Alastair Campbell at York: life and times

Alastair Campbell’s talk at the University of York encouraged political activism as the cure to society’s unease.

Athough it is in a suit that Alastair Campbell appeared in front of a full house at the University of York, he was introduced by the YorkUnion host as the man of many caps: campaigner, fundraiser and author, his collection of hats most famously include journalist at the Daily Mirror, Tony Blair’s spokesman, master of “spin”, and the one who coined “New Labour”.

Alastair Campbell answering the Q&A at the York Union event on January 31st, 2014. ©York Union; Image credit: Alex Byron

Alastair Campbell answering the Q&A at the York Union event on January 31st, 2014. ©York Union; Image credit: Alex Byron

Yet, it is under none of those headgears that Mr. Campbell came to York, but as a people’s person reflecting on a lifetime.

After a few jokes to put the audience at ease, Mr. Campbell quickly moved on to talk about his early life. Born in 1957, he lived in Yorkshire until the age of seven when his father underwent a major accident which obliged his family to move. From then, Campbell remembers writing daily letters to his father and unconsciously starting a habit of noting everything down and putting his life in words.

He hated university. Probably a reason which later shaped his views on education: a true despise of public school – to the detriment of the host which had to extensively justify his use of “lady” to address a question from a female student, a delightful entertainment to the audience – and a strong belief in the ideal of meritocracy.

Campbell then became a multi-skilled wanderer: he worked as a roulette-dealer, a factory employee and he claims having busked around the world with his bagpipes – a true Scot.

However, Campbell’s talk crystallised around one particular event in his life: his mind, a sheet of glass, cracking open and making his head bleed as he was reaching a peak in his career as the youngest news editor in Fleet street in the mid 1980s.


Campbell held nothing back: he continued to explain how he understood his mental health problem as a life test:

I was being politically challenged.

Campbell reflects on that period as a natural process of “going through life”, a victorious setback which puts him in the category of those losers which become winners by evaluating their defeats. Indeed, Campbell’s mental haemorrhage and excessive alcohol consumption seem to have created the U-turn which made him walk through the doors of the political arena.

From then on, Campbell only seemed to have been moving forwards. Often described as the man who revolutionised the relationship between media and politics, he now fears the dangers of the press’ saturation with the negative dichotomy of “Us”, the people, versus “Them”, the politics.

Inspirational, he encouraged “us” to look ahead at the future and consider politics as the only sphere within which people can make change happen.

Alastair Campbell’ s talk had nothing to do with crunchy political and journalistic gossip – and may have, in that respect, disappointed a few. Yet, it was the story of a man who has made sense of and rationalised a life as both, a private and public figure. It was the tale of one who believes that political activism cured the bleeding of his mind and can stop the bleeding of society.

Publishes on The Yorker on February 2nd, 2014.


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