Five and half years ago, Craig Oliver was David Cameron’s chief spinner and was running the Remain campaign. A Brexit vote, two elections and a pandemic later, he’s launched a podcast “for people who want to change their lives, but aren’t sure how”. The introduction feels like a riff on Hugh Grant’s monologue from Love Actually, right down to the uplifting backing music. “I felt I’d done all the things I was supposed to do to create a happy life, but it hadn’t worked,” Oliver tells us, his tone poignant. But life isn’t something to be slogged through with gritted teeth, so now he’s on a mission to absorb as much wisdom as he can from people who have “managed to change or had change thrust upon them”.
First up is the BBC journalist George Alagiah, who was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer in 2014, aged 58. Having survived an extra seven years and 17 rounds of chemotherapy, Alagiah has come to a place of acceptance – and with it, enlightenment. He recounts how during treatment he informed his doctor: “I’m not going to worry. You’re going to have to do all the worrying for me.” He had decided his job as both a patient and a human was simply to be happy.
It sounds clichéd: two middle-aged men sharing their tips for fulfilment and decrying the relentless frenzy – of journalism, politics and modern life – that leaves so little time for taking stock. Surely we’ve read this before on a fridge magnet? And yet, when I listened to episode one in between Covid press conferences, with updates about Omicron clogging up my Twitter feed, part of me wondered how it would feel to be like Alagiah and just shrug off anxiety, angst and existential dread.
It’s hard to predict where the series will go from here (future guests include the Scottish Conservative superstar Ruth Davidson and – fittingly – the film-maker Richard Curtis). I hope it’s not all about terminal illness. Still, it is stirring to hear someone talk so frankly about the freedom that comes from facing up to death. In any case, I’m happy to join Oliver and to try to learn something.
Desperately Seeking Wisdom
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance