In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Help-SelfJenny Diski

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
All in the Mind 
by Alastair Campbell.
Hutchinson, 297 pp., £17.99, November 2008, 978 0 09 192578 9
Show More
Show More

I recently received an email headed ‘Literature and Madness Network’ inviting me to the ‘1st Seminar of the Madness and Literature Network’, which is to culminate in the ‘1st International Conference in Health Humanities’ in 2010. Leave aside the use of the word ‘network’, and the mystery of ‘Health Humanities’: at least the upshot is a conference, which is something I can grasp. What got me stuck for a moment was the Literature and Madness of the subject line, and the Madness and Literature in the body of the email. I find I’m always pretty near the edge of Alice’s rabbit hole, but the apparent randomness of Literature and Madness and Madness and Literature – the ‘do cats eat bats or bats eat cats’ quality of the switch – almost had me tumbling. Which? Does it mean what it says or say what it means? Does it matter? Carroll says: ‘As she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t matter much which way she put it.’ Well, it does matter, I think, though I’m not totally sure. One seems to be a category (unfortunately) within the discipline of literature, while the other suggests two equal but different disciplines. Still, I’m at a loss to know what question is asked by either. But then I read the seminar title, ‘Fat beyond the Call of Duty: The Nature in Power within Psychiatry’, and I quite lost my footing. There are certain verbal nonsenses that induce the feeling – check the marmalade on the shelves and practise curtseying for when you land – that Alice experienced. Just close enough to sense and yet entirely meaningless. Unless, that is, I’ve drifted into a state where the sense of the world no longer functions: if it persists we call it madness. I was saved by changing the t in ‘fat’ to an r, and replacing ‘in’ with ‘of’. ‘Far beyond the Call of Duty: The Nature of Power within Psychiatry’. Typos can be dangerous. Reality may not be as exciting, but finding it can be a great relief to a troubled mind.

I describe this passing moment partly as an example of how easy it is to lose one’s bearings about what makes sense, but also, quite gratuitously, to avoid grappling with my real task for as long as possible. Although making sense in and of the world is not irrelevant to a review of Alastair Campbell’s first novel, All in the Mind, it was my initial plan, after reading it, to extend the preliminary discussion of the niceties of sanity and madness to about 2975 words, after which I would round up to a respectable 3000 words with a final sentence: ‘Alastair Campbell’s novel is about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while helping his patients come to terms with their problems: it is not good.’ But it turns out once again that I have serious superego issues (I use the word to get into the swing of the novel’s discourse) and so I find that I’m obliged to engage (ditto) in more detail with the matter of my task.

Campbell’s novel is about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while helping his patients come to terms with their problems . . . Oh, let me evade for a moment more. Campbell’s first book was The Blair Years. That was not a novel, but an account of being spin-doctor supreme in the government of Tony Blair. As Blair’s director of communications and strategy and then adviser, Campbell was involved, among much else, in presenting the massaged facts that took us to war, and dealing with the press after the death of David Kelly. He was a gleeful fixer, bully and phrase-maker for a prime minister who had streamlined the Labour Party (as in discarded anything that smacked of socialism) until it was indistinguishable from the Tories, and oversaw a government obsessed with wealth, targets and the corporate organisation of public services. Nothing in his public life inclines me to like him.

I don’t know Campbell personally, but he has been forthcoming about his private life. In an article in the Telegraph entitled ‘I’ve Been to Hell and Back’, he explained: ‘It happened in 1986 when I was 29. I’d been a journalist at the Mirror and was poached by Eddy Shah’s Today when it was launched. It was a disaster. I’d left a professional and political base I felt totally at home with and gone somewhere I felt a bit alien. I was over-promoted; I hit the bottle, got completely manic and cracked.’ He was banged up in jail in Scotland, then admitted to a private psychiatric clinic for a week or so. Since when, less dramatically, but more chronically, he has suffered from spells of depression which he finally decided to combat using anti-depressants when necessary. His breakdown was the subject of an hour-long documentary shown on BBC2 three weeks before the publication of his novel, and although he can’t be held responsible for the moody Byronic poses he was asked to hold for far too many seconds while the camera moved in for extreme close-ups of his eyes to peek into the anguished soul that lay behind them, he described his persecutory breakdown in considerable detail. He explained that he presented the programme in the hope that it would help to dispel ignorance about mental illness, give comfort to current sufferers to know that others had gone through similar experiences, and to assure his viewers, finally, that mental illness ‘does not have to be a weakness, it’s a fact of life’ (though I would have thought that weakness is also a fact of life).

So Campbell’s private mental distress is laid out by Campbell himself for all to see just as his novel on the subject appears. I am a great believer in keeping fiction and author separate. But there’s fiction and fiction. Campbell’s fiction and the recent documentary are too close to each other not to be connected by a reader: he speaks similarly in interviews of hoping the book will have a benign effect on attitudes to mental illness, and several of his descriptions in the documentary clearly foreshadow events and some of the characters’ experiences in the book. On the one hand, we know Campbell is an expert witness on the subject of his novel, and on the other, we know that a novel is not to be judged by the life of the writer.

