Alastair Campbell (00:00):
If Boris Johnson had not gone to Eton and not gone to Oxford, and not been born into the privileged set, he wouldn’t have got a job running a bus depot, let alone the United Kingdom.
Paul Boross (00:18):
My guest on the Humourology podcast this week is back for his second round of insights into the world of politics, communication, and hopefully humour as well. He served as Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy during Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister of the UK from 1997 to 2003. In addition to his legendary career in politics, he’s known for his frequent, passionate and poignant commentary on politics and current affairs. More recently, you can enjoy his unmatched insights through his books, Living Better, Winners, and the recently released to huge acclaim. But What Can I Do? His phenomenally popular podcast with Rod Rory Stewart. I nearly said Rod Stewart. The Rest is Politics, provides listeners with a lighthearted yet learned look at the current political landscape since he last joined us. His beloved Burnley FC has earned promotion back to the Premier League, so he should be in a very good mood. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. Alistair Campbell, welcome back to the Humourology Podcast.
Alastair Campbell (01:41):
Thank you very much, Paul.
Paul Boross (01:43):
Has it changed your mood dramatically?
Alastair Campbell (01:46):
Uh, the football has a bit. I really had a great day at Middlesborough when we got promoted but I don’t, I don’t allow, I don’t think sport affects me in the moment. I’m not one of those people who the next day is feeling either up or down about it. I’m always looking forward to the next thing. But yeah, some mood is reasonably good at the moment. We’re talking on the morning of the local election. Results are coming in and it looks like an absolute banjaxing of the Tories, which is good given that they banjaxed the country. Uh, so yeah, that’s good for my spirits. I’m actually, after talking to you, I’ve gotta do another podcast and then I’m off to sign a thousand books. I’m slightly dreading that. I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s a nice thing to do. Cause they say that a signed book is a sold book. but yeah, a thousand in one go by the end of it, my signature will be a very, very, very thin line.
Paul Boross (02:46):
Oh, yes, you’re gonna have repetitive, strain injury, aren’t you? Well, we’ve talked previously about your passion for politics and as we’ve just been talking about football, but what we want to do today on the Humourology podcast is delve deeper into your new book. But What Can I Do? which is aimed at getting a new generation to go into politics and make positive change? Firstly, I read the book in one day and I have to say I absolutely loved it. Oh,
Alastair Campbell (03:18):
Paul Boross (03:19):
No, it really is good. The book is for our listeners, half explanation of what’s gone wrong in recent times, the polarisation, population fatigue, disengagement, and then in the second half it kind of feels, not self-help, but it’s a primer, I think about those areas using your experience in campaigning and strategy and comms, et cetera. And well, then it finishes with some super practical advice about how to get involved in politics. Whether you want to be a grassroots campaigner in your community or if you someday want to be Prime Minister. Why did you feel that it was important to provide this information and perspective at this moment in time?
Alastair Campbell (04:10):
Well, Paul, first of all, can I say that I think you’ve sold the book better than I could. I mean, that was absolutely brilliant. You know, analysis, self-help, and then how do you actually do it? That is kind of how I’ve structured it. I wanted to, first of all explain why I think things have gone wrong. Secondly, understand why people, or accept why people are so reluctant to go into politics, but explain how you can look after yourself, mental health, fitness, all that sort of stuff. And then thirdly, as you say, practically, how can you get involved? And why did I write it now? I mean, the title of the book, But What Can I Do actually comes from the fact that I, I kept, I was conscious of how many people kept saying that to me. Like they say, you know, but I listen to your podcast.
I read your stuff in The New European. I see you ranting on Instagram as you’re marching around Hampstead Heath, and I agree with you, but what can I do? And it’s that sort of sense of impotence and desperation. And I’m trying to say to people, you can’t all be Prime Minister. You can’t all be Greta Thunberg. You can’t all, you know, be an MP. You can’t all even run a campaign. But we can all do something. And amongst the people who can do something, there will be people who can be Prime Minister and there will be people who can be Greta Thunberg. And it’s a question of just sort of saying to people, giving them a sense of confidence and agency.Because the truth is we can all do stuff. And I think that, in the middle bit that you’ve correctly analysed is the bit that I’m trying to sort of make the link between how bad things are to how they can change.
I try to debunk these things that you hear people saying all the time. Nothing ever changes. Well, that is the most ridiculous thing that is ever said. We live, I mean, even now you turn on the radio every day, you’re hearing about Chat GPT, how’s it changing the world? And we don’t know. The world’s changing around as the whole time really fast. The second thing is, there is no point in voting because they’re all the same. Utterly ridiculous, utterly, imagine how different the world would’ve been if Hillary Clinton was president, not Donald Trump. You know, it would be a different place. It wouldn’t be, you know, we’d still have, we’d live in the same houses, we’d live in the same towns and cities and villages, but the world would be a different place. And then the third thing is people say, no one person can ever make a difference. Now it’s true that we can achieve more together than we do alone. Right. But people can make a difference on their own. And as they make a difference on their own, then you build networks and you build out with teams and you can change the world.
Paul Boross (06:57):
Well, I agree. But then I turned on the radio this morning and like you, I was listening to the thing and the first person who came on was a bloke who goes, well, it’s terrible. I mean, they’re all the same. And the interviewer said, and, who did you vote? If it’s okay to ask? And he goes, “I have never voted and I’m not gonna vote because they’re all the same.” And that kind of apathy is what I think the book’s trying to be an antidote to.
