Book Review: The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

Today, October 4, 2015, marks 109 years since the birth of Mr. Norman Campbell, who passed away in 2012.

The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

by Norman Campbell/compiled by Diana Jackson

25% of proceeds from the sales of this book are donated to the local Kingston on Thames branch of Age Concern and Cancer, UK, Mr. Campbell’s chosen charity

I have a gcampbell book coverreat love for the ordinary, perhaps largely because so often it translates across history or events as extraordinary, rendering otherwise lesser details worthy of great note. Objects become artifacts, experiences awe, and so often people in later eras feel some link to those of times past; connections bond them despite the enormous differences of their environments that they may nevertheless both relate to so closely.

So it occurs within The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, in which we the readers are given a firsthand glimpse into life in the earliest years of the 20th century, on through to the end of that era and into the 21st. Narrated by Campbell in a conversational style, the commentary seems to be directed at readers, and parenthetical laughter occasionally pops up, as it would when people are sitting together remembering.

young norman
Young Norman

Campbell starts with his parents’ marriage, followed by his birth in 1909, then continues on in linear fashion, through two world wars, his adventures to and in Australia, the advent of radio and television, his passion for music and perhaps surprisingly, his interest in surfing the Internet.

His words, so like the spoken words they actually are as recorded by Diana Jackson, revive for us memories of memories, perhaps stories heard from relatives about an era in which ordinary goals are reached by exhausting and extraordinary means. They then transition us with great succinctness to the present. Campbell does this with the fluidity of a born historian who in just a few sweeping words provides a glimpse of something that was and how it became something else.

Under the stairs was the coal cellar in those days. You could still find coal dust down there today but I’ve put a bit of carpet over it now. The coal man used to come in here with the coal on his back and that’s where he used to shoot the coal. All the dust would fly up in the hall. Schewww! You can imagine.

Most people have taken this cupboard out to give more room and maybe have a telephone or something under the stairs. I have filled in the banisters though, and put in a false ceiling because it was far too high up to paper.

Illustrated throughout, the pictures take on a new dimension of fascinating when we recall a passage from the acknowledgements:

This book, Norman’s memoirs, is also illustrated by photos and pictures from his multitude of albums and scrap books, squirreled away over more than a century.

For most people scrap books initiated 100 years prior, even if they ran for only a few seasons and indeed are exhilarating to take in, typically come from an older relative or, in some exciting instances, are discovered in attics or lofts. That these were held in reserve and collected for so long (100 years!) and by the same person, is nothing short of stunning.

sunlight soap labelExamination of the pictures reveals our own past, in people, places or items recognizable or not, and one finds their breath at times drawn in to realize the forebears of some of what we know today. This isn’t just about seeing a quaint-looking label on, say, laundry soap, though that is charming as well, but also to reflect about the conditions under which these products came to be or operated. Sunlight soap, for example, was created in 1884 using palm oils as opposed to the heretofore utilized tallow seen in depictions of early sculleries in which the maid’s hand would dip into a jar, emerging with a palm full of goop used for washing up. Sunlight was manufactured into a bar for the sake of convenience and the product came with a £1,000 guarantee.

Interestingly, such advert artifacts appear only at the start of the autobiography in close proximity to family photos. In fact, the Sunlight ad is the first image not of a family member, and subsequent clippings—one for linoleum, the next from an outraged citizen offering to pay £100 to anyone who can prove true the rumor about his consumption of horse meat—given Campbell’s age (toddler) at the time they are dated, points to a collection, perhaps of his mother, that inspired his own continuity of the habit.

spencer and annie campbell
Spencer and Annie Campbell

Did Annie Campbell have a sense of history that she perhaps passed on to her son, encouraging him by word or deed to preserve his present for the future? While it may seem an extravagant or extraneous question, its exploration makes other inquiries, of the Campbells as well as ourselves. How many of us today clip and retain product adverts? Do many people now see these even as worthy of retention? While the labels were mass produced in Annie Campbell’s day, now they are produced in mind-boggling numbers, awareness of which perhaps makes them truly unspecial in the eyes of many today. Annie Campbell, perhaps aware of the import of the product’s ingredient transition and maybe with a keen sense of the changes occurring in her world, might have kept them for others. “She was a bit of a clairvoyant. She used to dream of the future,” Campbell says, “and tell fortunes with the cards and tea leaves[.]” Perhaps she looked to the future and wondered what we might make of the people of her time, and wished to provide some answers. If so, she must have known there are clues sprinkled throughout her artifacts.

