From Counterculture to Culture

How a teenage rebel rose to the summit of British literary life


Just Go Down to the Road: A Memoir of Trouble and Travel by James Campbell; Paul Dry Books, 282 pp. $16.95

A social anthropologist may already have asked this question, but what was it in the 1960s that caused so many young British men to become dedicated fans of American blues? Usually what went with it was a radical rejection of all they had been brought up to believe in. If you were lucky to live in the London area, you formed a band and could thump out some Muddy Waters. And if you were born in Glasgow? Interests there were more acoustic. A flourishing folk scene accommodated accomplished guitar pickers like Bert Jansch and even spawned psychedelic groups such as the Incredible String Band. Along with all this music, a vibrant poetry scene thrived in the city’s pubs and clubs.

Born in Glasgow in 1951, James Campbell was plunged into this eruption of words and music, even if he was slightly behind the curve, since the ’60s Underground was fashioned by those born a decade earlier. Two elder sisters, however, along with their friends and boyfriends, educated him in the Underground’s particular strain of cultural rebellion, passing on the paperbacks and vinyl by which it was transmitted. But the young Jim had already begun his own revolution at school. Through lack of work and interest, he slipped down through the graded streams at secondary school and dropped to the bottom. The end came when it was discovered that he had slightly altered his report cards. The school reported the matter to his parents, precipitating a violent explosion that would be frowned on today, but could be justified (at least in his father’s mind) as reasonable physical punishment. Their bright young son had gotten so far behind that there was no hope of recuperation in time for the exams necessary for university entry.

This was the era of family firsts to higher education, one in which parents who had been deprived that opportunity could not understand when a child so callously threw it away. So Jim, soon with hair down to his shoulders, was apprenticed in a dilapidated printing works to become a journeyman printer. He moved out—or was thrown out—of a comfortable family home to live in a bedsit on the other side of Glasgow and in many ways became an honorary university student, frequenting the same pubs and bars, reading the same books, enjoying the same live sessions, and having a go himself on the guitar’s six singing strings. He stuck it out manfully at the printing works for three years before the counterculture came calling.

When it did, that meant travel. At the time, young rebels short on money were flocking to India. Campbell made it as far as Istanbul, where an operator promising a lift to Teheran ripped him off and melted into the minarets. Penniless, Campbell hitched back to Greece, where he met American friends who had once—in the way of those days—slept on his floor in Glasgow. “Americans were different from us,” he writes, “bigger, with more assurance, more good humor, more information on how things operated, more know-how.” This vital contact led to a summer job leading parties of tourists horse trekking on the Greek island of Spetsai, to his writing poems and a novel, and a further stint of outdoor work on an Israeli kibbutz. Living in the next cabin was blues guitar legend Peter Green (John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac), who was recuperating from the excesses of the music business. In the evenings, Jim improvised on his open-tuned instrument to Peter’s bongo, his preferred accompaniment.

Having enough travels under his sandals, Campbell moved back to Scotland in his 20s and started the long, slow climb back up the educational ladder via night school to a degree in English language and literature at Edinburgh University. The curriculum allowed him to study philosophy and art history, as well as specialize in his great love, American literature. Here he profited from his relative maturity, knowing what areas he wanted to study and focusing his energies on student publishing until, in 1978, he was offered the position of editor of the newly re-created New Edinburgh Review. By a stroke of luck, he discovered that the island of Spetsai was the setting for John Fowles’s first novel, The Magus, which led to an interview. From there, Campbell became a presence in London’s literary scene, eventually taking a senior post at the Times Literary Supplement, where he wrote the weekly back-page NB column. He also wrote a string of books on subjects as diverse as prison life, jazz and blues, and, most notably, Talking at the Gates (1991), a biography of James Baldwin. His association with Baldwin is well documented in this memoir, and we get snippets of the writer’s comments that did not make it into Campbell’s interviews, especially on fellow writers, such as William Burroughs. On the notorious Naked Lunch: “It’s not a book; it’s a convulsion.”

But we are also treated to Campbell’s own views on writing. Early on in a Glasgow bar, he converses in earnest with a friend and receives some very curt advice:

“How do you learn to write?”

“By writing.”

“Any other way?”

“By reading.”

Despite Campbell’s profound engagement with American letters, he ends his literary explorations closer to home: “The hardest thing of all in writing is to sound like yourself. Eventually, I reached an understanding that the kind of writing I liked kept its feet on the ground. It was a Scottish style: commonsensical, sceptical, impatient of cant, alert to the value of subterranean humor.” One wonders if some of the humor came from the father who welcomed him back into the fold, exclaiming: “The return of the Prodigal. We’ll kill the fatted mince (ie ground beef).”

In all, Just Go Down to the Road takes us along on the many twists and turns of Campbell’s journey from teenage rebel to the heights of British intellectual and literary life. The book is bursting with vignettes and adventures en route, including a generous selection of black-and-white snapshots. For those who delighted in Campbell’s iconoclastic views, a selection of his NB columns will be published next year.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

N. S. Thompson is a poet, writer, and translator living near Oxford. His most recent poetry pamphlets are After War and Ghost Hands.


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