Alastair Campbell (07:30):
Look, that guy whoever that guy was, will probably not read my book, will probably think that I’m a sort of, you know, I dunno what he’d think, but most people are concerned. Most people do care about the world around them. And I actually think that one of the… you mentioned the podcast I do with Rory Stewart. I think one of the reasons that so many people seem to be listening to that is cause actually I think people are more interested in politics than ever, but they don’t like what they see in our politics, and they particularly don’t like the government. I think a lot of it is about the media. I think people are sick to death of the media coverage. The fact that, I dunno what station you were listening to, but the fact that we give so much space on the airwaves to people who say there’s no point voting, they’re all the same. Nothing ever changes. It’s all shit. You know, you’ve got to, what the media should be doing is giving a platform for genuine debate. I’m not saying that that guy doesn’t have a point, but it’s a point rooted in a deliberate, willful sense of ignorance to actually say that it makes no difference who’s in power is such a ridiculous thing to say.
Paul Boross (08:43):
Well, I agree. And, and you know, as you say, maybe that is why The Rest Is Politics has seemingly come from nowhere to take it on, on The Rest Is Politics, you and Rory disagree agreeably as you say. Obviously to do that, you have to have respect. But as this is the Humourology podcast, is humour also at the core of being able to do that successfully?
Alastair Campbell (09:12):
Yeah, I think it is and funnily enough, when we do the, I mean… it was a bit of a kind of weird experiment in a way cuz we didn’t know each other that well. We didn’t know whether we’d really get on. I think it helps that we are very different and it helps that we are not physically together all of the time. So we can really focus on the hour or two hours that were actually there, kind of doing it often on screen like this. But when we’ve done the live shows, I remember the first live show we did was up in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens. And it might, it might not have been the first one. It was the first like, kind of, you know, really big event. And it was funny, one of the producers, Jack, at halftime, he said, God, this is turning into something completely different to the podcast.
I said, what do you mean? He says, well, it’s just really you’re both just playing it for laughs. So we weren’t doing it deliberately, but with a, well, we might have been subconsciously, but with a live audience there, you do want them to be entertained. And part of that is telling them funny stories that nonetheless what we try to do is we tell funny stories and we try and make serious points. So for example, I always do, I take the piss out of Rory over going to Eton, right? And that’s, that’s a bit of sort of friendly banter as it were. But it will usually lead us to having a serious discussion about, about class or about education or about barriers in that are put up in front of the majority. But Jack’s point was really valid, is that the humour that that evolved between us became fundamental to the live shows. And then you take more of that into the, into the podcast itself and to the point of Rory Stewart channeling Max Miller at the Palladium, and it was utterly spontaneous. Like we did not plan it, but my god, people were rolling in the aisles at that one.
Paul Boross (11:12):
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Is one lady. Yeah. No <laugh>. Is he doing all that?
Alastair Campbell (11:16):
Well, he, he told, he did, he did some dancing and he also told a really, really quite risque story that I’m not gonna repeat.
Max Wall (11:24):
A pal of mine. A pal of mine. A master builder. A master builder. See? So he said to his little boy, ran about Christmas time cause he got Christmas coming there, you see. And he said to his little boy, he said, what would you like for Christmas? So the boy said, I like a baby brother. The master builder said, we, we couldn’t finish a job in time <laugh>. He said, you can have a gun or a horse. He said, no, I don’t want a gun. I don’t want a horse, I want a baby brother. The fella said, I told you we can’t finish a job in time. He said, well, you can put some warm in on the job. Now listen… <laugh>.
Paul Boross (11:52):
Okay, well I I know some of the Max Miller stories and got banned from the BBC for doing them, didn’t he?
Alastair Campbell (12:00):
That’s right. Well, no, well, Rory’s got a slight obsession with Max Miller, which I haven’t got to the bottom of. And we got to, we got to the Palladium and I made the point I made the mistake of pointing out Jim, that on the wall, on the way in there was this picture of Matt Miller. He spent most of the day then Googling and, and looking at old clips of Matt Miller and ended up impersonating him on stage. Quite well out.
Paul Boross (12:23):
That’s funny. In the, in the book, uh, you, you talked about the joshing, if you like, of you and Rory and him going to Eaton and, and, and you joshing with him. But you make an important point in the book that we’ve had, is it 20 Prime ministers who 20 think It’s Now who went to Eton and, and you know, I think it’s under…
Alastair Campbell (12:46):
Seven from the Labour party
Paul Boross (12:47):
Oh, well that’s interesting as well but it’s still one school. I mean, I went to a comprehensive school with the over 2000 boys. Nobody got a look in as Prime Minister, just so we’re clear but you, you talk about that fact that we are not educating, uh, people at a young age, which is one of my passions actually that whole private school radiates inner confidence, encouraged to speak out loud. Uh, whereas at state schools, you’re not encouraged to do that. How can we even that balance, if even at school level, it’s there?
Alastair Campbell (13:30):
Well, it was in last week, the very first event I did with the book was a an educational charity called Voice 21. And they promote something called Oracy, which is the art of listening and communicating and speaking. And they’re trying to make it on a par with literacy and numeracy and the point they were making. So the guy who was doing the main presentation was a guy called Professor Neil Mercer from Cambridge. And he’s like the kind of godfather of Oracy speaking the skills framework. And so this was an audience of, I dunno, several hundred teachers. And he said, put your hand up if you were taught the art of speaking when you were at school, even, you know, once or twice. And about, I don’t know, a couple of dozen hands went up. He then said, put your hand down if you went to a private school.
