Michael Dirda reviews James Campbell’s memoir ‘Just Go Down to the Road’

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As a reviewer, I read it all slowly, trying to live up to Henry James’s saying: Be the one on whom nothing is lost. And yet every once in a while a book comes along that seems to mirror my own life enough that I find myself wishing I could just invite its author over for coffee and a long chat about old times.

It was, in part, my reaction to James Campbell”Just going on the road: a memoir of troubles and journeyswhich takes its main title from hitchhiking advice from a favorite aunt. Throughout, I continued to dwell on parallels to aspects of my own youth in the 1960s and 1970s, even though I grew up in Ohio, not Scotland. This self-identification certainly gave the book an extra charm for me, as it did for anyone who came of age in those years. Other readers will simply enjoy the memoir for what it is: a gripping tale of a young man discovering what he wants to do with his life.

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This ultimately proved to be one of London’s most admired and versatile literary journalists. For many years, Campbell appeared weekly in the Times Literary Supplement, where his last-page essay – wry, bookish and irresistibly entertaining – was every subscriber’s favorite feature. (I should add that as a publisher he also commissioned about twenty plays from me.) His own books include “It’s the Beat Generation,” “Exiled to Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett and others on the Left Bank,” “Talking at Doors: A Life of James Baldwin,” “Gate Fever: Voices from a Prison” and “Unseen Country: A Journey Through Scotland.” He also edited “The Picador Book of Blues and Jazz.”

These titles alone allude to a key fact about Campbell: he is not the product of an upper-class English upbringing or the scion of a landed family of ancient privilege. Born in 1951, he grew up in Glasgow, dropped out of school at 15, worked for three years for a printing company where he operated a machine that wrote lines on sheets of paper, took up the guitar because he liked Mississippi blues by Robert Johnson, and regularly hung out in pubs with fiddlers and squeezeboxers, hippies and drug addicts. By the time he was in his twenties – when these memoirs essentially end – Campbell will also have hitchhiked through much of Europe, joined an Israeli kibbutz, spent time in North Africa and even managed, in the 1970s, to enter and then to obtain his diploma. from the University of Edinburgh, where he edited his literary magazine. For one particularly brilliant number, he enticed James Baldwin to write an essay on jazz, which eventually led to a friendship with the great black writer.

“Just Go Down to the Road” opens with this gripping line: “I was fourteen when I was first caught stealing books.” Campbell hated classrooms and authority, aspired to be the “master of his time,” and was constantly “stubborn,” that is, he skipped school. To avoid scenes at home, he set about altering his report cards – an abysmal 8% math grade could easily be turned into a slightly less abysmal 38%. But one day, after Campbell had finally left school, a friend gave him a copy of William Golding’s “lord of the fliesand his life began to change direction:

“The important thing about that first mature reading experience was my understanding that a story can be about more than…the realistic events told on the surface.” Additionally, “the story that wasn’t really there, or not visibly…might turn out to be the most important.” The incidents described could be “symbolic”… It was up to the reader to be an active participant. The reader and the book were a couple.

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In his late teens, Campbell devoured John Steinbeck’s novels,On the road», the works of Graham Greene and Albert Camus, even Jean Cocteau. He found them all “rewarding” and, as he inevitably realized, “cultural wealth is a rare thing among investments: it is infallible. It never loses value and never lets you down.

After resigning from his printing apprenticeship, the restless, long-haired Campbell moved to London, where he was soon washing dishes in a cafe. “The Turkish Cypriot manager wondered why the Scottish boy was in London and asked a question that gave me as much pleasure as any compliment: ‘Are the police looking for you? He paid me £9 a week, in cash. Soon after, however, Campbell left for India, hitchhiking to the house of spiritual enlightenment – until he reached Istanbul, where he was cheated out of his small savings. Rather than returning home, the young Scot had the chance to guide tourists around the Greek island of Spetses, which, lightly romanticized, had served as the setting for “The Wizard», the artful, postmodern classic by John Fowles (whom Campbell will interview later). His boss only insisted on two things: “Don’t touch the Greek girls” and “Don’t forget to feed the horses”.

Throughout these reminiscences, Campbell offers striking portraits of other wanderers and seekers, including an incognito Peter Green, legendary guitarist and founder of Fleetwood Mac: “He had a quick wit and a strong intellect without the interference of the intellectualism. Later, after a disappointing encounter with Alexander Trocchi, author of the heroin-infused book “The Book of Cain,” Campbell recognizes how much he values ​​reading, art and gaining knowledge. He begins to write a novel and gradually discovers his own down-to-earth style: “It was a Scottish style: common sense, skeptical, impatient of cant, attentive to the value of underground humor.”

In the final chapter of “Just Go Down to the Road”, this former autodidact – then holder of a university degree in modern American literature – had just begun to criticize for the New Statesman and, in 1980, contributed his first piece to The Times Literary Supplement. Many more would follow. Perhaps – libel laws permitting – Campbell will one day tell us more about his later life in the heart of London’s literary whirlwind.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

A memoir of troubles and travels

Books by Paul Dry. 282 pages. Paperback, $16.95

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