Bill Griffiths 1948-2007

Bill Griffiths completed the preliminary draft of his book on the dialect of the North East Coast just days before his death in September 2007. It concluded a remarkable achievement, being the third volume of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Wor’ Language project. The previous books Stotty ‘n Spicecake: The Story of North East Cooking, 2006, and Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coalfield, 2007, received local and national acclaim and alongwith his Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, 2005, established Bill’s reputation as the region’s foremost dialect scholar. He was a unique talent who possessed an unusual combination of skills. He came from an orchestra family, was trained as a classical pianist and had performed solo at the Barbican Centre. His musical education was followed by a degree in History at UCL and a Doctorate in Old English from Kings College, London. He also wrote poetry which was of the highest order, one of his many obituarists in the national press described his work as without equal in English since Ezra Pound. That he deliberately chose to publish with small presses, of which he was an ardent participant, partly explains why his work was not more widely known. In recent years, however, he had been appointed Visiting Professor in Poetry in many universities, particularly in the U S A where his work is highly regarded. His role as a Fellow and a researcher at the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University since 2000 provided a material security – unusual for Bill like many other poets – and it was during these years that he tirelessly researched regional dialect.

Bill moved from London to the North East, settling at Seaham, in 1990. To many this seemed an odd choice as he had a growing reputation as a poet with a particular London focus. But, for Bill there was a strong logic to his northern journey. Since the 1960’s he had frequently visited the region, drawn to the Morden Tower poetry scene and the poets who were emerging under the guiding influence of Basil Bunting. Bill was a strong admirer of Tom Pickard and their relationship of mutual respect produced the delightful collaborative work Tyne Txts in 2003. Above all it was the region’s language that drew him here. Bill was a formidable student of Saxon literature who took great pleasure in living amongst the vestiges of Old English which forms the core of North East dialect. He quickly became part of the local cultural scene-in its widest sense. Professor Rosemary Cramp would visit his marvellously unkempt Tyneside flat at Seaham, surrounded by four pianos, including two grands! –to discuss aspects of Seaham’s Saxon History. He wrote numerous books on Seaham from its Saxon origins to the Londonderry years. He was a champion of the local environment, drawing attention to the plight of the Durham Denes and attacking the local authority plans to develop the notorious Get Carter beach. These drew Bill into politics and he came within a few votes of winning a council seat as an Independent in this Labour stronghold. He became the leading figure and inspiration in the Seaham local history scene and helped to establish the Tyneside and Durham Dialect Society. He had a remarkable ability to blend in to local society; he could more than hold his own in academic circles, but it was his involvement with ordinary local people that gave him greatest pleasure. His half time post at the university allowed him to visit and talk to old people – Thursday afternoons were always reserved for making one elderly resident’s lunch. He was well known amongst teenagers, many who participated, in his dialect projects. With his dishevelled appearance, tattoos that were a legacy of his involvement with the Hells Angels during the 1960’s, and colourful American sportswear and shellsuits he developed an easy rapport with people who would normally be reluctant to participate in scholarly research. Indeed Bill always managed to invoke amongst those involved in his work a strong sense of shared ownership: he was there to help them preserve and defend ‘their’ language, a dimension all too apparent at his numerous dialect meetings when he was accompanied by an entourage of locals. To hear young men and women give demonstrations of contemporary dialect were memorable moments at these events.

Music, History, Poetry, as if this was not enough, stood alongside Bill’s other great skill as an archivist. He was a member of the Society of Archivists; his membership was achieved in recognition of the important work he performed at the Kings College Poetry Archive during the 1990’s. In recent years he catalogued the papers of the Northern Sinfonia and during the spring of 2007 he completed the task of listing over one hundred hours of oral recordings of T. Dan Smith. Listening, studying and compiling were central to Bill’s work. We can marvel at the thousand year plus etymologies to many local words; take surprise at his demonstration of the important Dutch contribution to the language of the region, and puzzle over the failure of Irish to have a linguistic impact upon the region despite the scale of nineteenth century immigration. Labour historians are indebted to his rescue and preservation of Pitmatic, the rapidly disappearing language of the Great Northern Coalfield – this alone is an achievement of historic significance. And in his forthcoming book Fishing Folk (to be published in July 2008) we witness Bill at the height of his powers. The community involvement is ever present – he became a leading figure in the Keel and Cobble Boat Society and he scoured the towns and villages of the region’s coast in his quest. His research became more multi-dimensional and arguably this book is as important a work of the social history of the North Sea Coast as it is a record the community’s language.

At the time of his death we were planning a new project on the dialect of children’s games and pastimes and it is the intention of all those involved with Bill that this work should be undertaken. Thanks to him the people of the North East have a wonderful cultural resource – a resource that Bill would insist was as much their making as his – and his greatest legacy is that he has created something that will be enduring. Bill died within a few weeks of Murray Martin, a founder and inspirational figure at Amber Films. They both shared a passion that working people of the region should be able to represent themselves whether in film or voice. The summer of 2007 so brilliantly explored in the Newcastle writer Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday, The News as a Novel, was miserable on many counts and there was much that we would rather forget. Bill’s passing will not be forgotten and his life is a reminder that genius is often all around us.

Bill Lancaster, Director of the Centre for Northern Studies, 1997-2008

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 49, 2008