And almost all of their hands, about two hands, were let, and I write in the book about I believe that confidence and self-confidence can be taught and can be developed. Now, some people have it more naturally of course, but it can be taught, we can learn from other examples of it. I make the point in my column in the New European this week that if Boris Johnson had not gone to Eten and not gone to Oxford, not been born into the privilege yet, he wouldn’t got a job running a bus depot, let alone the United Kingdom. But he’s got that confidence. David Cameron, I remember I write in the book about, I write a lot in the book about Brexit as you can imagine, and how that came through populism and polarisation and post-truth. But David Cameron was warned by Osborne, he was warned by Angela Merkel, he was born warned by Francois Hollande, the French president at the time, that, you know, don’t go for a referendum on something as contentious as this because it will become about something else.
And Hollande had this wonderful phrase. He said that, he said, but the trouble was Cameron was wearing Le mask aragon de sereniteé, the arrogant mask of serenity. And the arrogant mask of Serenity is a wonderful description of that sort of self-belief that they have, that those people have been to those top private schools. They have this, it’s a self-confidence that tips into arrogance because they believe that they’re right. Now, I’m not saying we should teach our kids to be arrogant, but we should teach them to believe that their voice matters as much as anybody.
Paul Boross (16:05):
I completely agree and with my background in psychology, I love the fact that in the book you are saying exactly what I would say, which is confidence can be learned because I’ve taught it to people. But you are also very, very clear that I always say to audiences when I speak, I say there are two types of people in the world. There are those who get nervous and there are liars. And you are very honest about that you’ve had issues with nerves on live television and you’ve just learnt some coping strategies.
Alastair Campbell (16:43):
Yeah, yeah. I mean, funnily enough, I often don’t get nervous before, maybe cause I’ve done so much of it now. But quite often I have to make myself nervous because otherwise I don’t I underperform and this thing about, so you and I are talking now and we are having a conversation and actually we are both quite close to how we were talking normal circumstances. And when I speak in public on a stage, I try to speak in much the same way. But there has to be a deeper energy to it. There has to be a deeper sense of connection with the audience. And a lot of that is technique. I mean, you know, I I say in the book that the master for me at this was Bill Clinton who could have this ability through zoning in on certain people in the audience. He had a technique and he mastered a technique that meant that everybody in the audience felt he was doing the same thing to them. He was talking to them. Macron does something quite similar. Tony’s pretty good at it as well. So, but for, but those times, I, I talk in the book. You’re right. I’m, and listen, thanks for reading the book so closely cuz as you know, a lot of interviewers don’t.
Paul Boross (17:49):
No, I loved it.
Alastair Campbell (17:50):
Is that I have these techniques that I’ve had to develop because, and it’s a bit like my daughter. I mean, you know, my daughter’s a standup comedian
Paul Boross (18:00):
Alastair Campbell (18:00):
And she gets really bad anxiety, which you’d think was a crazy thing to want to be when you get anxiety. But she’s learnt techniques which help her and one of them she uses is one that I developed when I was, I say in the book that I was having these, it wasn’t, it was worse than a panic attack. It was like an I was having these, like I wasn’t there. I was there, I was sitting here, but I was over there somewhere and I couldn’t, I was like having outer body experiences and heaven knows why to do with stress, to do with depression, to do with, I don’t know what. And I was so worried about it that I coincidentally a friend of mine who at one point was a professional golfer, I told him and he said, listen, I’ve got this guy, he as a psychologist, cuz you know, golfers get the yips
When they can’t putt, they can’t, they literary can’t. And it’s a sort of psychological thing. And he said he working with this sports psychologist, a guy called Andy McCann, he said, maybe he can help. And so I saw him a few times and together we developed this thing where he said, you need, when, when you feel that sense of alarm rising, you need something that just centres you to your thing, you centre yourself. He said, for example, the All Blacks, when they’re losing concentration, they do this thing where they just flick. It looks like they’re flicking sweat away from their eye, but they just flick their eyebrow and look up to the look up and then they bring them – that’s their technique. And we developed this thing where, because for me, if you are doing a live interview on television or you’re speaking and you start to get these feelings, you can’t do anything overly physical. So we developed this thing where I just rub, I put my thumb in my forefinger together like that and I just rub them very, very slowly. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it, I dunno why, but it always works. And the reason it works is because it makes me smile. I think this is silly. Like, you know, this is silly. How is this changing my mood? And I find it funny. So then I smile and that means you relax and then you’re back in the centre again.
Paul Boross (20:00):
Well, it’s really interesting cuz uh, with my background in psychology, I know exactly what Andy McCann is doing with you. He’s anchoring your state and that is what professional footballers do but if you remember Jonny Wilkinson, what did he always do before he kicked, he anchored his state. Now what happens is, what that does is it bypasses the conscious mind. I.e. I should be relaxed, I must relax. And what it does is it immediately takes you into state where, so you don’t have to think about it. And it’s just a fast way to anchor yourself into all those things. So I was fascinated when I was reading it, but that I think is really, really useful for anyone because so many people, I think of the book, you say it’s like, like up to 70% of people are just terrified of standing up in public. Yeah. And speaking. And that must be one of the biggest barriers to entry.
