With high-profile careers in journalism and politics punctuated by personal battles with alcoholism and depression, Alastair Campbell is now making a name for himself as an issue-led novelist writing books based on his experiences. He spoke to Nottingham Confidential about his latest novel about a teenage alcoholic, his upcoming talk at Nottingham Playhouse and how he feels about TV character Malcolm Tucker being based on him.
Whilst his debut novel All in the Mind was based primarily on the theme of depression, Alastair Campbell's latest book My Name Is... revolves around an intricately-formed and vividly disturbing story about a teenage girl's heart-rending descent into alcoholism. The novel follows an imaginative and original structure with each chapter voiced by a different character in the girl's life, most of whom are women, and who are written in a convincing emotionally-charged style.
"With the novel, I didn't want to preach, I wanted to tell a story. I think the story is real and I think people will identify with it, even though she's a teenager and that's very young to have a drink problem. The first time I ever had a doctor warn me that I was drinking too much I was 17 and she said, you know, I think you need to be careful because it could escalate into a problem - and it did. Of course I got through university fine, I got through my journalistic career fine and it wasn't till I had a breakdown that I realised I had to do something about it. I wonder if that's why I've written it as a teenager - the whole thing about the creative process is so weird, you just don't know where these characters come from.
"I think of alcohol in terms of a relationship. The book tells the story from when the main character, Hannah, was born and it charts her relationship with her family and friends but the thing that's driving her on is her relationship with alcohol." One of the most shocking passages in the book sees Hannah describe her worst drinking session, a "24-carat, full-on bender" in which she lists a jaw-dropping, mind-numbing, seemingly inexhaustible binge of chasers, pints, cans, shots, bottles of wine, cider and champagne - plus mini-bar. "That is quite autobiographical, that sense of, you set out with the best of intentions, you have one and then another and suddenly there's a spiral and before you know you're completely out of control. One of the people I've dedicated the book to is somebody who picked me off the floor of the buffet at Peterborough railway station when I was a student and I hadn't got a clue how I got there."
Known probably most famously for his role as Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, does he feel politicians should be doing more about the drink culture? "Definitely and I never really understood why we did the whole changing of the licensing laws. People called it 24 hour drinking, it's not 24 hour drinking, but we did relax the licensing laws and I never quite bought the idea that Britain was going to end up like Spain and Italy where people sat around drinking coffee and maybe having the odd glass of wine. I think we are a drinking culture but I think it's got worse. If you go into any A&E not just at the weekend, any night of the week, you're basically seeing people who have drink problems, and what happens is they get patched up and get put out again. And if you think about an individual drink problem, it only stops being a problem potentially when you admit it is a problem and I think as a country we have to take the same approach, we do have a problem. The book isn't a political tract but I am going to go to the party conferences and talk about it because Cameron said he was going to do the minimum unit pricing and he backed out of it."
But can he see Britain's entrenched drinking culture ever actually changing? "Well it's interesting, if you look at smoking, back when I was a journalist in the Daily Mirror newsroom in a fog of tobacco, if you'd have said then, can you imaging this ever changing, we'd have said no, because this is part of the culture. And look at it now, it's totally changed. When the Irish government were the first to bring in the smoking ban in pubs, I can remember thinking bloody hell, this is a bit of a risk! But actually, we ended up doing the same. So if you look at France who are now banning alcohol advertising at sports venues, the total ban on alcohol advertising in Norway, Russia's ban on all alcohol advertising on TV, radio, internet and public transport and Ireland is reviewing whether to ban sports sponsorship, as other countries do it, I think we maybe will do it. But I think one of the reasons behind writing the novel is trying to answer that question, I think we have to start thinking about why we do have such a drinking culture. I don't know the answer, I don't know if it's because we're unhappy, because of the climate, whether it's the power of marketing, I just don't know. Everybody's doing it and I always feel that Britain is a very, very hard country not to drink in. You're abnormal if you don't drink as opposed to being abnormal if you do."
Nottingham Playhouse will be hosting An Evening With Alastair Campbell on September 7, so what can we expect to hear him talking about at the event?" I'd like to talk about the book, I'd like to talk about the issue and then throw it open to the public and talk about anything at all. I'm not primarily known as a writer, I'm known because of politics and all the rest of it and I'm perfectly happy to talk about that but I really do want to talk about this book, it's an important story to tell."
And does he know Nottingham at all? "I do, I know Nottingham because I've been to a few test matches at Trent Bridge, I've been to a lot of Burnley football matches, both at the City Ground and Meadow Lane, my mum doesn't live that far away, she lives over in Retford, so I know it reasonably well, and the other connection is Nigel Doughty the Forest owner who sadly died last year, was a very good friend of mine."
And finally, it has been said that the TV character, legendary swear-meister Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It, is loosely based on him. Is that something that's OK with him? "Yeah!" he laughs. "Absolutely fine. Although it's really funny, my mum reads all my books she really hates the fact that I'm swearing in this book, but I think the Malcolm Tucker thing's fine, especially now he's Doctor Who. I can't pretend to know much about Doctor Who but I do think he's a great actor. I think the Malcolm Tucker character is brilliant and I don't have a problem with that at all."
An Evening With Alastair Campbell is at Nottingham Playhouse Saturday September 7 2013. Tickets priced £15 can be booked here
My Name Is... by Alastair Campbell is available to pre-order for 12 September 2013 here
Article by Nottingham Confidential / 19th August 2013
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