Alastair Campbell has written a novel about humility. Campbell, the new Labour attack dog, bully boy and Machiavellian master of that new lynchpin of the new political culture, "spin", has channelled his considerable storytelling skills into a novel which pivots on an essay, and then a eulogy, on humility.
"Humility," according to the essay, "is knowing we are all as important to each other. And even the ones we think are really important, the ones we see on the TV or put on the pedestal, in the grand sweep of history, and amid the great forces of nature, they are grains of sand." Prime Ministers, press secretaries, bestselling writers ó all grains of sand. "We can learn humility", the essay continues, "if we learn from mistakes."
The man who opens the door, however, is bullish. Tall and solid and imposing, he radiates the kind of alpha male energy that exploded from the pages of his Diaries, the kind of energy which, according to those diaries, had Diana, Princess of Wales, in thrall. "You can have tea, but if you want coffee weíll have to wait for Fiona to come back," he announces with the bluff lack of ceremony you might expect of a Yorkshire-born tabloid journalist turned parliamentary pit-bull. Five years since he left Downing Street and he hasnít learnt how to make coffee. Alpha male indeed.
I tell him that I liked the novel ó and I did. Clearly drawing on his own experience of depression and mental illness ó experiences he discussed frankly in a recent TV documentary, Cracking Up ó it explores the lives and psyches of a group of characters from wide-ranging backgrounds who are all patients of the same psychiatrist. A young woman whose face has been disfigured in a fire, and a young Kosovan refugee recovering from a rape, struggle to put their lives back together. A man who works in a warehouse battles severe depression. A lawyer tackles what his wife likes to call "sex addiction", a politician combats the stresses of high office with drink, and the psychiatrist himself struggles to help all these people, and to keep his own demons at bay.
While All In the Mind is unlikely to win prizes for its prose style ó which tends towards the workaday ó itís an extremely absorbing, moving and compassionate portrayal of ordinary human beings exhibiting extraordinary courage in challenging circumstances. Its faults are faults of generosity: characters articulate beyond their background, outbreaks of epiphanies when one or two would be doing well. They are faults, in fact, of an excess of optimism, an excess of heart.
"When I left working with Tony and started thinking about what I was going to do for the rest of my life," Campbell volunteers, "I canít pretend that writing novels was on the list. It just sort of came to me, and when it did, I couldnít stop." With the all-consuming drive of the self-confessed obsessive, he was soon leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to flesh out characters and fine-tune dialogue. Once, when driving to Manchester to pick up his son, Calum, from university, inspiration struck on the motorway. "I pulled over at the first service station. All I had was my BlackBerry. I just got lost in it, because the next thing I knew the phone went and it was Calum saying, Where are you?"
Amazingly, he didnít tell anyone what he was doing, but when, after a few months, he showed the first draft to his agent, Ed Victor, his partner, Fiona, and his psychiatrist, the feedback, after the "absolute shock", was "very positive". Later, he sent it to Charlie Falconer, who said "for the first time he got what it feels like to be depressed" and to Stephen Fry, who said "heíd never read anything that communicated quite so well what the human mind is like when itís not in good shape". A verdict, surely, to cheer up the gloomiest of depressives.
In The Blair Years, his gripping chronicle of life patrolling, policing and constructing the corridors of power (which has sold more than 160,000 copies in hardback), his references to his depression tend towards the laconic. "Going bonkers at one Scottish Conference fair enough, but two!" is a typically cryptic allusion to the shadow of mental fragility that always looms; "Both homicidal and suicidal" is a fleeting glimpse of how that terror could be channelled both inwards and outwards. In the novel, characters are encouraged to practise a variety of cognitive techniques: writing lists of wants and needs, pinging elastic bands against their wrists when negative thoughts prevail, and, in one memorable passage, staring at raisins.
Campbell has tried all of these. "Looking at a leaf and seeing it change shape and colour and all that; it doesnít necessarily lead you anywhere, but if you look at it long enough and hard enough, you start to see things differently, you start to feel different... Most of the time," he continues, "I function well and lifeís good and I tick over and do lots of things. And then, every now and then, I just feel like death warmed up and Iíve kind of reached the point now where thereís not much you can do about it. The last period I had was a few days ago."
And how would he answer the question his fictional psychiatrist sets one of his characters? How would he like to be remembered? Thereís a pause. "If your parents," he says in the end, "think you are quite a good child and if your partner thinks that, by and large, on balance, it was better together than apart, and your kids think you were a good parent, I donít think you can do much more than that. I would like people to read this book and think it was a good book. Iíd like to think Iíve got a few more books in me. Iíd like to be remembered for the fact that we took a losing organisation and made it into a winning organisation and that as a result Britain was a better place."
I canít get rid of this niggling feeling that the talents of this fiercely driven, complex, proud and, yes, decent, man ó a man, incidentally, who "believes all of" the essay on humility in his novel, but who also tells me several times how good the novel is ó might be better used in making Britain that "better place". There are lots of novels in the world. There arenít that many Alastair Campbells.
ó By arrangement with The Independent