Alastair Campbell (21:05):
And also you see, you see in look, you know, in the comedy world, I mean I watch Grace a lot and I go and see her comedy shows and I often see other comedians there. And because I know Grace so well, I can always tell when her mind is not quite, you know, where she wants it to be. And sometimes that helps her performance. Sometimes it hinders it. I see. I’ve seen other comedians and I watch them and I think, I dunno why you do this one cause you are not being very funny. And secondly, you look absolutely wretched. And then when you go and maybe chat to them afterwards, you find that actually they were in a really, really poor mental state and they weren’t able to perform. But you know, it’s amazing how many, you know, what is stagefright in the end. I mean, I’ve got a friend who’s an actor who tells me he needs stagefright. He can’t perform without stagefright. He needs to be scared that it’s gonna go badly, otherwise he doesn’t perform. And so he, he almost forces himself to be scared. And now I don’t like those feelings, but when they happen, which they do, I’ve just found ways of dealing with well,
Paul Boross (22:16):
That, that’s coping strategies. And it’s interesting you say that. Your friend, obviously we both know a lot of performers and everything. I think the first chapter in my first book, and we’re here to talk about your book, not my book, but is, called The Pitching Bible. And the first chapter is called It’s All About Them. What happens generally is people get internal and start thinking, oh God, what, what did I stutter then? Or, um, what am I doing? Or I don’t know, my next line. And they become internal. And the easiest way to get out of that is to be external and put all your attention outward. Look at somebody in the audience, connect with somebody you’ve just said smile. If you smile at somebody in the audience, they smile back. And I was talking to Mark Bedford of Madness, who’s a mate of mine, you know, madness band. And he was saying, every musician always gets that, like, what’s the next chord? I don’t do it. And he said, the thing to do is if the more you think about it, the less you are going to be able to get it. Yeah. So you have to go out of yourself and just connect with the interviewer or with the audience. Yeah.
Alastair Campbell (23:31):
I do think this thing about, um, how, how to teach this. So for example, you know, listen, I don’t want to, I don’t think we should load too much more onto teachers. Cause I think they’re absolutely under the cosh. They’ve got OFSTEAD breathing down their neck, and their short of resources and the curriculum’s full already. But I do think there is merit in teaching children how to cope with situations like that. Because it’s the same in an interview, like a job interview. I was in LBC yesterday, I was doing James O’Brien’s podcast and in the reception there was a woman there. And I could tell straight away she was there for a job interview. I just, and I actually said to her, are you here for a, for an interview? And she said, yeah. And I said, what for a radio interview?
And she said, no, and I’d use straight away because she was emanating a sense of yeah, nervousness but not calm, nervousness, you know, it was like, sorry, I gave her my little, I gave her my little <laugh>. I gave her my little tip. so I think that it’s, you can, it is so important to learn this stuff and to, and to learn. I also talk about in the book about, you know, I have these techniques when I’m say doing a, an event or a speech or you know, where I compose myself before I go on. I literally do take deep breaths and I then say to, I have this conversation inside my head and I say, they are here because they want to hear you. They want to hear you because you are very good at doing this. You’ve done it so many times before.
And then I’ve got this light switch inside my head and I just go ‘on’ and this and, and in my head I imagine this switch, it goes from off to on. And I just feel this energy and I walk on. And a lot of people, you see people when they walk on stage, often they look uncomfortable because it’s an abnormal thing to do. It’s not normal to walk out in front of hundreds of people and suddenly start talking to them. Right. But you’ve got to make it look normal and to make it look normal, you have to feel normal.
Paul Boross (25:50):
And also the next stage of that is if you want anyone to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. So you’ve been to hundred of comedy clubs with Grace, and you’ll notice that the more nervous the person is on stage, the more nervous the whole audience get.
Alastair Campbell (26:07):
Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Your sense of connection. I think at a certain level, I think, for example, if a Nelson Mandela walks on the stage, people want them to be different. They don’t want to be on the same level. They want them on a pedestal, as it were. Whereas I think if, you know, I feel that when I, when I go, I want, I want direct connection. I want them to feel that they’re part of whatever it is that I’m doing and I, and I think that’s, I was watching fun enough, Fiona and I were watching last night the series, the series that was made, I dunno when it was made, but it’s a, it’s a four-part series on Ed Sheeran.
Paul Boross (26:52):
Oh, I must watch it.
Alastair Campbell (26:53):
And it was really interesting cause lots of stuff happened in his life at the time. His best friend died, his wife got cancer. He was going from these sort of, you know, pretty good levels of fame to a kind of mega-stardom that was out of reach of most people and out of most people’s comprehension. And what was really interesting watching it was just sort of seeing a sense of his normality surrounded by abnormality. And that, that I think is, is what makes him an incredibly effective connecting performer on stage. He’s actually a very normal person doing a very abnormal thing, but he makes people feel connected to that through his normality.
Paul Boross (27:38):
And I think, you know, you talk in the book about finding mentors and I think that whole thing about modelling people as well in psychological terms, we talk about modelling. So if I want to know how to be a great communicator, I’m talking to you, I’m talking to one of the, the great communicators who understands that on some level, I’m going, okay, what would Alistair do? And I think a little trick that we could give to people and you could give to young people is, you know, you help them with their Oracy and all that is, imagine yourself being Nelson Mandela, you know, Bill Clinton. Yeah. How would they walk into a room? And it’s a much easier way to do it than thinking I must be, strident. I must be clear. No, pretend it’s like acting, you know, and you fake it till you make it essentially.
Alastair Campbell (28:43):
Well, you know what, when, when talking of education and I’m gonna do it, I’m going into a lot of schools with the book as well. And, um, I did that Jamie’s Dream School a few years ago where Jamie Oliver pretended to set up a school and I was teaching politics and we had lots of other kind of well-known people teaching different subjects. And the pupils were these kids who’d been through school and come out without a single exam between them – really tough kids. And what was really interesting, if I went in and I sort of sussed them out a bit, and then I sat down with the people making the programme and the educationists who were involved. And I said, look, you know what I’d like to do, I’d like to put together a whole package of film clips of great speeches. Okay. And we did Mandela, Martin, Luther King, Obama, Clinton, you know, some amazing speakers.
