A lament for my lost piper
Alastair Campbell was at his brother’s side as he wrestled for years with schizophrenia. Donald died last week. Speaking for the first time about that battle, the former spin doctor tells of a mind and body ravaged but a loving, musical soul undimmed
MY BIG brother died last Tuesday. It was a massive, horrible shock, even though we have always known that people with his condition live on average 20 years less long than the rest of us. My dad lived to 82, my mum to 88. Donald was 62. His condition was schizophrenia.
His illness, not mine, is the real reason I campaign for better understanding and treatment of mental illness, not least because people who have schizophrenia do have such shortened life expectancy.
I talk about my own problems of depression and addiction partly because I am asked to and because I think openness is better all round if we are going to break down the taboo and so win the fight for the services and treatments we need. I never talked about Donald’s illness in public, mainly because our mum didn’t want me to.
That was not out of the shame and stigma that many people sadly still feel attaches to mental illness. She was hugely proud of him for what he managed to achieve despite what he called “this shitty illness”. It was more that, with one son in the media spotlight, she worried that if Donald’s head were in any way above the parapet, it could have made him even more vulnerable.
Donald, on the other hand, was totally up for it. Like a lot of mentally ill people, when he was well he thought he ought to be famous. And when he was ill he thought he already was. In his prime he saw Sean Connery as a suitable actor to play him in the movie of his life. More recently he wondered if George Clooney could do a Scottish accent.
He was competitive about his illness. ‘Saw you on the telly again talking about your psychotic breakdown, Ali. You heard voices once and you’re like Mr Mental Bloody Health. Why don’t they come and talk to a real expert?’ He was certainly an expert on living a good life with severe mental illness.
Our mum having died two years ago, we were planning to make a film together – centred on him – about living with schizophrenia. He had caught the telly bug a bit when we appeared together in a film about bagpipes, one of our shared loves. My daughter Grace, a film student, had begun to record interviews with Donald about the ups and downs in his life since he was first diagnosed while in the Scots Guards in his early twenties.
So he would sit and tell her about the time he was in a waiting room, and the electrical plugs were talking to the lights about him while he was surrounded by people who were all discussing terrible things they were about to do to him. Then he would laugh and say: ‘Absolutely mad, innit, Grace? And look at me sitting here now. Normal or what?’
The problem was that in recent months he had been on oxygen to assist his breathing, so the noisy buzz of his portable oxygen machine was a constant on the soundtrack. We were hoping – alas, in vain – that he would get his breathing sorted and we would make the film free of the buzz and the nasal tube.
Here is the real bastard about his shitty illness: the drugs. Don’t get me wrong. Treatment – in Donald’s case, medication – can often help restore someone to the person they are supposed to be, unclouded by the illness.
Medication helped to give him long periods free of the voices in his head and the hallucinations before his eyes that otherwise reduced him to a sometimes terrified and other times aggressive human being.
He had a marriage, though it didn’t last. He had better luck in work, holding down a job he loved at Glasgow University for 27 years; at his farewell last year – due to physical ill health – the turnout and the warmth were evidence of the huge contribution he had made.
Donald had two main roles at the university: he was the principal’s official piper, who played at dinners, ceremonies and graduations; and he was part of the security team, mainly working at the control point in the university library. It meant he got to know hundreds of students; he loved the banter, taught some of them the pipes and often ordered anyone with feet on a library table to ‘kindly use the carpets’.
Glasgow University was a model employer for someone with severe mental illness, and his role as piper gave him a sense of purpose and status, which he loved. He piped out thousands and thousands of students from their graduations. One of the greatest sadnesses in his life was that latterly, because of his poor breathing, he was unable to play other than on electronic pipes – ‘Second best, Ali, but I’m still better than you.’
The very last time he played the ‘real’ pipes, we performed together at a memorial service for the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who had been rector of the university. ‘Good lad, that Charlie Kennedy – always stopped for a chat.’ He had to give up halfway through to get his breath, and I finished alone.
It didn’t stop him adding this to his brotherly boasts: ‘Did you see Nicola Sturgeon nodding along to my playing? Alex Salmond isn’t the only one who knows I’m a better player than you.’ (Salmond had once said in an interview that Donald was the better player of the two of us – on this, at least, he was right.) Our sibling rivalry went back to the one competition in which I beat him, aged 10 – I got gold; he got bronze – and to his dying day he swore the judges confused us. He was probably right.
So the drugs worked. Kind of. But decades of powerful anti-psychotic medication takes a toll. When it came to ‘normal’ illnesses such as colds and flu and chest infections, the gaps between them became shorter and the quantity of ‘ normal’ drugs required to treat them grew larger.
Added to which, a recent change of his main medication for the schizophrenia – necessary to deal with the physical illness and weight increase – seemed to have sent him haywire mentally. In the end something had to give. His life. It is a source of great sadness that my last conversations were with the psychotic Donald, not the loving, giving, funny Donald who brought so much to our lives by making so much of his own.
Donald Lachlan Cameron Campbell, born May 3, 1954. You’d never guess our parents were Scots, would you, giving their firstborn those names? Donald, our dad’s name. Lachlan, his dad. Cameron, his mother’s maiden name. I got off lightly with Alastair John. Like me and our brother, Graeme, and sister, Liz, Donald was born and raised in England, but an adult life that started in the Scots Guards as a teenager and, once he had been discharged on medical grounds, was lived almost entirely in and around Glasgow – a lot of it in the piping world – meant that he had a 100 per cent Scottish accent (200 per cent when psychotic).
