The aspect of the novel that is so often overlooked is its capacity to interpret the world we have lived through. The Tyneside of the nineteen sixties was a different country.I worked out of John Dobson’s lying-in-hospital in New Bridge Street, the BBC’s regional headquarters until it moved out to its shoddy pink palace on the edge of Leazes Moor. Next door to it was the Portland public house – Studio Five as it was known to indulgent receptionists anxious to protect producers from unwanted interruptions that had anything to do with work, or imposed in any way on their drinking time. The pub was also opposite the Oxford Galleries, the dance hall, where, in Geordie folklore marriages were made; heaven having absolutely nothing at all to do with it!
It was there on a Friday night that two worlds collided. The hacks, relaxing after a week on Voice of the People, or Look North, and the young Tyneside lads smacking their lips over the first of many pints of Scotch before crossing the road to chance their luck at the Oxford Galleries, or was it the Mayfair by then?
Sid Chaplin, the watcher of The Watcher and the Watched (1962) caught it exactly. The reflection he created was as true as that in the
mirror of the gents’ lavatory where the lads adjusted their quiffs and thin ties before they left the pub for the dance hall:
‘This is Friday night and you want to sweat clean, if you have to sweat, and a pin to a penny you will before the week-end’s over. Then you shave yourself with real precision, using the palm of your hand as micrometer, and brush your teeth, cupping a hand over your mouth, and blowing your breath up just to make sure that the old womanizing breathing is sweet. Then you pull on a clean white shirt and feel your skin tingle pingle tingle knowing that the pants and body shirt are whipped clean and sparkling, and spend half an hour tying an impeccable squinty knot and getting cuffs and cufflinks spot on.’
All this had been preceded by:
‘………..a nice high tea, Heinz Soup, half a pound of cooked pork with a little of the crackling for body, a nice sweet tomato, new bread, finishing up with a fancy cake from the baker’s shop at the end of the street.’
What would it be nowadays, as they prepare for that weekly stagger down the Bigg Market to the Quayside? A take-away pizza…man tan…a squirt of after shave and the resolve to believe that the cold wind off the Tyne is nothing more than the balmy breeze of Ibiza.
At first glance the comparison seems to show why, with the exception of a perceptive publisher like Flambard, Sid’s work is no longer common currency. He seems the chronicler of a lost world and because, unlike Catherine Cookson’s it was a real, recognisable world, it’s passing is that much more obvious. But just as Middlemarch is no lesser because of the Midlands drift to the cities, or Hard Times no less potent because of New Unionism, Sid Chaplin’s novels reach beyond the century in which they were created.
Take The Day of the Sardine (1961 and recently republished by Flambard.) Arthur Haggerston is the very model working class hero, a character one feels created with Tom Courtenay or Albert Finney in mind, rather than the softer Likely Lads. This is Arthur reflecting on what life has in store for the male adolescent:
‘But I shudder at the thought of 15 to 17 and the slow torture of six dead end jobs. Dead end is right. Everybody down there is heaving coal, running errands, carrying meat, watching a machine, walking about or sitting on his backside. Either dead or dying. Rejects found wanting, defeated before they ever made a start. Education is a sieve as well as a lift.’
Well, however many bottles of beer they had clutched in their fist, no matter how loud the disco beat in the Bigg Market pubs, the products of the bog standard comprehensives would hear and recognize that message. Education is a sieve as well as a lift.
I first encountered Sid’s work when I was a young radio producer. I decided to do a documentary for the North Region’s Home Service based on Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. The idea was to test the validity of Hoggart’s assertion that working class life could, at times, be ‘good and comely’. The Watcher and the Watched was strong supporting evidence. Although it was published five years after The Uses of Literacy it read like Hoggart’s inspirational text. The descriptions of the working class rituals of birth, marriage and death temper affection with unflinching honesty. There is the row upon the stairs of the rival mothers-in-law; the ‘gatherin’ of the works collection, which served for accidents and retirements, as well as wedding presents; the petty snobberies of the posh Scarborough honeymoon hotel; and the stranger at the funeral, come to pay the last respects to the hero of some long forgotten shop floor rebellion.
Given that it was written before the Lady Chatterley trial, there is also a surprising honesty about sex. This is Tiger Tim Martin, the Tyneside tearaway, ‘the lad that licked the Blaydon boys singlehandedly’ reflecting on what awaits him in marriage:
‘That would be a different caper from an afternoon in the woods or an hour in the passage. “Ah mean”, he thought to himself in mingled wonder and fear, “This’ll be in bed with a lass,” Suddenly she wasn’t Jean any longer, but a strange woman – an enemy.’
But The Watcher and the Watched is not some faded film record of the way we were. The characters inspire us still because although the rules of our rites of passage may have been tinkered with, they continue to demand the courage and humanity of Sid Chaplin’s people. As the grieving widow puts it:
‘He was a good man and a good husband and he felt for the world like he felt for his family.’
In one of his later novels Sam in the Morning (1965) Sid presciently anticipates the times in which his work will fall out of fashion. ‘Not to care is the mark of the new aristocracy’ says Sam Rowlands, his hero on the make, down South. But it was not just that Sid cared – (in a notoriously bitchy trade few authors can have inspired quite
so much respect and affection) – it was that he managed to express his concerns in such a uniquely poetic voice.
It was a voice first recognised by John Lehmann when he accepted Sid’s earliest work for New Writing and then, in a very different age, by the countless viewers of When the Boat Comes In. He was, according to an anonymous TLS critic ‘a born writer with a poet’s eye and a rich sense of language.’
Because Sid was such a patently decent man there has been a tendency to look on his work as if it were that of some optimistic lightweight. Nothing could be further from the truth. All his novels have a dark seam of bleak realism. This is the old miner’s verdict on life in Day of the Sardine:
‘When Ah was a miner, Ah often used to think what it would be if one day Ah broke through into a place full of light. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing? Well Arthur me lad there’s no place full of light and that’s a fact’.
In The Big Room (1960) he even goes so far as to cast doubt on his calling:
‘We are all brought up on love and adventure and such like trash, and we all expect it as our due, and when it doesn’t come we grab at something like it for fear of missing it.’
He could be just as blunt about working class history. This is what he wrote in the Twentieth Century about the Big Strike out of which, as he put it, the General Strike came as ‘a premature death rattle’:
‘There was no time to think of the bread that sustains the other life. The chapel never recovered, and that was a pity because it was truer and warmer than the Miners Lodge and the Labour Party, but only so long as the people believed. After that they chucked the Bible for Tit Bits and John Bull; if they really burned the Bible at Chopwell and read a chapter from Das Kapital the gesture was useless.’
Sid’s honesty always prevented him from sentimentalizing the working class, even though to him they were always kith and kin. The touch was never quite so sure when he ventured south of Arkengarthdale, the setting for The Big Room. Neither Sam in the Morning, nor Mines of Alabaster (1971) have the confident certainties of his earlier work.
Perhaps like Jack Common, the writer he so much admired, he didn’t travel well. Yet both of them did their bit in contradiction of Tomlinson’s famous myth in the Guide to Northumberland that, ‘the genius of the North is rather practical and mechanical than imaginative and her engineering triumphs far excel her poetic achievements.’
But what if he was ‘a regional writer’ that label which Auden gracelessly hung on him at their first meeting. No worse for that and their subsequent friendship actually suggests that he probably meant it as a compliment. After all it was Auden who wrote of
A poet’s hope: to be
like some valley cheese,
local but prized elsewhere
It is surely time for the poet of the Tees, Wear and Tyne valleys to be prized again and get his proper, due recognition
This article first appeared in North East History, Volume 37, 2006