Campbell himself is concerned about being wrongly judged. In an interview with the Bookseller, he was asked what he hoped for from reviewers and replied: ‘I think anyone who reads it fairly – as opposed to it’s got Alastair Campbell’s name on it therefore I’m going to say it’s shit – will be hard-pressed to say it’s not an interesting, pretty well-crafted book. But I am not going to pretend I was put on this earth to be a great novelist.’ If, however, this is a bad novel, published at a time when it is increasingly difficult even for good first novels to be published, then the fact that ‘it’s got Alastair Campbell’s name on it’ is relevant to a reviewer. Moreover, I can’t see that an experience of madness and depression excuses a bad novel on the subject from criticism; but then again, if the writer tells the prospective reader as Campbell did in the interview that writing is ‘therapeutic’ and ‘a way of giving a creative expression to a pretty horrific time’, life and art, as it were, become inextricable. I’m aware of the awfulness of mental illness, so I find myself needing to say that I’m very sorry for Campbell’s personal suffering before I quote again from the Bookseller: ‘One executive from a chain bookseller sniffed: “I started reading it for ten minutes, and I’d like those ten minutes back.”’ And when chain booksellers sniff about the badness of a book, things are very dire indeed.

Then we come to a further quote: ‘Campbell says that he will judge the success on what his friends and family say about the book, and on how it goes down with readers, making reference to the reader-driven success of the Katie Price books. “It will only sell if it is good, regardless of what people say about it.”’ That’s Katie Price, a.k.a. Jordan, who has an interesting take on authorship: ‘I’m not going to lie, I don’t sit there with a typewriter and write it, of course I don’t. I don’t have time to do that. I say how I want the storyline to be, each chapter is done, I read through it, change it and then it goes away to be written.’ Her publisher defends her as the ‘author’ of a ghost-written book. There is no doubt that Campbell has written his own book. It begins: ‘Professor Martin Sturrock was feeling stressed enough already, even before the phone call from Simon telling him Aunt Jessica had died.’ But can he really expect reviewers to forget his former role in the New Labour government when he uses ‘sell’ and ‘good’ in that combination in relation to – well anything, but in particular writing? He will, at least as far as I’m concerned, have to settle for the praise – printed on the jacket – of Stephen Fry (‘a trademark assured elegance . . . devastating penetration of the human mind . . . A brilliant debut novel’) and Anne Robinson (‘It is an unexpected pleasure to discover that Alastair Campbell can tell a tale quite so brilliantly’).

So . . . Alastair Campbell’s novel is about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while helping his patients come to terms with their problems. It is set over a single weekend – Friday to Monday. This, I suppose, is part of what he means by ‘well-crafted’, though ‘crafted’ would work better for me. The problem with such a scheme is that as you get to the heading ‘Saturday’, you know that you’ve got to get through Sunday and Monday before you’re done. Professor Sturrock, who rather oddly is referred to almost throughout the book as ‘Professor Sturrock’ by the third-person narrator, sees five patients over this period: David the depressive, Arta the asylum seeker who was raped after settling in England, Ralph the alcoholic government minister, Emily the facial burns victim, and Matthew the QC whose wife thinks he’s a sex addict. This crafting, too, has the problem that you know you are going to have to get through each of them suffering, resisting and then having their epiphany before the end is in sight. There are further structural efforts. Patients unknowingly intersect on their way to or from the consulting room: the QC’s taxi causes the bus to pull up short, making Arta drop her notes. Sometimes crafting helps a book, sometimes it just doesn’t.

Sturrock seems to be a practitioner of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – the quick fix so welcomed by the cash-strapped, budget-driven NHS. He gives homework to his patients: write lists of all the good and bad things that have happened to you. Make a list of the best and worst moments in your day. Buy a packet of raisins, examine it and its contents carefully and then write about the experience. (My word, it gives you a perspective on your own troubles.) He encourages lucid dreaming. He gives David the depressive an elastic band to put on his wrist and snap every time he finds himself thinking negatively, saying to him: ‘That’s your positive-thinking band . . . Just try to think a little bit positively.’ There are glimmerings of a deeper approach when Sturrock suggests to Ralph the alcoholic that his drinking might be caused by ‘something in you that you want to forget. It may be something in your past.’ He’s also a bit of a philosopher: ‘He believed that humility was the key to self-respect and mutual respect.’ And he’s a ‘skilful and profound observer of human nature’ who ‘always tried hard to imagine how his patients felt’. He works in a hospital, where only the most difficult cases are referred to him, but also takes on private work – Matthew the QC and Ralph the MP, for example – because ‘the income helped him fund his various research projects, his current one being a study of the psychiatric impact of resettlement on asylum seekers.’ (Things must be even worse than we thought with the NHS if medical research is funded from private-patient fees donated by doctors.) He offers his patients buzz words like key triggers, and the phrase downward curve is unvaryingly used, along with plunge, to describe the experience of beginning to feel depressed. I dare say some or all of these techniques and insights are useful to people desperate for a solution to despair, but I believe that research has shown they aren’t useful for long. Even so, time is the thing with depression, and if a person and those involved with them can be tided over with elastic bands, key triggers and generalities such as ‘Sometimes these illnesses can be every bit as bad for the family as for the sufferer,’ then I suppose that’s a good thing. The question is, is it a good novel?

