james campbell

Gordon Brown is Late Again

A book bearing my name, with a title I gave it, is about to be published. It has been on the point of appearing for so long that I sometimes forget what’s in it. The cause of the delay was, of course, the pandemic: shuttered bookshops, literary editors out of office, review copies more randomly targeted than ever. It was better to wait.

I’m not about to give my dear book one of those egregious self-plugs that are common in diary pieces. But the back story of my link to the publisher is worth a mention. Between 1978 and 1982, I was editor of a quarterly journal in Edinburgh, the New Edinburgh Review. Although not a student magazine, the NER was housed in a university building – which was a few doors down from the room in which the original Edinburgh Review was founded in 1802 – and administered by Edinburgh University Student Publications Board, known to one and all as EUSPB. Having already issued a number of books, the students had ambitions to go mainstream. There was an actual board and I was an honorary member of it, obliged to sit around the table once a week with a dozen others, awaiting ‘Any other business? No?’, whereupon we could head to the pub. In due course, EUSPB became Polygon and as such is the publisher of my new book. The commissioning editor was my intern (we didn’t call it that then) on the magazine. Another assistant was the woman who was to become his wife. Forty years on, she has done an excellent job of copy-editing the book.

One of the earliest EUSPB titles was The Red Paper on Scotland, edited by Gordon Brown. Like me, he was a member of the board, though a more committed one. Still in his twenties, with politics already having replaced the marrow in his bones, he was the centre of attention – not the chairman of the board but its dominant presence. No resolution got passed without a word from Gordon. Sometimes it didn’t even need a word: a nod, a grunt, that imposing frown already charting the road to Number 10.

New Edinburgh Review business didn’t come up often at meetings, but since Gordon was around, not part of the university staff but with a temporary teaching arrangement, there was every reason to ask him to write reviews for us. My suggestions were accepted and, with only a gentle reminder (maybe two), he produced rumpled scripts in uneven type, single-spaced, with inky corrections. He had no doubt done his best with titles such as The House the Left Built (‘of more than limited importance’) and I did my best with the editing. After a suitable interval, Gordon received a cheque for £8, the standard fee for a review in the NER.

Many years later, when I was subjected to a random investigation by HMRC, I was asked to produce a ‘scale of fees’ for what was referred to as ‘your business’ (freelance scribe), as well as other fantastical demands. Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time and I would have liked to have referred the pesky inspector to the man I assumed to be her ultimate boss, asking that his payments from the NER be

investigated. But I didn’t. His eight-quid cheques were sure to have been declared for tax purposes.

Writers for the NER under my editorship included Neal Ascherson, Giles Gordon, the playwright E A Whitehead (what happened to him?), James Kelman, Naomi Mitchison and Allan Massie, among other good names. I liked to think of them as my team, though I doubt that any thought of themselves that way. Gordon Brown of Team Campbell? The jewel in my paper crown was James Baldwin, whom I persuaded to write about jazz. I proposed the idea by mail, posting a letter to his home in the south of France, and he agreed with enthusiasm (‘I’d love to do that, baby’). It then required a dozen phone calls from Edinburgh to Saint-Paul de Vence – quite an event in 1979 – to get him to file the piece. He did, though, and with good humour. When later I got to know Baldwin and visited him in Saint-Paul, he would introduce me to others, with a wink, as ‘one of my editors’, which was both flattering and funny. In fact, the firm hand I like to imagine myself taking with other members of Team Campbell was held at bay in his case. Too much so, I now think.

The other day I came across an audio time capsule: a cassette from an old telephone answering machine, dated 1998–9. There was my mother’s voice, not yet frail but almost too much to bear (‘It’s only me’), Literary Review regular Stephen Romer calling about OUP ending their poetry list, and much else. Among the surprises was a message from Michael Gove, then a journalist at The Times. He had written a long piece about the break-up of Britain for the TLS, to which I had long since decamped from Edinburgh. Mr Gove (we were on Michael and Jim terms at the time) apologised for phoning me at home, thanked me for the latest proof and promised to attend to it by Monday. Like Gordon Brown, he was pleasant to deal with.

My discovery of the tape came at that time in January when Boris Johnson seemed likely to be deposed as prime minister. Among the candidates predicted to replace him was Michael Gove. I found myself hoping this would happen, if only because I could then place my reminiscences of editing two national leaders in a second volume of memoirs. Maybe slip in some other greats (‘Paddy Leigh Fermor... as I knew him’) and get half a chapter out of it.

It seems I’ve gone and given away what this new book is about. God forbid I should come over all plug-happy, but while it doesn’t mention either Brown or Gove, it does end with an account of how I invited James Baldwin to Edinburgh to speak to the students in 1978, and how he frightened me out of my wits by accepting. This was before our NER collaboration. I was still a student myself, hadn’t consulted anyone in authority and, of course, had no money. It didn’t occur to me that guest speakers would expect to be flown to and fro, accommodated comfortably and suitably refreshed. In the end, it worked out for the best. It’s in the book.

april 2022 | Literary Review 1