When we were interviewed together for the piping film, the interviewer doubted we were brothers, because although I have tinges of a Scots accent when with Scots, I have lived most of my life in England. We were brothers, all right. Living very different lives. But very close. No death have I ever dreaded more than this one.
He had little interest in politics; even less in sport. His passion was the bagpipes. He joined the army largely so he could be in one of the guards’ bands – he hoped to spend more time piping than soldiering. He was serving in Northern Ireland, however, when his comrades and superiors started to notice that he was behaving strangely.
The next thing we knew, he was in a now- defunct military psychiatric hospital in Netley, Hampshire. When we got the call, I travelled down with my dad. Donald was on his own in a room, bewildered and scared, and had been drawing all sorts of weird things on the walls. Insofar as he spoke, he talked absolute nonsense. My dad and I just stood there, shocked to the core. Those eyes were not the eyes we knew.
It was a tough place. That is no criticism of the doctors and nurses. They were operating at a time when servicemen and women who wanted to leave early had to buy their way out, and so, among the really serious cases evident to all, the medics were on the lookout for people feigning mental illness so as to be discharged.
It was also a time when electric shock therapy was a favoured form of psychiatric treatment, and Donald had his fair share of that. My dad was a self- employed vet and had to get back to work. I was in my late teens, on a long college holiday and decided I wanted to stay down there. I didn’t have a driving licence at the time but went north to collect Donald’s car; I spent my days in the hospital with him and my nights either finding someone to put me up or sleeping in the car.
Donald reciprocated after my own – ‘not as psychotic as mine, Ali’ – breakdown in the 1980s. We went on a road trip, visiting friends and relatives around Britain. He was great company: a strong glue in our close and extended family, and a very loving and supportive brother.
‘I want to kick that Michael Howard’s teeth down his throat,’ he said after a particularly unpleasant attack on me by the former Tory leader. When I say “after”, yes, I mean immediately after, but also one week after, a month, a year, five years after and last month. He really didn’t like people who said bad things about his family. And he loved saying the same things again and again! He had a book full of mantras.
Donald was very clever but not very well educated (the reverse of a lot of people I know). I have no idea when his mind started to go wrong, but I do know that of all of us he was the one who found schoolwork hardest. I’ve often wondered, too, whether those times when he just couldn’t seem to get himself out of bed, which my parents saw as a sign of teenage rebellion, were the first indications of an illness about which we knew absolutely nothing when that call from the military came, a call after which, our mother said many times, her life was never the same again.
He had many doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, and to the end he received fantastic NHS care in several parts of the country and various moments of crisis. One of them once said to me: “Donald is my greatest success story. Keeps his job. Owns his own flat. Drives himself. Stays active. Has a passion for his music. Has more friends than any of us. Has a positive attitude almost all the time.”
That last bit was certainly true. I wrote a book about my depression and called it The
Happy Depressive. If we had ever made the film about Donald, we were going to call it The Happy Schizophrenic.
“It is what it is, Ali. I got given a bit of a crap deal, but you’ve got to make the best of it. Know what I mean?” It helped that, unlike me, he did do God, and his faith was certainly a comfort.
He loved people and he loved life. If there were an extended family vote – I have about 60 cousins – to elect its most popular member, he would have walked it. He worked almost all his life. He didn’t like hospital for all the obvious reasons but also because he didn’t like to be a burden on the NHS, which he felt had already given him more than most.
He adored his nieces and nephews and was obsessed with the idea that he should have something to leave them, even though several of them already earn more than he ever did. He was always a giver.
The piping was a gift from our father, who taught us when we were very young and growing up in Yorkshire. Indeed, if ever I do Desert
Island Discs, the first song will be Donald Campbell by Donald Campbell, a tune written in honour of my dad and played by my brother on one of the CDs he recorded for the university.
For Donald Jr, piping became a lifedefining passion. He competed at a high level. The judges were aware he could sometimes be ‘out of form up top’, as once when my sons, Rory and Calum, and I went to see him in a piobaireachd competition – top-rank stuff. Donald’s mind was wandering, and the judges smiled as he stopped prematurely, said, ‘Bugger it – I was away with the fairies there’, saluted and left the stage.
But he was competing, composing, recording and teaching almost to the end. And though in recent days in hospital he became unusually violent, he could be calmed a little when my sister Liz, the last person to visit him before his respiratory collapse, played to him his piping CDs and he played along with his fingers on the bedside rail.
He lost his mind from time to time. Now, all too young, he has lost his life. But right until the end of it, he never lost the music in his soul. And though the Donald who died was the sick Donald, the workings of his mind divorced from people and events around him – which is what schizophrenia is, not the ‘split personality’ cliché that compounds the stigma – in there somewhere was the real Donald.
The real Donald leaves behind so much grief precisely because he inspired so much love, and gave so much love to so many – not least his little brother.
Donald worked at Glasgow University in a job he loved. He had two main roles at the university, one of which was the principal’s official piper. Donald and Alastair also played the pipes at a memorial for the former MP Charles Kennedy.
Donald Campbell was three years older than his brother Alastair.
Donald was serving in Northern Ireland when his behaviour became strange and he was moved to a military psychiatric hospital.