Monday, August 13, 2007

Crab, crab, I can't eat crab

John Lanchester at the LRB on Alastair Campbell's diaries:
It is worth noticing how accurate Blair’s sense of the press-government relationship is: it makes you wonder, if he saw things so clearly, how on earth he could have put Campbell in charge. There is a structural problem with the government and the press; there is a historical problem with Labour and the press; so this was always going to be a tricky subject for Labour in office. Who to put in charge of this complex, delicate area? I know: let’s find our angriest, shoutiest, most tribal, most aggressive party loyalist. As Craig Brown joked in the Mail on Sunday, it is as if, instead of turning to Doctor Watson for advice, Sherlock Holmes had instead consulted the Hound of the Baskervilles. Campbell is a political journalist who, as part of a not-all-that-complex self-loathing, despises political journalists, a recovering drunk of the type that is angry with everybody all the time, a foul-mouthed natural bully who genuinely hated most of the people it was his job to deal with on a daily basis, and made no secret of it. ¡Olé! Sign him up!

Reading the Diaries, one has to remind oneself that in terms of Blair’s relations with the public, the book mostly covers the good years, when we more or less still believed him. You would never know that from reading Campbell. Right from the start he is boiling with rage. Barely a page passes without someone being called a twat, prat, cunt or wanker. He combines a remorselessly tribal and one-sided approach with a complete conviction about his own high moral purpose. All this adds up to his being, in the phrase of Charles Moore, ‘the most pointlessly combative person in human history’. At one point someone at the Downing Street switchboard, ‘at the end of a not untypical day’, makes the mistake of asking him how he is, and Campbell replies that he feels ‘both homicidal and suicidal’. He means it, too. All this makes his Diaries a strange read, because they are interesting, indeed fascinating, in many of their details, yet draining and demoralising in their cumulative effect. Reading this book is like standing listening to someone ranting and jabbing their finger in your chest, for hours, but saying something really interesting every ten minutes or so. As for the idea that relations with the press went horribly wrong – well, with a man who so hated the press in charge, how else could they possibly have gone?
And here's a particularly good bit (I almost am going to read this book myself...):
One of Campbell’s foci is ‘TB’s terrible sense of style, e.g. the awful pullover he wore on his walk with Bush and the dreadful creation he wore on the plane’. This becomes a running gag. ‘TB was wearing Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilac-coloured pyjama-style trousers and a blue smock. After GB left, I said he looked like Austin Powers. He said you are the second person today who’s said that.’ The next day: ‘Up to see TB in the flat. Another Austin Powers moment. Yellow/green underpants and that was it. I said what a prat he looked. He said I was just jealous – how many prime ministers have got a body like this?’ There is a flirtatious edge to this. Martin Amis, in a piece reporting on Blair’s last weeks in office, also described himself flirting with Blair. Some men have that effect on other men; it’s not a gay thing exactly, but it’s not the opposite of a gay thing, and there is something faintly homoerotic about the governmental milieu described here, full of dark-haired men shouting at each other, TB and AC and PM and GB all coming to blows (Mandelson v. Campbell in the course of an argument about whether Blair should wear a tie), bursting into tears, having make-up heart-to-hearts, saying bitchy things about each other behind each others’ backs, and ruthlessly doing each other down while secretly knowing that they are mutually dependent. Anyone being sent to a girls’ boarding school would do well to prepare by reading The Blair Years. The cover photo is part of this, Blair looking up at Campbell with an expression of submissive yearning that verges on the pornographic.

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