Sunday, September 30th, 2007

‘He’s just a boring old fart,’  

The opening speaker at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival paused and gazed quizzically at the man at the edge of the stage who was signing his words. 

‘Do you do fart?’ 

The man smiled and made a short thrusting gesture with his right arm while at the same time opening his hand.

The speaker repeated the gesture – grinning broadly. ‘I would never have guessed it!’

Surely this can’t be Alastair Campbell, the manipulative doctor of spin, the arrogant scourge of the media, the meddler, the power behind the throne – the organ grinder to Blair’s monkey?   This man is relaxed, confident, open, tolerant and funny!  He answered the questions put to him by the hapless Baroness Lockwood, who clearly hadn’t done her homework, with patience and a finely tuned sense of humour.

‘You mentioned in the book that you went to Bradford Grammar School in 1962. What influence did Bradford have on you?’ 

‘Did I write that?  My book is about my time with Tony Blair.  It doesn’t start until 1994.  And Bradford Grammar School had very little influence on me.  I was only there for a term.’   

‘Yes, well, I see.  And after Bradford Grammar, you disappeared.’

‘Well, I didn’t disappear.  I went to Leicester.  I might as well have disappeared, but I didn’t.’

But Campbell soon outpaced the brave Baroness, who was becoming more embarrassing with every utterance.  Questions from the audience proceeded in their usual halting way, and the Baroness was just about to end another enthralling evening in the King’s Hall, Ilkley, when Campbell took control,  ‘No, no, there are still lots of people who have got their hands up.’ 

Grabbing a board, he noted down all the questions and then went through them one by one, like he might have done at a press conference. 

One questioner suggested that Blair was over influenced by the Americans over Iraq.

‘Not at all.  I was with Tony Blair at the TUC conference in Brighton on 9/11.  We left immediately and on the way back to London, TB wrote down what they needed to do;  protect the airports,  protect Jewish communities and Iraq/WMD.  The available intelligence convinced him that Iraq posed an enormous threat.  But he was guided by his intelligence.  It wasn’t some religious zeal and it wasn’t pressure by Bush.’

 He clearly likes TB, who by return has called Campbell his best friend. He told us that Blair embodied the three ‘p’s of politics; principle, pragmatism and policies. 

‘In politics, you have to get on with people.  Your principles cannot be compromised but they must be tempered with pragmatism.  Britain has always punched above its weight and we would never been able to have the influence we have unless Tony had cultivated good relationships with the world’s only superpower.’

Another asked him what could be done to make people less cynical about politicians.  His answer was very interesting. 

‘In 1974 – not a good year for British Politics – only one out of every four political articles were negative.   In 2003, it was 18 to 1.  No wonder people are cynical.  But there is a triangle in British politics between the media, the politicians and public.  The public is too passive.  It  needs to have more of a voice if it not going to be manipulated.’ 

‘What can politicians do?’, somebody shouted. 

‘Keep their promises.  Look up the 1997 manifesto.  Not the most fascinating read, I grant you, but you will see that almost everything in that document has been done.  The Blair government has achieved a tremendous amount: devolution, more support for the health service,  an elected mayor for London,  power sharing in Northern Ireland, a stable economy.’ 

What do you think of the current opposition?

‘The conservatives have got it wrong.  They assumed that when Gordon became prime minister, Tony would stay.  The had this fixed idea of a prism. Tony had no intention of staying.  Cameron has modelled himself on Blair.  Now that Blair had gone and a different style of leadership is here in Brown, his attitude looks redundant.  The Labour party are united and strong.  The conservatives are split and in disarray. But I would still advocate caution in deciding a snap election.’       

Campbell is forthright.  He has strong opinions about people.  This has got him into trouble at times. 

‘Boris Johnson for Mayor of London?   Just a joke!’ 

Ken Livingstone?  ‘Tony did all he could to block him, but he’s actually done a good job.’ 

Clare Short?  He shrugged. ‘What can I say?  I would not have employed her!’ 

Cherie?  ‘The media went after her. I tried to protect her and the children but she thought I was interfering.  We get on fine now.’  He smiled knowingly. 

Campbell is not at all worried about what people think of him.  In politics you have to cultivate a pretty thick skin. ‘I want to be liked by the people that matter. Otherwise I just want to do a good job.  You could never do the job I had, if you worried about what people thought of you.’   

Is there anything you regret?  ‘Not getting on well with the media.  After all, I was appointed Tony Blairs press officer, responsible for good relations with the media and I didn’t get on with them.’

Had he ever knowingly lied to the media?

‘No, not  knowingly, but there may have been times when I had got things a bit mixed up.

