Charles Kennedy and Our Shared Enemy of Alcoholism

By Neville Elder 06/04/15

Neville Elder's day on a train with Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who died this week at 55.

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Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy in 2000 Neville Elder

Huddled in the cold at Waterloo station I waited to photograph Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem), the UK’s third major political party. We were about to board a train to Southampton in the South East of England. Kennedy was stumping for the local Lib Dem candidate, Sandra Gidley, in the closely contested Romsey by-election, to be held in May of 2000. I was on assignment for The Independent newspaper. I carried my Nikon F5 over my left shoulder, a bag full of lenses hung low over my right, the weight curled my spine evenly. As usual, I was fiercely hungover. I squinted up at the huge Victorian clock on the concourse. It was 7am. I wished I’d had time to get coffee.

I’ve come to learn through that process that any drink problem is a serious problem indeed.”

I stood grumbling with Paul, the photographer from The Glasgow Herald. We rallied at the sight of Daisy Sampson, the Lib Dem press officer, marching down the platform. Her wavy blonde hair bobbed up and down in time with her assistant jogging at her heels. She swept up to us and told us matter of factly, Charles was running late and we’d not be able to photograph him until we got to Southampton. I scowled at her as Paul objected. It seemed a bit weird to be restricted on such an insignificant press trip, I was the only national newspaper snapper present. Daisy shot back:

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come.”

I muttered darkly as the train slid into the platform alongside us.

Charles Kennedy shambled up, croaked a "Good Morning" and climbed aboard, tossing a spent cigarette onto the rails as we obediently did nothing. I suddenly knew why we weren’t supposed to take his picture. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked like hell. He was hungover, too. His drinking was well-known in Westminster and national newsrooms and its grip were unwavering.

Charles Kennedy’s death at the age of 55 is a genuine loss to British politics. If he’d led the Liberal Democrats into the recent British general election, the party would have fared much better, and certainly stripped the conservative party of their paralyzing majority, and possibly held back the tide of the Scottish National Party, north of the border.

Nicknamed "Chat Show Charlie," his warm Scottish brogue, and quick humor made him a favorite for political TV hosts and voters alike. Yet his passion for justice could be fiery and indignant. His objections to the Iraq war were put plainly in an excellent speech in February 2003. His minority position—to support the UN weapons inspectors in their investigations in the hunt for "weapons of mass destruction"—was vindicated in light of later events. His strength and leadership set him apart from the wishy-washy socialism of New Labour and the arrogance of the Tories. Yet in 2006, he stood down as the Lib Dem leader after his public admission that he was struggling with alcoholism. Ahead of a TV news report that would reveal his problem, he said:

“Over the past 18 months, I’ve been coming to terms with, and seeking to cope with, a drink problem. I’ve come to learn through that process that any drink problem is a serious problem indeed.”

Ironically, it was later alleged that Daisy, his PR minder-turned-TV reporter, gave up the goods on Kennedy in 2006 for the TV exposé.

Without his stewardship, his party would slowly slip below the surface of respectability. The new leader, Nick Clegg, dragged the party into a grotesque alliance with the conservative party, dumping core beliefs and scattering MPs like apples from an overloaded cart, including Kennedy himself, who lost his seat for the Scottish constituency of Ross, Skye and Lockaber, in last month's general election.

Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary was a long-time confidant. They maintained a close friendship from their early days in politics. In his blog this week, he responded to Kennedy’s death:

“..(O)ur shared friendship was also built on a shared enemy, and that is alcohol. That Charles struggled with alcohol is no secret to people in Westminster, or in the Highlands constituency he served so well, for so long, until the SNP tide swept away all but one Scottish Lib Dem at the election last month.”

In 2005, perhaps as Kennedy himself was considering it, I was climbing up on the wagon. I now lived in New York and when Kennedy was stepping down, I’d been sober for about a year. My marriage was crumbling, and in the midst of my newly sober insanity, I turned to my friend Jack.

How well Kennedy was faring at that time is anyone’s guess, but with a comrade like Campbell, a peer who had been through similar battles with the demon drink, then perhaps he stood a chance. I had Jack, also a colleague with the same adversary, who was there to help me through my early sobriety and the end of my marriage.

