Alastair Campbell: I have Keighley to thank for my mental toughness

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The former Downing Street press chief recalls fond memories of growing up in Keighley and how the town helped shape the man he became.

SO Keighley, the town that made me. Technically this is beyond dispute. I was born in Keighley Victoria hospital, May 25, 1957, and almost certainly conceived – too much information? – in Oakworth nine months or so earlier.

At the time we were living there but as the family grew – I was the third of four – we moved to Laurel Grove, a stone’s throw from Cliffe Castle in the town itself.

I like to play up my tough northern roots to my own London born and bred children, telling them all manner of Monty Pythonesque hard luck (and tall) stories but in fact we lived in a big house with a nice garden and – the place I spent a lot of my time – a back yard out by the garage.

It was where I could let my sporting fantasies run riot. I grew up wanting to play football for Burnley and Scotland (my parents were both Scots and my dad taught my older brother Donald and I the bagpipes from an early age), cricket for Yorkshire and England and rugby league for Keighley and Great Britain. Indeed, out in that back yard, with or without Donald and my other brother Graeme, I did just that.

I had an old cricket scoring book and recorded every ball. I regularly opened the batting with Geoff Boycott and despite his slow approach we would cruise past 100 before he would be out and then Phil Sharpe would come in.

I enjoyed great partnerships with Jackie Hampshire and Brian Close and when I was bowling (opening with Freddie Trueman), I took a lot of wickets thanks to Jimmy Binks taking world class catches behind the stumps.

I get asked “why Burnley?” given I grew up in Yorkshire. We were pretty much equidistant between Leeds and Burnley, and would watch them both, but I liked Burnley’s colours. Also, they were reigning league champions when I first saw them, though I have since followed them all the way down through the leagues and now most of the way back up again.

I went to most home games and when my dad couldn’t take me I went with a girl called Jane Davis and her family or Peter Loughlin, the son of one of my dad’s best mates. I still see a lot of Pete because he goes to every game home and away from his home in Riddlesden.

As for the Cougars, I went back to see them a few years ago. Great blokes, tough and dedicated to a sport for love more than money. Pete’s dad Paddy Loughlin was a GP and the team doctor on match days.

He and my dad liked a drink at the weekend and one morning before a game at Lawkholme Lane against Dewsbury, Paddy called saying he had a massive hangover and would my dad stand in? “Paddy, I’m a vet,” my dad protested. “Ah don’t worry, they won’t know the difference,” came the unconcerned reply.

I went to Utley Primary School and was eager to learn. It was a walk of a few miles to get there. I went back to the school a few years ago and it had changed in so many ways. The outside toilets were gone – I used to hate those. And whereas when I was there I think all the kids were white now nearly all of them were non-white.

I have always been passionately anti-racist and I think growing up in Keighley, and walking through a very Pakistani area whenever I walked into town, or to the swimming pool, or to my dad’s surgery, made me so. I actually liked living so close to people from different cultures.

My mum and dad threw themselves into their social life and I can remember some pretty good parties at home. Dad was president of the Keighley Show one year. I got invited back to talk at the show a few years ago and it was a nice point of connection with my dad, who had died not long before. I took my mum and she loved it.

Sadly she died last year but she and my dad often said the Keighley years were the happiest years of their lives. At her funeral the Yorkshire contingent almost outnumbered the Scots.

Dad’s ashes are scattered over the fields where he spent so many years tending animals. He had a surgery in Bingley in addition to the Keighley one but his big love was farm animals and especially horses. The showjumper Harvey Smith was one of his clients and years later when I was a student in the south of France I met up with Harvey and he got me in to be (unpaid) interpreter for the GB team.

I have a lifelong love of beautiful scenery and I think that was inspired by going out with my dad on his rounds. The town itself may not be the prettiest, though parts of it are nice and the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway is a jewel, but the area around Keighley takes some beating. My dad had a horse and trap and used to love taking us out in that.

I was quite accident prone and had a few broken bones down the years. One of my daftest moments came when I accepted a dare to walk across a neighbour’s glass-roofed garage. Unsurprisingly the glass broke and I fell through the roof. My sister Liz reminds me of that a lot, whenever she thinks I am getting above myself.

The neighbours were called the Bairstows and they were away on holiday but my parents made me apologise in person when they got back. They were very moral like that.

There was a sweet shop round the corner and I once stole some sweets. My dad found out and marched me round there to admit to being a thief and apologise and promise to pay back with interest.

We went to Sunday school every weekend at the Presbyterian church in Bradford and then Harry Ramsden’s for lunch which I liked more than the Sunday school.

We had to leave Keighley when I was 11 and, for all of us, it was pretty traumatic. But my dad had had a bad accident when a sow attacked him while he was injecting her piglets. He was in hospital for what seemed like ages and visiting times were very strict so I used to send letters to him with my mum every day. I think that is when I started to keep a diary, which would come in handy in later years.

He tried to get back to his practice but the 24/7 nature of it was beyond him and he sold up to join the Ministry of Agriculture as a vet for a quieter life, and he was moved to Leicester.

I really didn’t want to leave Keighley. I was at Bradford Grammar then. It was the last day before the Christmas term and I said goodbye to my friends at lunchtime and left.

Because we never had any relatives in Keighley we didn’t go back that much, though by an amazing coincidence years later I went out with one of the girls, Maxine, from the family who bought our old house. She was studying in Leicester and lodging with my mum when I was at Cambridge University. She was actually the first big love of my life.

These days when I go north it is usually to Burnley though I have been back to Keighley a few times, including to campaign for the Labour Party. And when someone did a big portrait of me for a charity project recently I donated it to Cliffe Castle.

I often wonder how my life might have been if we had never left. My accent would be different because I was pretty broad Yorkshire but was young enough for it to change when I moved away.

I also think that one of the reasons I became fairly tough mentally – and I have needed that at times – was because leaving Keighley was a big blow at a difficult age but I just had to get on with it.

I did well at my new school but I never ever took off my Burnley scarf. It was my way of saying I wasn’t really one of them and never would be.

I left Keighley almost half a century ago now but still feel more emotional attachment to it than many of the other places I have lived.