And so we did the lesson and it started off, they were pretty rowdy, they were pretty, you know, and then bit, bit, they just became sort of mesmerised by the power of this oratory. And then we got them doing speeches, you know, and at the start they found it weird and difficult and it was just a bit unreal. But two or three of them were really good speakers. And do you know what one of them ended up? She was headhunted by East Enders and she’s now a, she, you know, now a pretty successful actor
Paul Boross (30:07):
Well, that’s really interesting. But you could make the difference to go back to your book, you could make a difference just by small differences in schools. I, I always said, cuz I used to work a lot in America and Americans seem to have much more of that confidence. And I came up with the idea that I think that’s because from a very young age, they all do show and tell.
Yeah. And they are used to going and, and going, this is my glasses case, you know, and I use it for all kinds of things like this. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if you are little and you are used to doing it, I think it’s a huge thing. And all the government cuts on the arts subjects and drama.
Alastair Campbell (30:56):
Oh, it’s awful.
Paul Boross (30:56):
and sport that’s what ruins it for everybody is because when they get to a job interview or they get to potentially becoming, you know, a member or candidate they haven’t learnt all the basics.
Alastair Campbell (31:11):
Yeah, and the other thing I’d say is that the basics are so fundamental to the rest of what they do in school as well and you know, I think that the, I really, really hope that Labour, if they get into power, do understand, do put this Oracy thing on a par with literacy and numeracy. I also think, by the way, your world of comedy, it’s interesting. I was at a thing recently where they were talking about the use of comedy in the, in the treatment of PTSD for the military, and using these comedy courses. Because what they’re, what they’re doing with that is basically, it’s just a different form of trying to communicate something that’s very, very difficult. And these guys sit around and end up trying to find humour in the most terrible things that have happened. And then they have to stand up and perform,
Paul Boross (32:05):
Which is brilliant psychologically if you think about it. Because what you have to do in order to find something funny is you have to get a different perspective on it. And that’s really part of the psychological process is if you can laugh at the problem, it somehow diminishes its power over you.
Alastair Campbell (32:26):
Well, it’s why, it is, why if you, if you remember at the very end of the book, and I give 10 reasons why you, the reader should think about getting more involved. And one of them is about getting involved in politics. And I say sometimes it can be great fun. And we had, we had a dinner recently. Tony Blair had a dinner recently for… it was a kind of, you know, looking, it was all the team that were there from the very beginning. Some of them, you’d know, people you would know who went on to be, you know, well-known MPs in their own right. Other others would just, you know, people you’d never have heard of who were just part of the backroom team and so forth. But what was amazing was that very good relationships still pretty much everybody, but both in the evening and in the stories that were told, so many of them were about the laughs that we had.
You know, I, I told this very funny story that I say it myself, about, we were, we were all sort of, you know, people just giving different kind of anecdotes and remembering this, that and the other. And I told this story fresh in my mind because we’ve just been in Belfast for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement of a time when things were really, really difficult between the Unionists and the Nationalists. The thing was stuck. We were at Hillsborough Castle, it was about 6:30 in the morning. I’m just getting myself together, I’m making a few phone calls before going down for breakfast, and I get a knock on the door and it’s one of the Special Branch guys. He says, the boss wants to see you. So I go across to the Tony’s bedroom, which is the Queen’s bedroom in Hillsborough Castle.
And I turn towards the bedroom and there’s nobody there. And then I hear he’s in the bathroom and he shouts, I’m in here and I walk in and he’s lying bollock naked in the bath. And, which nobody needs to see it, nobody needs to see that There’s no suds, there’s no sort of bath suds. He’s like, and I said, yeah, what do you want? I’m busy. He said, and he, Tony always did this thing. I don’t know why, but he always, when he was either a bit tense or being a bit daft with me, he would put on this kind of fake Northern accent, right? And he says, Ay Up Ali, I’ve worked out how to move this ‘ere peace process int right direction. He says, what I’m going do, I’m going to join the Ulster Volunteer Force as a volunteer, and I’m going to get my lovely wife Cherie to put on an orange trouser suit and lead a march of the Orange Order that’ll keep him happy. And then, then he’s, he slid down into the bath with the water over his, and, and now of course an hour later he’s suited and booted and in front of the cameras looking prime ministerial and statesman like. But that was the kind of craziness that just every now and again got you through some really difficult moments. We had a lapse. Well, and you know, I think probably he’ll kill me for telling that story in public.
Paul Boross (35:37):
It’s alright, there’s only millions listening, um
Alastair Campbell (35:41):
Paul Boross (35:42):
But the whole thing about, I think you used a very important word there and, and the book I think has that element as well. It is fun to connect with people. And there was a very interesting American survey that said, 70.9% of people will change supplier or do something new based on one criteria if the new, supplier is more fun. Fun, Is actually one of those things which I think is underused. And if you, uh, put, um, Ory into that bracket and go, Hey, this is… we’re gonna put it on the curriculum, but you know what, it’s gonna be fun and you are gonna be able to, yeah. Imagine going for a job interview and making the person laugh. If you, if you do that, guess what? You are already, you’ve got the job more than likely because you’ve bonded.
Alastair Campbell (36:46):
I was talking in terms of when I was writing the book I sent at various stages, I sent draughts to a group of people younger than me to get their input, to get their take, make sure I wasn’t sort of doing too much dadsplaining as it were. And one of them is my nephew who has just won his ward up in Bassett Law with 80% of the vote. But he, so he’s like a local, you know, Labour party. He’s now a council leader. But he was one of the comments he made, which I thought was really interesting and, and quite insightful. He said that You are me, Alistair, you, your main expression of politics was working alongside Tony Blair at the very, very top level. He said when he started out in a local party, and a lot of young people will say this because older people have got more time on their hands.
