Many autobiographies by politicians are little more than retrospective self-justification. While Bob Campbell has been a political activist of the Left for fifty years, his memoir is a ‘warts and all’ account of a life spent searching for truth and fighting for ideals. There is no cynical pragmatism here but humility is evident in Campbell’s struggle to improve his education and to better understand and tolerate others. Rather than speak ill of opponents he identifies problems such as racism, the basis of the abhorrent ideas behind Nazism.
Bob was born on 18 February 1942, the day before Japanese planes bombed Darwin. He entered a ‘world of war and family poverty, from which he spent most of his life running away’. Sometimes he ran, but sometimes he stood and fought using various tactics, more or less wise and useful. His childhood was marked by the death of younger brother Brian, the destructive influence of alcohol, his father Bull’s violence towards his mother Kate, family breakup, institutionalisation in a respite care facility run by merciless nuns, and the insecurity of indebtedness, poverty and lack of a safe home. The book’s title arises from natural features at Sandy Hollow, where he spent time with his mother and brother dreaming important childhood dreams of escaping from the shame of poverty. Giants Leap is as moving as the bitter childhood memoir Blacktown by Shane Weaver.
Bob remembers Irish-Catholic influence through church, school and family singalongs. His first public ‘performance’ was in the Windsor Castle Hotel at East Maitland when he was four. Bull stood him on the bar to recite the Ten Commandments. When 12, Bob could not attend his brother’s funeral and started to develop ways to conceal grief and emotions generally. The instability of his early teens was aggravated by association with older blokes who seemed admirable, but led Bob in wasted directions.
His father found him work and for a while they lived together in a hotel room. Bob became a ‘juvenile delinquent around the year the term entered the language’. He found ‘street crime, incarceration, early marriage’ and seemed to be continually paying for cars that had been written off. Losing his licence taught him that obsessions with speed and alcohol are incompatible. Through bitter experience Bob learnt to avoid grandiose dreams of becoming wealthy quickly and began the trade union and political activity that would redirect his energy and anger in a more positive direction.
Unions at BHP were largely impotent and Bob saw the indignities workers suffered when management is unchecked. He attempted to become a salesman but recognised the poor ethical standards of that industry and returned to industrial life at Wormalds making steel office furniture and fire extinguishers. He got a welding certificate and was elected as Sheet Metal Workers Union delegate to the Newcastle Trades Hall Council. During the 1960s, he played guitar in bands with mates.
Bob’s political interests broadened through opposition to the Vietnam War. He joined the Communist Party of Australia and organised the 1967 Hiroshima Day marches. Writing this memoir, Bob needed to check some details and wrote to ASIO. A hefty file became a ‘Greek chorus’ to his story. Cold War politics followed him to the Maitland Folk Club which was disbanded because its YMCA sponsors feared communist infiltration.
Bob’s musical interests were turning towards Australian folk music. He mentions the influence of John Dengate, Don Henderson, Declan Affley and poet Denis Kevans and 1967 saw the formation of the Maitland Bush Band. Bob’s political directions changed as the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia disillusioned many Australian leftists. The lesson for Bob was moderation – the rejection of any dogmatic system that claimed it had all the answers for the planet and humanity. He became a full-time union organiser and pursued education in skills such as typing and speed reading, but also in yoga and later, vegetarianism.
Around 1970, the CPA was an exciting organisation with progressive policies on Aboriginal land rights, Vietnam and conscription, Third World liberation struggles, apartheid, sexual equality, gay rights, the environment and decriminalisation of marijuana. The drugs issue was highlighted for musicians with the deaths of Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Bob took up the fiddle seriously with the help of Jim Turnbull, Brad Tate and Jacko Kevans. Fiddle music fitted Bob’s Irish background well and developed on trips to Ireland. He found that the more we learn about music, the more humble we become.
At a World Federation of Trade Unions conference in Bulgaria Bob observed the imperfections of communist rule. He became convinced that the Workers Control Movement could prevent some of the problems of bureaucratic rule. He also realised the importance of being multi-lingual and on his return he enrolled in a German language course at the Workers Education Association.
The 1972 Springbok tour saw activists mobilise across Australia. Campbell was arrested at the demonstrations at Sydney Cricket Ground and placed in the same cell as ‘The Skull’, the leader of the local Nazi Party. He was also involved in an unsuccessful attempt to paint an anti-apartheid slogan on a South African ship in Newcastle Harbour.
When someone told Bob that he was a ‘lucky bastard’, he replied that the harder he worked the luckier he got. This was a half-serious exchange but there is no doubt that Bob had some great fortune. After doing time in Mt Penang correctional centre, he was living with elder brother Bunny when the landlord wanted Bob out. Bunny stuck by him and moved house rather than see Bob on street alone. In 1973, Bob met Sharon Frost who encouraged him to pursue his education. Indeed her love and stable influence enabled Bob to qualify for a degree and teaching qualification and also assisted his musical development. They still appear as a duo and in the band ‘Home Rule’. The election of the Whitlam Government brought extraordinary social changes to Australia. Bob approved of most of its policies but was severely disappointed by its treatment of East Timor. By the early eighties, Bob was playing in the Newcastle band ‘Ironbark’ and teaching English as a second language at BHP.
In ‘Ulan Epilogue’, Bob foreshadows the second part of his memoir from 1983. This will focus on environmental issues, especially in the once picturesque Hunter Valley and in the coal areas around Mudgee. He summarises his most important discovery during the 1960s and 1970s: ‘human society and nature are such complex organisms that it seems to me monumental arrogance for an individual to claim complete understanding or one single answer to any question’.
Bob gave the eulogy when his mate Harry Anderson, ‘a remarkable human being’ died. He noted that Harry always defended ‘battlers against unjust authority’ and suggested that if there is a heaven, Harry would be there wearing ‘two left wings’. No wonder Harry and Bob were mates. The saddest tasks during Bob’s time with the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union involved dealing with asbestosis victims. Bob’s compassion and commitment to justice are admirable. Giants do sometimes leap. Bob Campbell’s journey of discovery, education and discipline makes an inspiring read.