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Alastair Campbell and All in the Mind

In 1986 whilst working for the now ex-newspaper Today, journalist Alastair Campbell suffered a mental breakdown.  This would have remained a relatively private affair, but Campbell’s subsequent role as Tony Blair’s right hand man has meant that it has since become the second most famous mental health breakdown by a figure in current British public life*.  But there’s a happy ending: twenty-three years later, Campbell has not only become an extremely prominent public figure but has recently won the Mind Champion award for his work to reduce stigma surrounding mental health problems.  As well as representing the anti-mental health stigma campaign Time to Change, his contribution has included the BBC2 documentary ‘Cracking up’, and the novel ‘All in the Mind’.  Accounts of Mr Campell’s breakdown can be found on the internet, of which Wikipedia, One in Four magazine and a Ruby Wax interview provide four viewpoints.

For my part, and as part of my ongoing project to read every book about mental health ever written, I have just finished Mr Campbell’s abovementioned novel ‘All in the Mind’.  A curious book, and mostly dreadful, it takes place over three days in the life of reputable psychiatrist Professor Martin Sturrock.  Although highly regarded by his patients and colleagues, protagonist Sturrock is a man on the verge of a crisis, his mood nosediving and no less in need than his patients; his personal life is a mess; he is distant from his children, semi-estranged from his wife/in love with a patient and has a penchant for visiting prostitutes.

Besides breathing and standing up straight, Sturrock’s psychiatric work is the only thing he seems to be able to do to his own satisfaction.  Perhaps because of this he feels toward his patients a great responsibility and he is reluctant to cancel their appointments under any circumstances.  The book opens with Sturrock fretting over the consultations he has that day with five people whose own stories are subsequently woven amongst that of Sturrock’s throughout the book: a disfigured young lady, a mood disordered young man, a former victim of sex trafficking, an alcoholic cabinet minister and a straying husband.   Outside these consultations Sturrock’s boundaries with his patients are blurred and during them his methods unorthodox, with his enthusiasm for dream interpretation and conspiracy to mislead a patient’s wife examples.  Sturrock’s patients take his sessions very much to heart, and his sage pronouncements and homework assignments – which they are expected to email to him the night before their appointments – dominate their lives.

Occasionally All in the Mind’s simple tales of the woe are rather touching and the plot as a conceit is not a terrible one, but the central problem is that Campbell’s prose basically lacks the dexterity to convincingly render his characters’ mental states on the page and more than once the writing was so leaden that I wondered whether a blood vessel might burst in my eye.  A brilliant study of depression this is not, despite Campbell’s first hand experience. Furthermore, although it would be a mistake to come down on a work of fiction too hard for lack of verisimilitude, I do wonder whether Campbell has talked to a psychiatrist about what the job is actually like; Sturrock’s enmeshment with his patients is never criticised and his clinical unorthodoxy never acknowledged, the narrative being purely concerned with the tale of an excellent psychiatrist whose deftness with patients contrasts his own inner turmoil.  Campbell even goes so far as to suggest that psychiatrists have mind reading powers:

She would tell herself he was the psychiatrist not her.  He was the one who understood the human mind, not her

***PLOT SPOILER: do not read on if you intend to read this book***

As it informs the experience of the rest of the book I cannot but mention the ending.  During the closing chapters Sturrock’s depression takes a sudden, and frankly unlikely, turn for the worse and a florid psychosis leads to his death as he steps in front of a lorry.  Campbell then uses this tragedy to set up a mawkish and contrived ending, as before he dies Sturrock sends a text message to his wife asking that the patients about which we have read should make speeches at his funeral.  They duly do, and the church is unexpectedly full of people Sturrock has formerly treated, all wiping tears from their eyes.

The coffin was carried out.  Hundreds of mourners, many in tears rose to their feet as Mrs Sturrock and her family filed out behind it: pew upon pew of flawed people come to bid farewell to a man who healed many of them; who preached forgiveness, but could not forgive himself

Oh dear.  Campbell is a novelist only for the most undemanding reader.  He clearly feels grateful for the help he has received in the past, but I fear this is not the way to show it.

Other reviews:

Byron Rogers The mannekins don’t walk The Spectator 12 November 2008
Peter Kemp All in the Mind review Times Online November 2nd 2008
Sahmeer Rahmi All in the Mind review Telegraph 6 November 2008
Derek Draper Inside the sick world of the spin doctor Guardian 9 November 2008 – a notably more positive review than the rest, from the former labour insider turned psychotherapist before he revisited disgrace.
There was a positive review in the British Journal of Psychiatry (paywall)

*Can you guess which the best known one is?

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  1. I would say that Stephen Fry’s breakdown was more famous, but I might be wrong.

    I am pleased that Alastair Campbell is proselytising for mental health, but I cannot forgive him for his complicity in the Iraq war (guilty in my judgement) or in the events leading up to the death of Dr David Kelly.

    Derek Draper is scarcely credible any more, so a review by him should be printed on Andrex.

  2. “Derek Draper reviews Alaistair Cambpell’s book”. I can honestly say that is the least enticing description of a piece of writing I have read this year.

  3. In fact I would rather read the back of an old pack of playing cards that happens to be lying on my desk. Plastic coated and security sealed? Fascinating.

  4. i dont think anybody could possibly desire such a illness such as depression
    and its not all in the mind