If only it had stayed ‘all in his mind’

Alastair Campbell’s first novel offers an intriguing peep into New Labour’s view of the human condition: a world in which fucked-up lunatics and victims are governed by other fucked-up lunatics and victims.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Books

You could read Alastair Campbell’s first novel, All in the Mind, in three ways: a(nother) bash at autobiography; an allegory of New Labour; or a not-very-good first novel.

Derek Draper, writing in the Observer, opts for the autobiography and concludes that Campbell does a rather good job: ‘[Campbell’s] descriptions of alcoholism, depression and psychotic breakdown all echo what the record shows were his own demons, but, more generally, the hopelessness and alienation of his characters seem to come from within a part of him, too.’ (1)

On the other side of the political fence, Harry Mount in the Daily Telegraph uses his dislike of Campbell-the-political-operator as a springboard to attack his novel’s absolute lack of literary worth: ‘Because Campbell has spent his life barking orders – broadcasting not receiving – he has none of the skills needed in a novelist: curiosity, observation, interest in the human condition or in another human’s opinion other than how it impacts on himself or his career.’ (2)

As it goes, All In The Mind is pretty dire. Although, unlike Mount, I have read worse novels, as an insight into the human condition it has little to recommend it. But what the former King of Spin does manage to give his readers is an intriguing insight into New Labour’s view of the human condition: a world in which fucked-up lunatics and victims are governed by other fucked-up lunatics and victims, who happen to be richer, more famous, and more repressed.

The bizarre cast of characters gives the first clue that this is not a normal book. The protagonist is a renowned psychiatrist (Professor Martin Sturrock), who is a secret depressive with a penchant for prostitutes. His client list is made up of an alcoholic government minister (the secretary of state for health, no less); a beautiful African sex-traffic victim (whom Sturrock guiltily desires); a Kosovan refugee who made it all the way over to the UK with her husband and child only to be raped in her London flat; a badly disfigured burns victim (who has yet to learn that beauty lies within); a barrister whose occasional affairs lead his wife to diagnose him with sex addiction (which the good professor treats by introducing him to the joys of cycling); and a young man who suffers from serious depression, upon whom the depressed professor develops a relationship of exploitative co-dependency. Lovely.

Over the novel’s 300 pages, we read as the psychiatrist pours his entire Self into his patients (despite apparently not doing much except listening and giving them strange ‘homework’ assignments). They all get better – which, as Derek Draper points out, is a rather optimistic testament to the efficacy of counselling: ‘Six out of six would be an overly ambitious score for any real therapist.’ The psychiatrist, however, continues down his personal spiral of despair. The moral of the story is that we are all flawed, our leaders no less so than ourselves; and that we should recognise the price that they pay for helping us to help ourselves. The human condition is self-loathing, and things getting better is a relative concept. The end.

Following this rather grim read, I turned to Deaf Sentence, the latest novel from the acclaimed writer David Lodge. Like All in the Mind, Deaf Sentence has an autobiographical element, in the narrator’s struggles with his deafness and his elderly father. While there are no prostitutes, rapists or sex addicts, there is an element of perversion in the character of Alex Loom, the unstable PhD student who is researching the subject of suicide notes and offers herself up to be spanked by grey-haired academics.

But there the similarities end. Unlike All in the Mind, Deaf Sentence is an extremely good novel, a poignant investigation into the gradual blows of ageing and incapacity upon a linguistics professor (Desmond Bates) whose sharpness of intellect is at odds with the dullness of his hearing and the domestication of his life. Though the book contains an ongoing grumble that while ‘blindness is tragic, deafness is comic’, Lodge’s rendition of the world of the hearing-impaired is very, very funny. Take this little drinks-party exchange:

Then Sylvia Cooper, wife of the former Head of History, engaged me in one of those conversations in which your interlocutor says something that sounds like a quotation from a Dadaist poem, or one of Chomsky’s impossible sentences, and you say ‘What?’ or ‘I beg your pardon?’ and they repeat their words, which make a banal sense the second time round.

‘The pastime of the dance went to pot’, Sylvia Cooper seemed to say, ‘so we spent most of the time in our shit, the cows’ in-laws finding they stuttered.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘I said, the last time we went to France it was so hot we spent most of the time in our gîte, cowering indoors behind the shutters.’

‘Oh, hot, was it?’ I said. ‘That must have been the summer of 2003.’

‘Yes, we seared our arses on bits of plate, but soiled my cubism, I’m afraid.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘We were near Carcasonne. A pretty place, but spoiled by tourism, I’m afraid.’

‘Ah, yes, it’s the same everywhere these days’, I said sagely.

‘But I do mend sherry. Crap and sargasso pained there, you know. There’s a lovely little mum of modern tart.’

‘Sherry?’ I said hesitantly.

‘Céret, it’s a little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees’, said Mrs Cooper with a certain impatience. ‘Braque and Picasso painted there. I recommend it.’

‘Oh yes, I’ve been there’, I said hastily. ‘It has a rather nice art gallery.’

‘The mum of modern tart.’

‘Quite so’, I said. I looked at my glass. ‘I seem to need a refill. Can I get you one?’

With its core themes of death, decay and incomprehension, Deaf Sentence is not exactly a laugh-out-loud read. But Lodge’s ability to depict human warmth and humour in the most sombre of moments makes this a sensitive, life-affirming novel about the journey towards the end. ‘You could say that birth itself is a sentence of death – I expect some glib philosopher has said it somewhere – but it is a perverse and useless thought’, muses Professor Bates. ‘Better to dwell on life, and try to value the passing time.’

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and editor of the new website Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

All in the Mind: A Novel, by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge is published by Harvill Secker. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Inside the sick world of the spin doctor, Observer, 9 November 2008

(2) All in the Mind by Alastair Campbell – review, Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2008

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Topics Books


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