By James Campbell

Polygon. 279 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-84697-529-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

James Campbell for twenty or so years wrote the N B column on the back pages of the weekly Times Literary Supplement. It was lively and always worth reading, both for his own witty comments, but also for the information it provided about often obscure writers, books and magazines. In a way it reflected the interests and experiences of someone who hadn’t been through what might be termed a conventional literary education.

Campbell was born in 1951 in Croftfoot, a suburb of Glasgow. His parents were what is often referred to as aspirant working-class, and the young Campbell didn’t always match up to what they saw as behaviour befitting an ideal white-collar, middle-class future for their son. He tended to skip school, do poorly when he was there, except in English composition, and mixed with the wrong crowd. He was even arrested for stealing books. much to the annoyance of his father. To make matters worse he left school at fifteen and took a job as an apprentice in a run-down back-alley printing works. The descriptions of the work, the conditions in which it was performed, and Campbell’s fellow-workers, are sharp and will ring a bell for anyone who has been employed doing mundane jobs in less than salubrious surroundings.   

What proved to be Campbell’s salvation were his encounters with Glasgow’s folk-music scene and its characters. Along with listening to records of old American blues singers, and making trips to Edinburgh to look for beatniks, the people he encountered in the folk-clubs and pubs were introducing him into a world that wasn’t just about work, having  a steady girl-friend, and wondering when to get married. It became obvious that Campbell increasingly wanted to be on the “outside” of ordinary life. His father was even more infuriated when he quit his job after three years and decided to travel to India, which is where the hippies and others were heading in the late-Sixties.  

I think it needs to be noted that, despite Campbell’s involvements, he wasn’t blind to his surroundings. He was conscious of the fact that the “old Glasgow was disappearing”. He doesn’t falsely eulogise the decaying streets and tenements, but “When these neighbourhoods went, their binding spirits, which made people quarrel and occasionally injure to the same degree to which they act on the instinct to shelter and protect, went with them”.  Reading that I couldn’t help thinking about a poem called “King Billy” by the fine Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan. It’s about Glasgow in the 1930s, sectarian struggles, poverty, idleness, and razor gangs. Thirty years later an old man dies “So a thousand people stopped the traffic/for the hearse of a folk hero”. And if anyone wonders what that was all about, “Deplore what is to be deplored,/and then find out the rest”.

Campbell never did make it to India, a combination of factors, including being conned out of his money, intervening to turn him in the direction of Turkey, Greece, Morocco, and a kibbutz in Israel. He worked at various jobs and eventually found his way home to Glasgow, where he decided that his wandering days were over and he needed to settle down to some hard work. He studied for “A” levels so he could enrol at Edinburgh University for a degree in American Literature. When he got it he became editor of New Edinburgh Review for four years while also doubling up as a driver for the local Social Services Department. And he was contributing poems and reviews to magazines. The literary life often requires a variety of occupations to provide a reasonable income.

When moving around various countries Campbell had carried with him a copy of Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, a novel of drug addiction in New York by a fellow-Scot who was much in the news in the Sixties. When he got the opportunity to interview Trocchi, who was then living in London after fleeing America when he was arrested for supplying drugs to a minor (a capital offence at the time), Campbell jumped at the chance. He paints a vivid picture of a man proclaiming the virtues of heroin, along with the promises of his sigma (“the invisible Insurrection of a million minds”) project. Campbell’s girlfriend had accompanied him to the interview with Trocchi and he says that she was less impressed and said she “could smell evil about his person”. I only met Trocchi once and likewise had an uneasy feeling about him. As for sigma it seemed to me about as practical as the old bohemian Harry Kemp’s scheme for an alliance of the Republics of Bohemia which would overthrow both capitalism and communism.

Campbell had a better experience when he first got to know James Baldwin, and his account of how their relationship developed over the years is well worth reading. In time Campbell, of course, wrote one of the best books about him, Talking at the Gates:A Life of James Baldwin, which has recently been reissued. He obviously admired Baldwin as a writer in many ways, though he wasn’t unaware to his occasional shortcomings as a person. But when he writes of an encounter with Baldwin that it “is one of my most precious memories” you know that he means it.

Campbell’s memoir comes to a halt just about when he started working part-time at the Times Literary Supplement, and in due course became the J.C. of the NB column of that publication. I know quite a few people who, when the TLS arrived each week, immediately turned to the back page to see what J.C. was writing about. As I mentioned earlier, he seemed to have the knack of locating writers and books and magazines that were too often forgotten or overlooked or otherwise neglected by many other critics and commentators. 

Just Go Down to the Road is an engaging memoir. I’ve out of necessity had to leave out his experiences at Lewes Prison (a visitor and not an inmate, I hasten to add) which resulted in his book, Gate Fever: Voices From a Prison. and his interview with the novelist, John Fowles. And later there were excellent books on the post-war Parisian scene (Paris Interzone) and the Beats (This is the Beat Generation), and a fine collection of essays and reviews in Syncopation, all of which displayed a close awareness of the lives of writers and their work. The memoir helps to round out our awareness of James Campbell’s life and work.