I don’t doubt that Campbell drew deeply on what he found when he had his breakdown, both personally and in the psychiatric community, but suffering and even observation don’t necessarily make a person think and write with more subtlety (‘as she was forced onto the sofa, she felt physically and psychologically powerless’). Subtlety may not be an essential quality in a self-help book, but it goes a long way to making a good novel. Still, All in the Mind functions well enough as one of those books for children called ‘Milly Has Two Daddies’ or ‘Dickon’s Mummy and Daddy Get Divorced’. It seems to be designed to explain mental illness and how it is treated to people who have never thought much about it before.

The stigma of mental illness is constantly referred to in the book, feared by all the patients and their families – even the QC finds it deeply shaming to be going to see a shrink. But then in his BBC documentary Campbell himself and the friends and family he interviewed expressed their bafflement at what was happening to him when he had his breakdown. Campbell’s partner, Fiona Millar, who coped with being Cherie Blair’s adviser for eight years, had no idea that Campbell was likely to sink into a depression after his ‘breakdown’, or what to do about it when he did. He got medical help only after she became paralysed down one side of her face and her GP asked her if anything unsettling was happening in her life. His journalist friends still look quizzical when he talks about mental illness and suggest that he just had a drink problem. If this book is read by millions who still know nothing about psychological distress, and are enlightened by it, so that they can either get or give help, then again that’s a good thing. Still, it remains a self-help book disguised as a novel.

Mind you, even if they are enlightened (up to a point) on the subject of psychiatry, readers won’t receive much help for any lurking gender prejudices they may have. Professor Sturrock, it turns out, has been making visits to prostitutes for years and is filled with self-loathing, which tips him into a crisis. When the crisis occurs, his wife chooses eventually to forgive him (forgiveness is very important in the essential epiphany-healing of Sturrock’s technique), but she does so ‘amid her shame at his use of prostitutes, and any failings in her that led him down that path’. Arta the asylum seeker, so distressed at having been raped in the country she fled to for safety, is told by Sturrock that ‘the basic vision she had of herself was as a devoted wife and mother. The rapist must not be allowed to take that from her.’ Sturrock’s wife, ‘though she had a second-class degree in fine art, had been a full-time wife and mother for most of their marriage.’ Not even a good second-class degree, yet with such a brilliant husband. And, most Byzantine, when he tries to imagine what it must have been like to be raped, Sturrock finds he can’t because he can only think of male rape, yet he can understand that ‘a heterosexual man was likely to be raped in a part of his body he shared with nobody. And so Sturrock believed . . . that male rape was less likely to destroy the victim’s long-term interest in a sex life with a female partner. Arta’s problem, as well as the dreams, was that she now couldn’t face sex with her husband.’ In addition, Sturrock also knew ‘that rape of a woman could change her partner’s self-image which in turn could badly affect not just his sex drive, but his self-esteem.’

There is no doubt that a lot of work has gone into writing this book. This is true of all novels, every damn one – eighty thousand words and more take a long time to write, and getting them in the correct order requires a good deal of effort. But though admirable in some Protestant sort of way, trying hard, even trying very hard, isn’t quite enough if you can’t write and lack wit. Sturrock monologues about a eulogy he is required to write: ‘When will I finish the eulogy? But you have an outline. It’s rubbish. It’s just a sketch. It has no life in it. It has no colour and texture. People’s lives come alive with stories and colour and texture.’ Well, people’s lives come, if you must, alive in a piece of writing if the writer can make the writing work. The words story, colour and texture are no more helpful to a writer than key trigger, downward curve and plunge are to someone in the grip of a depression without a way to use them effectively. If Alastair Campbell wanted to write a novel about such a thing as people’s lives coming alive, then he or his editor should have tried much harder to wrench the language away from the turgid and the thought beyond the banal. The craft of fiction is not working out a plan that looks balanced on a spreadsheet and then clothing it with words. The trick about writing a good novel is to be a good writer, though I understand that many A-level students these days are assured that there is no such thing as good writing, or even good novels, only what readers like. That’ll be the market. ‘It’ll only sell if it’s good,’ Campbell says. Or was that ‘It’s only good if it sells’? And there’s that rabbit hole again.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 23 · 4 December 2008

Jenny Diski believes that things must be bad if medical research is funded from private-patient fees donated by doctors (LRB, 6 November). This is a common practice. When I was the dean of a large medical faculty in England, many of the clinical staff supported part of their research this way. Some of the sums were large: millions of pounds might be accumulated and spent over the years.

David Gordon
University of Copenhagen

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.