Book review: Just Go Down to the Road, by James Campbell

James Campbell’s memoir of his early life is revealing and yet also restrained, writes Allan Massie
James Campbell with James BaldwinJames Campbell with James Baldwin
James Campbell with James Baldwin

I first met James Campbell in 1979 or ’80, when he was editing the New Edinburgh Review with flair and intelligence. It was unusual among Scottish literary magazines then, Jim’s interests extending well beyond Scotland, though his first book would be Invisible Country: A Journey Through Scotland. He published me, then invited me to take over the editorship, and set off for London. Before long he would find a place on the Times Literary Supplement, writing its back-page column for more than 20 years. This was a bit unexpected, his interests being far from those of the English literary establishment. He would write an excellent biography of James Baldwin who had become a close friend, other books about expatriate writers in Paris and the Beats. One surprising early hero was Jean Cocteau. Less surprising another was Alexander Trocchi; two youthful years were spent writing a novel echoing Cain’s Book.

This book is an interim memoir. Campbell was born and reared in a loving and, evidently admirable, respectable, serious Protestant working-class family in Glasgow. His father did wartime service in the Navy, then, upwardly mobile, for British Rail. His musical mother was a Land Girl in the war. His elder twin sisters would be the first in the family to go to university. His own schooling was unsatisfactory, difficult to see just why, and he left at 15 to be apprenticed to a printing firm. He stuck that for three years. Meanwhile, his father being promoted in British Rail, his parents moved to the South of England. This memoir of boyhood is fascinating.

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Abandoning his apprenticeship, he dropped out and went travelling, Sixties style, hitchhiking around Europe and the Middle East, with spells on a Greek island and a kibbutz in Israel – dropping out but, unlike many who took that road, never quite falling, as so many others did then. It was very easy for young Sixties wanderers to go wrong and come to grief. Something – perhaps the old Presbyterian insistence that life is a serious business? – prevented him. He returned to Glasgow and education, at Langside College, to get the qualifications that would enable him to go to university – Edinburgh, as it happened, not Glasgow.

Just Go Down to the Road, by James CampbellJust Go Down to the Road, by James Campbell
Just Go Down to the Road, by James Campbell

It was in these pre-university years that he found his footing. A friend, Jack Heggarty, was editing GUM (the Glasgow University Magazine) and, ambitiously, taking it away from student journalism. Jim acted as his deputy. Heggarty was important in his development. “How do you learn to write?” Jim asked him. “By writing.” “Any other way? “ “By reading.” A lesson in creative writing given in four words. I would like to know more about Heggarty. Jim’s own first article was a 4,000 word interview with Trocchi, now living in London, and still his hero, though he was coming to see the dark side of his nature. There was another interview piece on John Fowles, then still fashionable as the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus. The recollection now of his visit to Fowles in Lyme Regis is a lovely piece of writing.

At Edinburgh, now mature beyond his years, which weren’t long enough to have him classified as a Mature Student, he specialised in American Literature. So he came to Baldwin: “Unusual in many ways, Baldwin struck me as being unique in this: that he held all his experience at the ready, both personal and ancestral, in a continuous and dramatic present.” An interesting observation, one to dwell on, one which may also be applied to this memoir of his own early life. The account of his first visit to Baldwin in the South of France is delightful, also very funny.

This memoir is one of a youth that remains vividly alive in memory, and now comes alive again on the page. It is very Scottish, revealing and yet also restrained in its selection of moments in a life – a memoir which is also a work of art. I hope there will be a sequel.

Just Go Down to the Road: A Memoir of Trouble and Travel, by James Campbell, Polygon, 279pp, £14.99