Giant's Leap: An Activist Folksinger's Memoir

By Bob Campbell
Xlibris, 2013

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

Retired teacher, Bob Campbell, celebrates his life as a unionist, musician and storyteller in this memoir, recently launched at a Federation Friday Forum. He continues to play and sing songs about justice, peace and the environment with his folk band, Home Rule. Previous bands that he played in include the Maitland Folk Club, Maitland Bush Band and Ironbark.

This book, which includes poetry, songs, and insights into Australian history, is a great resource for senior music, history and English students.

As well, it is a book that young, disenchanted, rebellious young men might enjoy. It describes a male working-class culture trapped in a cycle of violence, peer pressure, heavy drinking and dangerous driving.

It describes how Bob Campbell ran away from school at the age of 14 with dreams of travel and adventure, only to end up serving time at Mount Penang, a juvenile justice centre.

With no education, he worked in the Newcastle steelworks and Maitland brickworks. Finally, he escaped crime and poverty by channelling his anger into positive political action and becames a union organiser and was later promoted to Secretary of the Metal Trades Federation of Unions, representing 10,000 workers. His love of music and poetry also forms a powerful intellectual and creative foundation to his life. He finished his career as an environmental education teacher with the NSW Department of Education.

Bob Campbell remains grateful for the political and philosophical education that the union movement and the Australian Communist Party (ACP) gave him: “Most important for my political education, I was elected as a delegate to the Trades Hall Council. This was the parliament of the Newcastle unions and the forum where all major issues involving Newcastle workers were discussed, examined, and acted upon.”

Thanks to his ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) file he is able to document his activism and protests against military conscription, the Vietnam war and apartheid South Africa. He describes the tensions and splits among Australian communists over the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and revelations of Stalin’s and Mao’s purges. He saw with his own eyes some of the failings of communism on his visit to Bulgaria as a union delegate at a World Federation of Trade Unions conference.

Bob Campbell has lived in the shadow of many historical events that shaped the 20th century — World War 1, the Depression, the rise of fascism, World War 2, the Cold War, post-World War 2 migration and mass consumerism. In his book, he challenges the romanticism attached to 19th century Australian pioneers — they who ringbarked the trees, were cruel to their women and massacred its indigenous peoples.

The book is an important reminder of just how dangerous, both physically and psychologically, manual, unskilled work can be with its deaths and injuries from problems such as asbestos and coal-dust poisoning. Low wages keep workers and their families in poverty. Those workplaces that had high union numbers were safer and had better wages and conditions.

This is an important book for teachers to read and understand how a past generation of young people escaped their working-class backgrounds by becoming teachers when the former prime minister, Gough Whitlam, made university education free. Education gave Bob Campbell, along with many others, the self-confidence and opportunity to escape the “shame of poverty and the feelings of being inferior” and develop his full artistic, intellectual and professional potential.

The book outlines the environmental tragedy of the Hunter Valley, which has been transformed from one of the most beautiful valleys in the world into a coal-mining moonscape. Today, Bob Campbell’s bush home at Ulan is surrounded by coalmines, with many of the town’s historic buildings bulldozed.

"As I daily watch the mine traffic from my front veranda and witness the destruction each time I leave my house I’m drawn back to the thoughts I expressed to school students during my ten years from 1997 as an environmental educator. ‘We must change our behaviour, because this generation is stealing the future from our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren. All future development must consider the triple bottom line: the economic, the social and environmental cost’ ."

Bob Campbell’s messages are simple — have the courage to be a radical; be kind to one another; take time to enjoy the simple joys of life; things improve when we treat each other better. It is an inspiring book to read.

The book is available for borrowing from Federation Library. A CD, Songs from Giant's Leap: An Activist Folksinger’s Memoir, accompanies the book and features songs and poetry from the book.

Janine Kitson is on long service leave.

All books are available to borrow from the Federation library.