You go to meetings, you rush from work, you maybe got young kids, you’re looking after, whatever it might be. You haven’t got as much time as they have. So you want to make better use of your time. So you suggest changes in the way that they do things. And you’re met with, oh, we don’t do it like that. Or, you are good at social media, you are young, you do the social media, we’ll do all this other stuff. And that sense of the number of people that I know who’ve gone to not just Labour, but other party meetings and come away saying, well, I’ve gotta say it wasn’t much fun. You know, it was just like old people droning on about who was right or wrong in the 1970s as opposed to, you know, and campaigning, campaigning can be amazingly good fun, you know, but if it’s done in the old-fashioned way, it’s, you can get pretty ground down by it.
Paul Boross (38:35):
I, I couldn’t agree more. The the more fun you can get in and also people will want to be there if it’s fun. So you will attract people by doing it. So maybe that’s the, the the starting point for everything. Absolutely. Yeah. I love the fact that, um, you’ve, uh, invented a new word in the book.
Alastair Campbell (38:56):
Oh, me too. Perseverance.
Paul Boross (38:59):
The, the chapter where it’s a acquire perservilience. Can you explain to our listeners what you mean by perservilience? Because I think it’s very important in what we’re talking about.
Alastair Campbell (39:10):
Well, as it sounds, it’s a word that brings together the qualities of perseverance. Perseverance and resilience, which are different things. Perseverance is about keeping going when things are tough. So I, you know, the point I make is you’d never say, I really must persevere with this fabulous holiday that I’m having because you don’t need to persevere with it. You’re enjoying it. Perseverance is about doing stuff that’s tough, that’s difficult, that’s not necessarily always enjoyable, but you keep going. And resilience is how you deal with failure and set-back and how you build back from it. And if you, I think if you put those two qualities together, perseverance and resilience – I’m making a speech next week about where we are on Brexit. And I said, look, we’re ever gonna get out of the mess we’ve created through this thing. We are gonna need a lot of perservilience. We’re gonna need perseverance, but we’re gonna need resilience as well. So yeah. I’m glad you liked that word. I love inventing words. Um, I’ve got another one at the moment. Brexitamurta.
Paul Boross (40:15):
Oh, well explain Brexsmurta to me.
Alastair Campbell (40:17):
The Brexitmurta is the Brexmutra of the political classes. The single most damaging thing that’s happened to the country but nobody talks about it <laugh>. So we’re gonna, we’re gonna need perservilience to break down the Brexamurta of the political classes.
Paul Boross (40:34):
We’re gonna have to get a lexicon in just a, in to explain it to everybody. No, it’s brilliant. Well, I, I think that humour can be a very useful tool for acquiring, acquiring perseverance. You know, cuz humor’s important in perseverance cuz you have and in resilience,
Alastair Campbell (40:50):
Dark humour. Yes. Dark humour, getting through bad moments with dark humour. The number of times you see people are in real mess, but they somehow make a joke of it. You know, that is, that’s a pervillient character.
Paul Boross (41:02):
Well that, that’s a bouncebackability for another made-up word
Alastair Campbell (41:08):
Was that, um, was that
Paul Boross (41:10):
Neil? No, it was the, um, big guy. It was a football manager. It was, uh,
Alastair Campbell (41:16):
Paul Boross (41:17):
It wasn’t Sam Big Sam. I’m, I can see him now. I can see is it was one, it was a, yeah, another thing, um, well writing in and
Alastair Campbell (41:26):
Oh, I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I’ve got it Ian,
Paul Boross (41:28):
Ian Dowie, big fella. That’s right. Used to play up front sort of all elbows when he played.
Alastair Campbell (41:34):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Bouncebackability, good word.
Paul Boross (41:37):
Word. <laugh>. Well, you used the acronym GGOOB in your book, meaning, get good out of bad. We just touched upon it, but what role do you think humour can play when you’re trying to get good out of bad?
Alastair Campbell (41:54):
I mean, the, that get good outta bad is about the setback bit. Um, well, I’ll give you an example of how I, how I can get human out of it when I’m trying to explain, if I explain to people a personal example of get good out bad, I mean, I, every single day of my life since I was 49, I mentioned the fact to somebody that I played football with. Diego Madonna. I’ve done it every single day. I’m now doing it now. This is, today’s,
Paul Boross (42:23):
Okay, <laugh>. Okay,
Alastair Campbell (42:25):
Now why did that happen? So that’s quite funny, right? I say every single day, and it’s true, by the way, I will mention till the day I die, I played football with Diego Maradona. Why did that happen? It happened because when the first Soccer Aid came out and, you know, the, the United Nations thing where the England played the Rest of the World, et cetera, 72,000 people at Old Trafford, I was invited to take part. Why was I invited to take part? I’m not very good at football. I was invited to take part because they needed in the makeup for this programme, somebody that was a bit of a hate figure for some people in the crowd, right? And true to form, when my name was called out, there was a few cheers and there was a few boos, right? And so I was like a kind of part of the pantomime that they were creating.
