a very good job for Cherie for a long time, but the thing about modern politics is that it's so all-consuming and invasive. You can't get away from it. She doesn't really like it when I'm high-profile and out there.

"The kids were brilliant and it must have been quite hard for them, particularly leading up to Iraq because I obviously supported the government policy and Fiona didn't. We used to argue about that, we used to argue about Tony and Cherie and whether I should stay or go. I felt she was pressurising me to leave all the time. "I can remember during Kosovo I was virtually living in Brussels and then in Kosovo. Every time I left the house the atmosphere was virtually ice. It was just constant pressure because 24/7 you are thinking about it. You're always away and even when you're at home, your mind was away. If not, you just don't stay on top of it.

"So it was tricky for a long time. I think we are more understanding of each other now. We're pretty good these days. We do get on very well." Millar, a committed educationalist and vice-chair of Comprehensive Future, an organisation that promotes comprehensive schools in the UK, helped him through his breakdown 24 years ago when pressure of work and heavy drinking forced him to seek medical help. Years later he talked about his problems frankly in a television documentary about mental health.

"When I did that documentary about the breakdown I hadn't realised the effect it had on her because in my head it was all about me. It was only when I saw Fiona's interview that I realised that it can't have been very nice for her. So many people wouldn't have stuck around. There was a sense of helplessness and she said she didn't really know what was going on and she talked about how it affected her physically.

"I only started getting regular treatment when she went to the doctor because her face seized up and the doctor asked her if there was anything going on in her life. She burst into tears and she said 'Alastair's had this breakdown and he won't get help.' I'd never even met my GP before but he became a really good friend." Today the pressure is off and life is calmer, although less exciting. Campbell, who has a lucrative income from public-speaking engagements and from writing, and is an active fund-raiser for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, says he does not want a full-time job although he has had several offers.

He says he is comfortably off and has never been motivated by money. "Life is better now but less fulfilling. I feel incredibly lucky about the sort of life I lead now. I don't see why anybody needs more than one house or more than one car. I'm not going to pretend I'm a pauper or that I don't like having nice holidays, but I've no desire to be a multimillionaire." He does not, however, rule out a return to politics. He is already helping Brown in the runup to the imminent general election and is in daily communication, contributing ideas for speeches, strategies and lines of attack. He says that although Labour will be "the underdogs" they could still pull off a fourth election victory because the Tories are "vulnerable and flaky".

"I would go back into government but I really don't want to do anything full-time. I have been offered all sorts of jobs in the corporate world. I have said to Gordon I think it wouldn't be good for me so therefore it's not going to be great for him if I wasn't happy. You're back to making sacrifices that affect the family and back to constant stress and not eating and sleeping properly." His relationship with Brown is not as close as it was with Blair but he is happy to contribute and says the prime minister seems to value his frankness.

"There were times when Gordon could be really difficult when I was with Tony. When I see him now I'm able to be very frank with him and he respects that and I hope I can help him. I've talked to him about the election and told him frankly that we are the underdogs, there's no doubt about it. "I've told him that right from the top to the bottom of the Labour party we've just got to have more confidence. We have gone through a very bad patch with the expenses thing, the economic crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of difficult stuff going on. But we won three elections and did things like getting peace in Northern Ireland, so the good things far outweigh the bad."

?Maya by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson and available in the UAE this week at Magrudy's bookshops, Dh72.