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BY NICOLETTE SHEEHAN THE BIG INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR CAMPBELL


Most famously known as Tony Blair’s right-hand man, the spin doctor turned novelist highlights teenage alcohol issues in his new book. It was a psychotic episode in 1986 that exposed his own addiction...


A


lastair Campbell, former Mirror Political Editor and Tony Blair’s Director of Communications, was just 13


when he first got drunk. Over the next decade, throughout grammar school, a degree at Cambridge University and a rapid rise through the ranks from a trainee journalist on local papers in the West Country to news editor on Today, Campbell continued to drink, all the while hiding the true extent of his problem from his friends and family. At the age of 26, while covering Neil


Kinnock’s visit to Glasgow, he suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown. During treatment he realised that he had a serious alcohol problem and was suffering from depression and he stopped drinking, counting each day without alcohol until he had reached the thousands. Campbell returned to Fleet Street,


and, working his way up from a lowly position, he rebuilt his career before joining Tony Blair as probably the country’s best known spin doctor. He resigned in 2003 during the Hutton Inquiry. As well as TV appearances, including Jamie’s Dream School where he taught teenagers about politics, Campbell has published ten books. His latest, My Name Is…, is a novel about Hannah, a teenage alcoholic.


You’ve led a varied and eventful life so far, Alastair. But did you ever think you would be a respected novelist? Not really, but I’ve always written a lot. As a child I used to write all the time, poems, letters, songs. I’ve always been interested in words. I was really surprised when I wrote my first novel. I didn’t expect it to happen. The other day, The Guardian said I’d become a ‘proper novelist’. I don’t know what that means but I certainly enjoy it.


34 WINTER 2013 pta.co.uk


Have you completely turned your back on journalism and politics? No. At the moment I do loads of different things. I still do political work – I advise quite a few overseas governments and political parties. I have a consultancy with a PR company and I do charity stuff. I don’t do anything full time. But when I write, and when I wrote My Name Is…, it was full on. The nice thing about the life I have now is that I have freedom and flexibilty so that when I decide to do something, I can sort of chuck everything else down and do it.


Your problems with alcohol are well documented – why did you choose to write about a teenage girl rather than having a main character who is, for example, a family man in the public eye? I don’t really know the answer to that. I think one of the most interesting things about the creative process is you don’t know where it all comes from. It just happens. I’d actually been trying to write a book about alcohol for some time and I just couldn’t get going on it. And then one day the first line of the book literally just dropped into my head and I’d found it. And then the other characters came. Even when I first started I thought I’d have a number of narrators and I’d keep coming back to them. But then about four or five chapters in I thought, ‘I wonder if I could do it without coming back to any of them’, so every chapter has a different narrator. The publisher said they’ve never heard of that being done before.


Are any of the characters based on anyone you know? Not really. Well maybe a few people – the journalist Jonathan, the lawyer, the magistrate. But what’s really interesting is that when you get into it, the characters


develop in your head. I do a lot of my thinking when I’m out on my bike and the reason I’ve set all three of my novels in the same part of North London, is that I go out on the bike and I find places. For example, the scene when Hannah goes out on a bender and ends up going to a hotel with the Irish boy. That came to me when I was out on the bike and I suddenly realised that every few seconds I was seeing somewhere that sold alcohol; an off-licence, or a pub, or a restaurant, or a supermarket, and I had the idea that it would be a great place for a bender because she can do it all on one road. The characters become real to you. I even took pictures of where Hannah lived and when I was writing, I had them in front of me. I think it helps if you know an area and you know the people.


Do you think your experience of working as a teacher on Jamie’s Dream School inspired you to write about young people and alcohol? No, but I’ll tell you what was interesting – I asked them to work on a campaign and one of the topics they wanted to address was the legalisation of marijuana. When I said, ‘I’m not sure about drugs’, they said, ‘Alcohol is a far bigger problem than drugs’. I’m not saying that’s what made me think of the book but it did spark a lot of discussion and debate. And I do think that it is now a far bigger problem in Britain than drugs and we don’t pay it enough attention.


What did you learn from the classroom experience – do you fancy a career in teaching? I did enjoy it, but it’s fair to say it made me think a little differently about a lot of things. I’ve always had a lot of respect for teachers, I quite liked most of my teachers at school, but it was tough. I


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