So, and the reason I’m totally fine with that is because I’ve been obsessed with football since I was a child. And as I came off the pitch, my son Rory said to me, he said, dad, who’s quite good at football, he said, dad, that was embarrassing. He was so outta your depth. And I said, well, yeah, I was at my depth. But you know what, Rory for the rest of my life, every day I’m gonna say to somebody, do you know what? One of the best things I’ve ever done in my life was I played football Diego Maradona in front of 72,000 people at Old Trafford. And so that’s getting good outta bad. Yeah. And it’s using the humour of my notoriety mainly created by the newspapers – which was bad. So I’m gonna get, I’m definitely gonna get good out of that cause I’m not letting those bastards out the last word. And it was also the fact that it led to me having what was by any standards, one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Paul Boross (44:21):
Well, that is the best explanation of it I’ve heard. I love the fact, and we will mention again that you played with Diego Maradona because I actually, from a psychological point of view, I really liked that whole bit where you talk about it. Cause there was a purpose in the book and, and which does help people, which you talked about Diego visualising even at the level, the man who’d won World Cups and won everything. Exactly. He still walked out on the field to visualise and, well, maybe you can explain what you thought it was. And I I think it’s that every great person has to see what’s happening and imagine it in order to make it possible and true.
Alastair Campbell (45:07):
Well, I th I think on that occasion, I think what it was about was him knowing that this was quite a big deal. Massive crowd, gonna be live on television in different parts of the world, okay? A combination of former players well past their prime and people like me who were there for different reasons. So there were, there were film stars, there were musicians. Robbie Williams was captain of one team. Gordon Ramsey was captain of the other. But he wanted to do well. And so what he wanted to do on the morning of the game, he wanted to go to the stadium, knock a ball about, and just imagine what it was gonna be like and get that feeling. And I think it’s, it’s back to the point I made earlier about actors needing a bit of stage fright. He wanted to, he was psyching himself up to do well. And I say in the book that I just, I just love the fact that there’s a guy who’s won everything. It’s possible to win in football. He’s taking part in a charity match and he wants to get his head in the right place. Yeah, a lot.
Paul Boross (46:10):
But that’s professional, isn’t it? That’s about, you know, about knowing how you work and going, how will I do best at this? And still going through the process.
Alastair Campbell (46:19):
And it’s also, I think, I also think from his perspective, it was about not letting other people down. They expected to see something there was a spectacle that was gonna, and of course he got booed every time and, and he kept going around going like that. And all the interviews he said, the hand of God was the best goal he ever scored. And you know, so he was playing the role as well. But in terms of his performance, and I’ve gotta say, you know, there was some amazing, there were 4 – 1, 2, 3, 4 or five World Cup winners on the pitch. Okay? But Madonna was in a league of his own on our team, the Rest of the World. And Gazza was in a league of his own on the England team. You could see whether you knew a little about football as I do, or a lot about football, as the players did, you could see that they were different class.
And, and that was just fabulous to behold. There’s one point at which Gaza was running towards me and I was just running backwards because I thought, this can’t do anything with what do you do with this? And, and it reminded me, Peter Reid is quite a good friend of mine. And of course Peter Reid was played in that game where the other, the ‘hand of god’ game where Maradona got on the other goal, which is one of the greatest goals ever scored. And I promise you, I, with Gazza, I was like, Peter Reid was with Maradona, just, what the fuck do I do? What the fuck that he is running at me, he’s running at me. He’s just gonna go past me or threw me or round me, or, and of course that’s exactly what he did, right?
Paul Boross (47:48):
Oh, it’s just a great picture and everything. But the other picture I’ve got from that is that you de described it as that it seems like you and Diego Maradona were, were two pantomime dame in that… and you were the ugly sisters, really
Alastair Campbell (48:05):
<laugh>. Well, I’ve got to tell you, at one point my ring tone on my phone, which sadly I lost and I never got the sound back, was Clive Tildesley who was doing the commentary for ITV And he said, Maradona to Campbell back to Maradona <laugh>,
Paul Boross (48:28):
That will do, right?
Alastair Campbell (48:29):
That was one by half dozen touches. And I think the, was it, um, I can’t remember who was, oh, Andy Townsend was doing the co-commentary and suddenly told me afterwards that I was wearing number 49. I was gonna proudly display the fact I was the oldest person on the pitch. And I was 49 at the time. And somebody, Clive Tyldesley says, and there’s Alastair Campbell he’s wearing number 49, proud of being almost 50 and playing at this level. And Andy Townsend says, he looks a lot older than that!
Paul Boross (49:05):
It’s brilliant. But that’s what a laugh can do, is a laugh can bring people together and I think it all starts with a laugh.
Alastair Campbell (49:12):
He could… he could have crushed people. Paul <laugh>,
Paul Boross (49:15):
I can see it’s had a devastating effect on your life and your career. And do you know what? I’m not sure you are ever gonna play for Scotland again.
Alastair Campbell (49:26):
I think that could have been it, that could have been it.
Paul Boross (49:28):
I hate to break into, to be honest with you, <laugh>.
I know we’re, we’re winding up but I wanted to go a little bit into – because I did really love the book – the, the get your message across bit, which I suppose is what you are best known for everywhere. And you talk about, uh, people who are masters of it. I was interested that the, one of the people you talked about being a master of I don’t think either of us are a big fan of, which was Donald Trump. Yeah. Um, uh, but we’ll get into that as well. But then we went, you went from Trump to Zelensky, which I thought was an interesting leap. Yeah. Could you just explain what you think that link is and why they’re getting their message across? Well,
Alastair Campbell (50:19):
I probably overstated it with Trump cause I said he was a past master at the point I was making is that there’s a, he talks a lot of nonsense. He tells lies, but there’s something truly authentic about the manner in which he communicates.