I met Jack, a journalist, (not his real name) while working for a British newspaper on assignment in Florida. Our job was to photograph the new owner of a British sports team. No one had been able to interview or photograph the illusive billionaire. Jack and I spent 10 days peering between palm fronds and cruising around the small, disgustingly rich enclave of West Palm Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. One evening, as it was getting dark, we lurked outside his gates by a marina. I spotted our quarry as he moved through his sprawling mansion. We crouched precariously on the dock adjacent to his house. I shot two or three frames and caught him in profile through my long lens, in the kitchen of his house.

“I got him, Jack,” I whispered.

“Great!” said Jack.

Worried about the legality of our actions, he suggested we leave. Suddenly floodlights snapped on, blinding us. We scattered in both directions, fearing the local police department had been alerted, and ran for the car. From the safety of the speeding rented Chevy, we looked back to see the lights blazing all over the marina. The lights were on a timer. They’d been triggered not by our skulduggery but by the night itself.

We returned to the hotel laughing. I celebrated with several bourbons. Jack sipped a Diet Coke.

“Don’t you drink?” I said.

“No,” he replied cordially.

“Never?”

“Nope.”

“But did you used to?”

“Yes,” he said.

He smiled again as I considered this information. Slamming another Jim Beam, I decided to forget it. But it made me uncomfortable. At breakfast the next day, I nursed my thick head over pancakes at IHOP. Jack and I laughed about the night before. But there was something bothering me.

“So how come you don’t drink?”

He eyed me suspiciously, sighed deeply and told me a story. Tragic incidents under the influence of alcohol, dreadful fights with his wife, and employers' banality and horror all rolled up into one lifetime. And as I listened, I chuckled and winced in recognition.

“Shit! Yes! I’ve done that!” I said embarrassed. But I was glad to identify.

He put two and two together, he said—bad things happened when he drank. He told me how confusing it was that he couldn’t seem to stop drinking heavily. He was ashamed. After promises and apologies to friends and family, he’d cut down but soon be back up to his previous consumption. I nodded wearily.

“So I had to get, serious,” he told me. “Finally, I admitted it. I had a drinking problem. All of the crap I was putting everyone through, one way or another, was because I was drinking so much. I had to stop.”

I didn’t say anything as the waitress topped up my coffee. At first, I’d felt relieved that I was sat with another fuck-up. Commiserating about the misery of life. But he wasn’t like me. I was still drinking. I was still hurting the people around me.

A few months later, I called him when a Christmas bender turned into a New Year’s hangover. I was done. I woke up on the bathroom floor in my apartment in Brooklyn and as my wife passed the open doorway I said:

“I think I need to stop drinking.”

Jack took me to an AA meeting. I stopped. We communicated almost every day for the next two or three years until I was able to put out fires by myself.

I think Kennedy’s relationship with Alistair Campbell was like that. As Kennedy himself faced the ignominy defeat as an MP, Campbell worried about him. In his blog, he recorded Kennedy’s fears and optimism. In a text on election night just a month ago:

“‘There is always hope … health remains fine.’ Health remains fine – this was a little private code we had, which meant we were not drinking.”

As we plodded around Southampton with Kennedy and the candidate and Daisy, we did the usual baby-kissing, handshaking pictures. It worked. Sandra Gidley got elected—though she later turned on Kennedy, demanding his resignation when he confessed his alcoholism to the house. On the way back, I was sat in the smoking carriage when Kennedy came in to light up. He sat down next to a woman reading a trashy paperback, a cigarette whispering between her fingers. He was friendly, though tired. Daisy finally let us shoot some unofficial photos of him on the understanding we not get anyone else in the picture, but I was grumpy, dehydrated and annoyed to be told what to do. I shot a wide picture of Kennedy looking glum, the woman with the paperback cocking a squint at the political leader, not appearing to know who he was.

The next day The Independent ran the photo across five columns on page 7. It was a great photo.

The next morning, Deborah, the photo editor, called me to her desk. In front of her, the paper was folded at my photo. The Lib Dems' press office had complained about me, she said. I’d defied Daisy, a price would have to be paid.

“Were you asked not to take photos of anyone else but Kennedy?” she said, tapping the newspaper.

“Well yes..” I blustered, “but..”

She smiled conspiratorially.

“Lovely picture, well done.”

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the end of the Silk Road and how the DEA under Michele Leonahrt was rotten to the core.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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