Piers Morgan is one of those Marmite characters people tend either to love or to hate. My relationship with him is more complicated, and can and does veer between the two. One of the things that is often said of him, and of me, is that we have strong opinions, never change them, and always think we’re right.
But I can point to two major subjects of our time – Donald Trump and mental health – (yes, for the purposes of this piece, that is two subjects) – where Piers has very much changed his mind. May I also say, speaking as someone who always thinks I’m right, except on the many occasions when my partner Fiona says I’m not, that he has ended up in a better place on both fronts.
Where once he was competing with Nigel Farage to be Britain’s Number 1 Trump cheerleader, Piers has in recent months fairly consistently called out the hopefully outgoing US president’s Covid denial, narcissism, racism and general all-round disgusting human beingism.
I don’t doubt that some of his past support for Trump stemmed from the fact he had access which, as soon as he dared utter a word of criticism, dried up. It’s the narcissist’s way, which explains Boris Johnson’s pathetic government boycott of Good Morning Britain, Newsnight and Channel 4 News. ‘If they’re not going to say I am the best boy in the class, I am not going on, I jolly well am not!’ Britain and America, great nations, temporarily led by giant toddlers.
On Trump, I have never changed my mind – awful man, awful president, awful for the world that he got anywhere near real power. That Piers has moved from handing a bemused Trump an Arsenal shirt in front of the cameras, to attacking him as “dangerous and deluded”, over ludicrous statements and actions surrounding his own experience of Covid, is a step in the right direction.
On mental health, Fiona and I were interviewed on the subject by Piers and his TV partner Susanna Reid last week, in the run-up to World Mental Health Day.
“You talked too much,” Fiona said afterwards. “Piers couldn’t get a word in.” The first sentence I have heard often. The second, however, is one few have uttered before. It’s true that, save for a couple of gentle digs, he took a back seat, asking simple questions, allowing us to answer at length, and leaving Susanna to lead the discussion with Fiona. But I do think one of the reasons Piers was not in his usual argumentative, interrupting mode is that mental health is another subject on which he has changed his outlook, and I am pleased to have played a part in that.
He has in the past been too close to the view that mental health struggles are for some a kind of lifestyle choice, not illness, and has been far too fond of the ‘man up’ approach to anyone complaining they were anxious or depressed. So as he introduced me and Fiona, and mentioned my new book on depression, Living Better, he said straight out that it had really made him think about mental health and mental illness in a different way. His subsequent questions were empathetic and informed, genuinely asked to elicit information rather than provide a platform for his own views.
Fiona has a chapter in the book, “how to live with depression when it’s not your own?” which really seems to have struck a chord with people who have friends and family with depression but have never had it themselves. She has been inundated with emails and messages and is now exploring whether there might be some merit in confidential networks for carers and relatives of depressives, based on the Al-Anon approach for families of alcoholics (an organisation both Fiona and I used when our son Calum was in the throes of alcoholism seven years ago.)
The reason Good Morning Britain wanted us on last week, rather than when the book came out more than a month ago, was to coincide with the ITV campaign ‘Britain Get Talking’. It is a sign of the times – a good one – that a major TV station is running a mental health campaign focused on talking, and the promotion of helplines for those who are struggling. Coming on top of the long-running ‘Time to Change’ campaign, and Prince William’s continuing focus on men and mental health, it shows we are moving in the right direction, at a time when thanks to Covid-19 mental health services will be needed more than ever. Indeed the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that mental illness will be the ‘second pandemic’. Talking can be and often is the first step to recovery, the way to help you tackle a problem before it even requires you to talk to a doctor.
For decades, as Fiona said, I would not admit to my mood swings, instead retreating to silence and denial, and making her feel my depressions were all her fault. Since being open about my mental health, I am in no doubt I have ended up not just saving her a lot of unnecessary self-blame, but the NHS money too. My physical health has improved alongside the work I have done on my mental health, so I use the health services far less than I did. Through talking, and through the exploration of what I can do for myself to look after my mental health, I have fewer crisis moments of the kind that have in the past required professional care. In changing my own attitudes to my mental health, I live better.
Getting Piers Morgan to change his outlook, and not interrupt me, is a very welcome side effect.
There are two more subjects, however, on which I hope one day to report a change in the Morgan worldview, namely Brexit, and Arsène Wenger.
Piers voted Remain, but was very much part of the ‘you lost, suck it up’ brigade, who felt a second referendum could not possibly be justified until the first one had been implemented, no matter the cost or chaos.
Historical fact time: the First World War lasted four years, three months and 14 days. By a remarkable coincidence, the last London round of Brexit talks between UK negotiator David Frost and the long-suffering Michel Barnier came four years, three months and 14 days after the referendum. So this wretched process has already gone on longer than the war to end all wars, and I confidently predict that in the chaos which follows, there will come a moment when Piers Morgan will rage: “What on earth have we done? We should have done everything we could to stop this madness from happening, and given Johnson’s uselessness on Covid, his lies to win Brexit, and his uselessness at making it happen, it’s time to take to the streets and get him out.” You heard it here first. I’ll be there with him!
Now, finally, the gentleman that is Monsieur Wenger. I have just finished his autobiography. Being an incurable European, I read it in French, Ma Vie en Rouge et Blanc (all the teams he managed played in red and white). Thanks to our mutual friend David Dein, a heroic figure in the book, I have got to know Wenger more since his enforced departure from Arsenal than I did through the occasional encounter during his 22 years as manager. He is a hugely impressive, deeply classy man, with an obsession with football perhaps greater than anyone I have ever met, and I have known many football obsessives.
His dedication to Arsenal is beyond question, even now, despite the way they treated him at the end. You would need heartlessness on a Trumpian scale not to be moved by this sentence, on his relationship with long-time Bosnian assistant, Boro Primorac. I am assuming New European readers have enough French to understand; if not, Google Translate should help. “Quand j’ai quitté Arsenal et que je me sentais seul et triste, j’allais déjeuner chez eux presque chaque jour. Une amitié à vie.”
“Seul et triste”… lonely and sad. I hope Piers and all the other ‘Wenger out’ Twitter pile-on crowd read his book, reflect on whether someone who did so much for Arsenal, for football, and for Britain, was not worthy of better treatment by the club and its fans, then drop him a line to apologise. And I speak as someone whose club, Burnley, gets only one mention in 267 pages – for being at the wrong end of a 5-0 thrashing at his final game in charge at the Emirates stadium, a place he feels he can no longer visit, despite having masterminded its creation. Trump. Always awful. Brexit. Always a disaster. Wenger. Always class. Morgan. Work in progress.
Living Better is out now in hardback, ebook and on Audible, narrated by the author, John Murray Books
My Life in Red and White, out in hardback, ebook and on Audible, narrated by the author, Weidenfeld and Nicholson