Paul Boross (50:37):
And he only do. And I think your point in it was that he very clear on his messaging as well.
Alastair Campbell (50:44):
Yeah. Even when, even when he does one of those long three and a half hour rambling all over the place speeches, when you get to the end of it, you know what he said, you know, what his main point was. Yeah. Whereas I think Zelensky is just an incredible, I mean, so Trump, you’re right. We don’t like him. I despise him and I actually think he’s a terrible human being. He’s done terrible things. But by his own lights communicating what he’s trying to communicate about himself to the people he’s most interested in connecting with his so-called base, he does it incredibly skillfully Zelensky. I think I, you know, I’m almost like yesterday classic example where he’s at the Hague in Holland and he goes to the International criminal court to say that they’ve got the wrong Vladimir there. You know, it should be Vladimir Putin who’s there.
And now he’s already said, they’ve said many times the ICC has indicted Putin Zelensky has said many times, Putin’s a war criminal. He’s gone to the Hague in terms of, okay, there’s a political element to it, but in terms of the communication, he’s saying nothing new at all. But it was on our news.Therefore we can assume it was on the news in most developed countries in the world and some of the less developed countries. So he’s, what he’s doing is he understands that to keep the level of support for Ukraine at the political level, particularly in America, but around the world, he’s got to keep communicating the same messages again and again and again and again. And the point I make about him is that if you see him in one of his social media videos walking around Kiev, or if you see him with a kid in a hospital, or you see him putting medals on soldier’s chest, or you see him doing an interview with Bloomberg, whatever he’s doing, he’s essentially communicating the same message all the time in slightly different ways. And even the fact of his clothing, he understands that that sense of a sort of half military, half nice, ordinary guy, look it communicates something important to the moment that he’s in.
Paul Boross (53:06):
Yeah. And he’s authentic. You can feel that authenticity.
Alastair Campbell (53:12):
Absolutely. And that’s the only communication that works. I mean, I think that, you know, politicians who try to be something they’re not public, aren’t stupid. They suss it very, very quickly. Well now I say very, very quickly, sadly they didn’t suss it quickly enough about Johnson or about Trump. And I write at the start of the book about this whole populism polarisation thing. They are classic example of the conman who can persuade the public that they are, they, the elite Johnson and Trump are on the side of the public against the elite. And that’s what pop that’s at the heart of populist politics. And you know, they’re not the only ones who’ve done it successfully.
Paul Boross (53:53):
No, but it, it’s interesting because one of the things that I think propelled Johnson to power was his perceived humour.
Alastair Campbell (54:04):
Yeah. Absolutely wasn’t No, look, the guy is funny. I mean, he can be funny. Yeah. I’ll tell you a very funny story, which great was when when Grace was a, a teenager and she and her friends wanted to go and see Miley Cyrus and I, God on my end, you know, parental guilt kicks in. So I try and I find out who the hell’s gonna get me some Miley Cyrus tickets. I phone this guy that I know who’s well into the pop world. Turns out he’s producing the whole thing. I’m sorted. Right? Uh, so we get there, see we’re on the VIP list and all this bollocks, get up to this box at the O2. And then there’s a very nice young girl who’s serving as drinks and stuff. And then I see behind the wall, it’s VIP box 24 and it’s got a list of the people who are in it.
It’s basically me, Grace Grace’s friends, and Boris Johnson and his family <laugh>. So Johnson was Mayor at this time. Johnson comes in with his then wife and some kids. Um, this, the guy says, you wanna go and do you wanna do a meet and greet with Miley before the show? And I’m going, no, no, no, I don’t wanna do it. No, no, no, no, no. And then of course they ask Boris Johnson. He goes, yeah, oh yeah, the kids will love that. So Grace gets to hear and he says, dad, come. We can’t be like, why are they going? And we are not going. We’ve go well. So we go down there and, we’re waiting for Miley to ride <laugh> a Boris chance. Turns to be. And he says, how is it we too giants of the political landscape standing here in a dusty corridor at this vast stadium waiting to meet a woman that we’d never heard of until earlier today, <laugh>. Which was quite funny. Which is quite funny. She then appears, she’s brought down towards us, she’s introduced to Boris Johnson and says, this is Boris Johnson. He’s the mayor of London. Hello, Mr. Mayor, how are you? Boris Johnson then turns to me and says, this is Alastair Campbell, he’s my deputy
Paul Boross (55:59):
Alastair Campbell (56:00):
And, which was funny to everybody who knew. Right and I’m sort of, so I sort of laugh a bit and then I’m thinking, do I explain to Miley Cyrus before she goes on stage? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. So there’s the, there’s the outside possibility that if I were to pop up on an American TV screen and she saw me, oh, there’s that guy, Deputy Mayor of London. <laugh>.
Paul Boross (56:24):
So Alastair, thank you so much for coming back, on the show. But What Can I Do is written in what I think is a super engaging and approachable style, and hopefully is an energising positive read for anyone of any generation who feels disengaged, disaffected, disempowered, or even depressed at the state of our political landscape. Really, really enjoyed the book. Loved having you back with us. Alastair Campbell, thank you for coming back to the Humourology podcast.
Alastair Campbell (56:55):
Well, thanks. Thanks, for everything Paul, I think we agreed to do 15 minutes. We’ve ended up doing an hour.
Paul Boross (56:59):
Well, that’s the way we are. But you are, you are a good sport and you’re a great laugh. Thanks a lot, mate. I really appreciate
Alastair Campbell (57:05):
All right, thank you. Take care. Thanks a lot.
Paul Boross (57:09):
The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boros,s produced by David Rose, music, by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes, and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.