Camp­bell’s lament

Daily Express - - BOOKS -

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.

LEO McKINSTRY

BAT­TLE AT SEA By RG Grant JOHN ING­HAM De­fence Ed­i­tor

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