Sam Watson 1898-1967


When I came in from a walk over Alnwick Moors last Sunday and my wife told me that the Guardian had been on the telephone to say that Sam had died in his sleep, and would I write some words, my first reaction was of rebellion, my second that now and for ever my own youth was ended. The years speeding by never meant so much so long as one could imagine Sam Watson sitting under a tree looking out over the city he loved so much. Now he is gone and there is no strong, vital element to sustain us – or to throw ourselves against.

But so long as his memory lives, so will the spark of youth. I remember as a lad at Dean and Chapter Colliery reading his letters in the ‘Northern Echo’ signed by Sam Watson, Boldon. I liked his style much better than that of A.J. Spender, who was the great political columnist of that time. Here was a man who communicated. Is letters inspired mine, rather odd letters on a variety of subjects under a variety of romantic pseudonyms, a first sign, I suppose of the imaginative writer. The letters I liked, but I had mixed feelings about the man. I have a picture of him speaking in Ferryhill Market Place in the Thirties when I was still a politically ambitious teenager. He spoke fluently without notes and all he said made prose sense and common sense – there were no clichés. He spoke quietly, confident in the penetrating quality of is sharp, slightly metallic voice with its East Coast twang. His eyes twinkled with affection and in the joy of exposition. He was entirely without flourishes and forced ejaculatory tricks of all the other soap book speakers I’ve ever heard, gently coaxing and guiding the crowd – no, each single member of the crowd – along the line of his own lucid thinking. There was excellence, and because youth always wants to have its fling, and my idea of a fling was such excellence as this, I railed at the injustice of it all. One never could be as good as this. Then as so often in the future I disagreed with his political line, and part of my youthful frustration and despair lay in the knowledge that one would have to be impossibly good to put the other side half as well. Years later when my Fircroft tutor told me that I hadn’t the makings of a first-class trade union leader I blazed, then conceded as I thought of Sam Watson. But if this was a negative, there was also a resounding positive in the hope that it might just be possible to be as excellent in another field.

In that the years that followed I got to know other facets of this many sided man. There was a time going to a miners’ service at Stanley when he picked me up, sweating in the hot sun having missed the bus, and talking on the way he revealed his deep affection for the chapel. There was the night at Hetton when he sparkled with stories and talked about the dialect. There was another time at Redhills when his deep sense of history came flooding to the surface, and I who had considered him –well, as practical and with important mundane things – found a scholar with a passion for bringing the past life. He had odd and exciting bits of information stored away at the back of his mind, and a boys curiosity about things, and he listened eagerly to my own scraps of information and observations, the pink faced clenched like a fist with interest.

Our meetings were infrequent. I was nothing like an intimate friend but what came out in the intersection of his own busy life with mine was more than a deep sense of history. He wanted to know all of everything and embrace every living soul; there was a novelist or playwright hidden away in him. Not only his love for mining folk but his curiosity, fascination and obsession with all sorts and conditions of people kept him in Durham. And of course it was writing that helped him to first make his name. He had the writer’s gusto. You could see him lean forward when you related the story of strange, remarkable or noble and unknown people. That Sunday at Whittingham I have been talking to a stone-deaf ex-railwayman, with a wife almost blind. The way we talked was that I spoke to the wife and she wrote the sentence for him quickly in the air, over and over again until he had grasped it. When my wife told me about Sam a picture of the old couple came into my mind. He would have loved that story.

His was a busy life and he had to distance himself, but he was always one for young hopefuls. I think of the lads who came from all over Durham for his class, but there must be also many like myself who walked into Durham hoping that there would be a second-hand book for a tenner, yearning for intellectual and spiritual betterment, who walked all the more proudly for Sam Watson. Into the covered market, into Andrews, and half an hour at the NCLC bookstore on the field, and then the great man himself on the platform, twinkling, in full command and full of the joys of life. He had made it, and so would we, hitching are own wagon to a star. As the hair grew thinner and the eyebrows whiter the youth in him bubbled out more strongly. However much you disagreed with him, you knew that he cared. He was not only Sam Watson the negotiator, Sam Watson the statesman and Sam Watson the advocate but Sam the fellow-writer and scholar and Sam the human being. Well, he is gone. But he will always walk lightly, twinkly, through the days of my youth.

Sid Chaplin.

This appreciation originally appeared in North East History, Volume 1, 1967