In addition to this glimpse into perspective, we see notation for images in a font resembling handwriting, much like people did when they pasted photos into the black pages of the old-time albums. When we see, then, the placement of some images at angles, rather than always straight and flush with the same sides of the pages, it brings the realization that the entire autobiography is itself the album. Campbell has not only invited us into his world, but also his time, and over the course of his lifetime has gone to great lengths to ensure we get an extended view. The chapters being headed by the years and a title facilitate the album presentation as it allows readers to peruse from beginning to end or to flip through, much the same way we flip through an album, skipping, going backwards for a second look, comparing the people within at the end to how they appeared—or what they did—at the start.

Surrey Comet, 1953

Compiled by Diana Jackson following Campbell’s death, the inclusion of an occasional address to Jackson herself does not take away from this album being meant for others to share in, and in fact shows a greater depth to Campbell’s invitation for us to participate in his life’s experiences, for indeed he must have realized the connection between readers and himself simply by knowing even portions of what he knew, such as television: Most have seen it, and he reaches out to add to our awareness of the space it occupies in our lives. When television is developed in 1953, and Campbell witnesses on one the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (current Queen Elizabeth II) he sees himself as a pioneer, and later contemplates a purchase.

I thought about it and since I was spending so much in the Kinema and so much in the Elite and so much in the Empire, I thought that all of it could go to pay for the television instead and then we didn’t have to go out.

We’d have all our entertainment indoors; magic. But that was the worst thing that could ever happen. All our social life went. I’ve never been out to the pictures since. The other thing is that everyone is scruffy these days. No one ever dresses up anymore. And then many of the picture houses were turned into Bingo halls when television took over.

As it turns out, Campbell’s wary observations were very keen indeed, for like the labels that are nowadays cast off as ordinary and of little importance for the eyes of the future, activities that once were central functions in people’s lives also transitioned into the ordinary. The processes that got people to those events–saving money, planning for, dressing up—were eliminated as something that once was magical sunk into the insignificant.

In this sense Campbell’s compilation might also serve as a cautionary tale as well as a memorabilia that enables us to cherish our own forebears. In displaying to us the charm of the ordinary, he also discreetly advises us—in his way of saying much with so few words—of the danger of the reverse, of becoming nonchalant in the face of the remarkable. It is here we see that he, too, might have been “a bit of a clairvoyant,” drawing from his mother more than he—at least on the surface—lets on, and presents to us this brilliant autobiography that could be read on a number of levels.

This amazing man continues his story, with clarity and dignity even explaining the pattern of his days with carers, not just for physical assistance but also to help him bear the loneliness around him. At 102 years of age, those from his generation are gone, he is widowed and, living in the home he grew up in, is surrounded by their memories. He finds joy in the Internet and reaches out to his extended family who live, literally, all over the globe. His story is written in a simple manner, but it is by no means simplistic and, as mentioned earlier, he presents it to us with many layers to peel back and discover that beneath it all is great complexity, which is, as Campbell himself might say, “as simple as that!”

To the end, Campbell displays that bright spark, a telling humor that makes us want to dig deeper to understand what else it is he knows, what is he trying to tell us, or even just share with us. Diana Jackson:

I saw Norman in hospital three days before he passed away and he said[,] ‘I’ve got it Diana! The name of my book. The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell!’

‘You can’t call it that,’ I spluttered. ‘You’re still with us.’

Indeed he is.

same house

Norman at 102 years of age He passed away just two months later
Norman at 102 years of age
He passed away just two months later

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(All images from The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell.)

Thank you to Mr. Norman Campbell, for sharing your remarkable life with us!

For more from Diana Jackson, see her blog, where you can also read more about Mr. Norman Campbell.

To purchase this fantastic book, please go to Amazon or Amazon UK.

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This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location

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