Obituary: Bobby Campbell

Ian Jack
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:22

Robert Arthur Thornbury Campbell, journalist: born Glasgow 27 August 1942; thrice married (three sons); died Edinburgh 29 September 1997.

Bobby Campbell became a journalist because of his political convictions; a route to journalism that speaks of a different and perhaps more serious age.

He began his career in newspapers in 1966, when, as a young Communist, he joined the staff of the Communist Party's paper, the Daily Worker (latterly the Morning Star). When he died in the early hours of yesterday at the age of 55, he was an associate editor of the Scotsman in charge, among other things, of the paper's website. It was, he would often say, an unlikely destination. But then so many things in his life were unlikely. He lived, more than most of us, under dramatic, unpredictable switches of light and shade.

Bobby (sometimes Bob) Campbell was born in Glasgow in 1942. To those who did not know him well, he seemed to epitomise the kind of Glaswegian popularised by Billy Connolly (whom he knew, and with whom in the 1980s he shared the stage as a supporting musician). He was a big man, sometimes bearded, who was gruff, sardonic and enjoyed a drink. When I first saw him, in the composing room of the Sunday Times in the 1970s, he looked as though he had just stepped off the terraces of a Glasgow football stadium. He wore a denim suit pricked with enamel badges and a tartan scarf tightly knotted at his neck. The clothes and the manner disguised the most gentle, thoughtful and compassonate of men, a standing reprimand to stereotypes of class and nationality.

He grew up in what is known as the respectable working class on Glasgow's west side (the term "West End" would be misleading here), where he was educated at Hyndland School and learned to play the violin. In 1958, he went to John Brown's shipyard in Clydebank as an apprentice engineering fitter and worked there for the next six years, helping to build the liners and tankers that comprised the Indian summer of Clyde shipbuilding.

The violin gave him access to folk music; his apprentice colleagues to left-wing politics. Like many people of his generation in Glasgow at that time, he embraced both. Folk music, with its memorialisation of the achievements and disasters of working-class life, was seen as a radical expression of grievance and solidarity, and it became for a time a radical movement.

Campbell came under the influence of Norman Buchan, the Labour MP, whose house in west Glasgow was the headquarters of a small but influential group known as "the Broomhill Bums". He joined two well-known folk musicians, Ray and Archie Fisher, in a band called the Wayfarers and became one of the first fiddle-players to make a mark on urban (as opposed to rural or traditional) Scottish folk music. He wrote a tune to "The Fairfield Apprentice", with words by Archie Fisher, which was commissioned by Charles Parker for the BBC's famous series The Radio Ballads.

In 1964, he left the shipyard and came to London as a maintenance fitter (the Savoy Hotel was one of the less likely places he helped maintain). Once again, his evenings were taken up with fiddle-playing and political argument. With Enoch Kent (Norman Buchan's brother-in-law) and Gordon McCullough, he formed the Exiles and recorded a collection of songs. The Daily Worker published some pieces about folk music by him and then offered him a job as sub-editor on its sports pages.

Later he was promoted to the post of features editor, but by then he had begun to be unhappy with the paper's political direction, which allowed no deviation from the Moscow line. He began to work Saturday shifts for the sports department of the Sunday Times, and in 1976 joined the staff of that newspaper. He became its chief sub-editor, in charge of presenting its home and foreign news pages, in 1981.

His life until the late 1970s could be said with fairness to be peripatetic. He had been married twice, the second time to a Party comrade, the journalist Bea Campbell; his politics meant that he earned far less than mainstream journalists; he had no children, owned no property. An evening chez Campbell often meant the carriage of clinking paper bags to a rented flat in Tower Hamlets, Islington or Hackney, where sooner or later someone was bound to remember the words to "Carrickfergus" or "The Bleacher Lassie o' Kelvinhaugh". But with his third marriage, to Honoria Perry, his life began to change. She wanted children. He wanted them also, but had been told that he could never have them.

Consultants were seen. "Apparently the remedy is loose underpants and no more Benson and Hedges," Campbell told me one day, with a distinct scepticism. More consultants were seen. Eventually, one proposed a simple operation to remove a blockage. In 1984, his wife gave birth to triplets, three boys. The family moved to Edinburgh two years later, where he joined the Scotsman and bought a handsome stone house. He was wry about this sudden change of fortune - so much of his life had been spent avoiding home-ownership and car driving - but he was fulfilled in ways that, only a few years earlier, would have seemed unimaginable to him.

His happiness at this extreme was short-lived. His wife died of cancer in 1990. In less than 10 years he had moved from no prospect of children, to the sudden acquisition of three of them, to single fatherhood. All the qualities that had made so many friends now came to the fore. To say that he coped seems inadequate. He loved and enjoyed his children.

Earlier this year, Campbell had his first brain aneurysm. His life hung in the balance, but he made a good recovery. He had even begun playing the fiddle again, often at the farewell parties which are the new commonplace of newspaper culture. Last month, when I had lunch with him, his old spirit shone through. He was steadfast not in the narrowest political sense, but to the values which underpinned his old beliefs. He said to me once, "Being a socialist means you have to be an optimist", and, despite everything, he was always that.


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