A good answer.  What else could he say?

Campbell is impressive. He is sharp and professional; a man, who is at the top of his game and is reaping the rewards.  His insouciance has not been acquired without years of experience at the highest level.  Campbell knows what he is talking about.  He has been a political journalist for many years and press officer to Tony Blair for nine more years.  It is easy to see how he and Blair would have made a great team.  Both were open and quick; they would have sparked each other off.  Gordon Brown, by contrast is plodding, dogged and defensive.  I can’t see Campbell getting on with him at all. 

In the past, he had the reputation for being an alcoholic and a depressive. He also had a fiery temper.  He didn’t suffer fools.  Now he has cleaned up his act.  He has been teetotal for years, he appears happy and relaxed and he is very fit for a man of 50.  He even runs triathlons for charity.                       

I liked Campbell.  He was charming, highly intelligent and could engage as easily with presidents as with Yorkshire hill farmers.      

He once asked Clinton what it was like to have everybody in the world talking about your sex life. 

‘Oh, it’s allright’, he replied,  ‘as long as they don’t all talk at the same time.’

Michael Ondaatje is contained.  His shape is compact.  His clothes are Canadian casual; cotton trousers and a blue cheque shirt. His beard is neatly trimmed.  His blue-eyed gaze is direct, calm.  His voice is a soft, gentle fusion of English and Canadian with hints of the orient.  Only the shock of white hair, an occasional wild look in his eyes and a slight twitch of his mouth like he is sucking on a painful tooth, betrays the darkness and chaos that is tamed by his writing. 

He has come to Ilkley to read from his new novel, ‘Divisadero’, which docments the trajectory of the three main characters, the two sisters, Anna and Claire and the enigmatic young farmworker, Coop, after their makeshift family is riven by the violence that explodes when the girl’s father discovers Coop’s relationship with Anna  Anna comes to rest amid the calming landscape of South West France, where she delves into the story of the previous occupant of the house she occupies, a story that echoes her own history.  Claire and Coop pursue their independent course in a present rough-hewn from the ruins of the past.       

Ondaatje captures the footloose loneliness of the disconnected; the emigrants, the travellers, who find themselves propelled by fate or circumstance into situations and relationships, which alter their lives.  Think of Hannah and Kip in the English patient, washed up by war in a ruined and deserted villa in the Apennine Hills. Think of the English patient himself – or is he English?  There is an enigmatic, dream like quality in Ondaatje’s novels, a feeling evoked by Ondaatje himself.  

Ondaatje lived for the first 11 years of his life in Sri-Lanka where he never read a book but was the recipient of a rich oral tradition of stories and myths.  Then the family emigrated first to England, where he went to school, and then to Canada.  It wasn’t until he went to Canada that he began to read anything he could lay his hands on.  Later he became interested in poetry and he started writing poems rich in philosophy and imagery.  Novel writing came later; In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), Anil’s Ghost (2000).   Ondaatje is also a photographer, he edits film – he has written a technical book about it – Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).  

Ondaatje’s novels are rich in technical and specialist detail, whether it is of bomb disposal, forensic anthropology and the writings of Herodotus as in The English Patient, or the techniques of bridge building and the deceptions of playing poker in Divisadero.  Ondaatje needs to know about how things work and the detail not only contributes a richness; it helps to contain the emotion.  It grounds the narrative in fact and place.    

It takes Ondaatje 5 years to write a novel and he cannot write anything else while he is doing it.  He has to maintain the focus.  He doesn’t know where the novel is going at first.  He starts with an idea for the characters and the first chapter and it just grows from there.  But it doesn’t grow in a linear form.  Ondaatje’s novels are more like a collage.  The novel is set in California, then in Nevada, then in France.  The characters are introduced and may disappear only to reappear, older and changed.  He doesn’t feel any compulsion to explain what has happened in the meantime.  That is up to the reader.  Like a film maker, he provides the scenes.  His audience will connect them in their individual ways.  And because the readers have to do the work, the book is more likely to be remembered.  The first draft may only take a year to complete. The real work comes in the editing and revising. 

Ondaatje is a craftsman; he pays great attention to detail.  He adjusts the tone and pace.  He makes sure the metaphors are right, the echoes work and the characters are credible.  It’s the adjusting and readjusting that takes the time.  He does the first two or three revisions himself.  Then he sends the book out for friends to read and revises it again.  Finally he sends his work to a publisher and works on more revisions with the editor. 

 Listening to Ondaatje is a strangely calming and moving experience, not unlike meditation.  His writing conveys a kind of acceptance, a containment of passion of violence, a comfort in a disturbing world.