Dorling Kindersley, £25. HER sleek black outline set off against the Fifties’ New York skyline, USS Nautilus comes up for air at the height of the Cold War.
The world’s first nuclear-powered submarine is one of the thousands of boats and warships that are chronicled in RG Grant’s Battle At Sea, Dorling Kindersley’s guide to 3,000 years of naval warfare.
From Minoan galleys to the aircraft carriers of the Iraq War via Viking longboats and Nelson’s HMS Victory, it takes readers through the evolution of war at sea.
Blending contemporary photos, with DK’s trademark graphics and maps, it provides a window on a form of warfare that shaped the world – and the British Empire in particular. ALL IN THE MIND By Alastair Campbell
LIKE most bullies, Alastair Campbell dons the mantle of victimhood when he comes under fire. Notorious for his foul-mouthed aggression, tribalism and manipulation of the truth in his role as Labour’s chief spin doctor under Tony Blair, Campbell has noisily wallowed in self-pity over his mental health problems, including depression and alcoholism.
Campbell’s narcissism is all too reminiscent of an angry toddler who bursts into tears when challenged about the mayhem caused by his behaviour. Yet, with typical egotism, he thinks that his experience entitles him to act as a kind of mental health crusader.
This novel, as he has stated, is supposed to be part of campaign to “raise awareness” of mental illness. There are two serious problems with this approach. The first is that Campbell’s own unpleasant personality and dubious record hardly make him the ideal advocate to win sympathy for the afflicted. The second is that novels with a tub-thumping political message rarely work. This dreary, clicheridden, banal and repetitive book certainly does not.
It needs an author of acute sensitivity and imagination to write well about mental illness but, as he showed in his diaries about the Blair years, Campbell is neither a great stylist nor an original thinker. The result is this novel; full of clunking prose, cardboard characters, endless passages of tiresome introspection, unconvincing dialogue and a string of politically correct pieties.
In the run-up to the novel’s launch, Campbell has been bragging: “I know I’ve written a good book.” This boastfulness reflects his arrogance and lack of genuine self-awareness, implying that anyone who fails to be moved by his supposed literary brilliance must be motivated only by political spite.
The central figure in the novel is an eminent psychiatrist, Professor Martin Sturrock, and the plot revolves around his often complex relationships with his clients, who include a burns victim, an immigrant who has been raped, a warehouse porter with serial depression, a Cabinet minister descending into chronic alcoholism and an African woman who is trying to escape prostitution.
Professor Sturrock has some potential as a character, for his life is dominated by a crushing paradox. At work he is regarded as the wise healer but at home, his marriage is falling apart and he is barely able to communicate with his wife or family. Moreover, his dwindling domestic sex life has led him to resort to prostitutes, which makes it impossible for him to treat his African client effectively.
The events of the book take place over a single weekend, as Sturrock’s life begins to collapse under the weight of its contradictions. But what might have been a gripping story is dragged down by the leaden style, riddled with platitudes and long-winded descriptions of darkening moods.
In addition, too many of the secondary characters seem little more than cut-outs from the metropolitan template of political correctness. So we have the kind-hearted Muslim shopkeeper who had to put up with racial abuse and the hardworking Kosovans whose child is harassed by a white child.
The only moments the book really comes to life is when Campbell is dealing with the downfall of the drink-soaked politician. Suddenly there is pace, narrative and humour.
But perhaps the greatest failure lies in the portrayal of Sturrock himself. He is presented as some sort of therapeutic genius, admired by an army of clients and sought by the Government for his advice. Yet his methods seem absurd, consisting of exhortations to think positively or demands that his clients write down their dreams. In one grotesque incident, he urges the rape victim to forgive her assailant.
But then forgiveness is one of the underlying themes of this novel. Perhaps, in an unconscious way, Campbell wants the British public to forgive him for the way he degraded our public life.
BATTLE AT SEA By RG Grant JOHN INGHAM Defence Editor