Sid Chaplin – Obituary tribute

Sid’s son, Mike Chaplin, an accomplished wordsmith in his own right, wrote this touching farewell following Sid’s death.

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ONE of the North’s most remarkable men of letters died this week, Sid Chaplin. His son, MIKE CHAPLIN, a former writer with The Journal, now working in television, writes
this tribute to his father.’

Go on, bonny lad

Sid Chaplin

WELL, Sid, here I am, sitting in your study, at your desk, hesitantly tapping out these words on the trusty old Olympia that was discarded so often and returned every time to its pride of place, the final link in a process that began not in the brain, but, always with you, in the heart.

I keep glancing up at that Samuel Palmer postcard on the wall; Jack Brymer is playing Mozart clarinet concertos on the cassette-player; and there’s a faint smell of pipe tobacco in the room, drifting across, I think, from your old green herringbone work jacket, which hangs as it always did on the back of the door.

Of course you know why I’m here. I’ve been searching for you all week. Saturday was the worst, when I finally came to understand what you yourself wrote, that “loss is expressed as an animal sound wrenched out of the body, a sound only possible when we are shocked out of watching ourselves.” Then there was the desperate need to come home, the dash across London to King’s Cross and, as the train sped north, the memories began to crowd in: Darlington Station, where you once showed me Locomotion No.1 and declaimed proudly on how “us” Northumbrians had conquered the industrial world; Durham Cathedral, bathed in light, where many a time you held my and as we followed the Big Meeting bands and banners past the Lion Knocker; and finally Newcastle itself, where the lamps twinkled on the Tyne and I remembered the afternoon, just a few months ago, when I’d delighted in showing you something, -the kittiwakes wheeling and gliding above their nests on the old Baltic flour-mill.

Bit crack

Later, Robert and Pamela came and talked to us about your last conversation and what a good bit crack it sounded too, of books and boyhood heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson and how you cherished the hope of following in his footsteps – to Samoa! They brought a little plastic bag with all your little personal things in it, and the fragments of the fag-end of your life came tumbling out onto the fire-side rug: Pevsner‘s Guide to Cumberland and Westmorland, a packet of pipecleaners (one used), a Northern bus ticket, a dried Honesty leaf tucked inside an envelope, a half-consumed packet of Wrigley’s peppermint gum and (I had to laugh) a cutting from the paper advertising an electronic type-writer–despite, or perhaps because of, being what you called a “cuddy-shifter”, when it came to things mechanical, you were fascinated by gadgetry.

One day we peeped out at the world and walked up to Old Jesmond Cemetery, where you used to take children and notebook and hunt for names for the other important people in your life—the characters in your books. We walked among the Cruddases and Atkinsons, the iron founders, mahogany merchants, coalowners and all the other self»made men who built this city.

Next day we returned and passed the time of day with the man in charge; You would have loved him—a Brueghel face, hands like shovels and boots big enough to have been riveted together at Swan Hunters-the kind of man Shakespeare must have bumped into when he was researching the back end of Hamlet. Anywhere, our friend had perhaps a softer heart than the fellow who unearthed Yorick, for he let us choose a spot for you. A few yards from John Dobson’s graceful gates and underneath a little holly tree—we remembered, you see, that you’d written about the holly berry. of how it seemed to symbolise life, with all its pain and pleasure.

But the mourning had not yet started to do its work. The mind teemed with regrets-we would never take that trilp together on the Settle to Carlisle railway, the film I wanted to make with you would not get made, you would not see my sons grow into men. But deeper still, the ultimate itch of hurt, the fear that you did not truly know what I felt for you. ‘

And so, at last, I came into this room, to sit quietly and maybe find just enough of you to get me through. And there lying in the middle of the desk I found a notebook, not the most up-to-date but one you’d written way back, in the late Sixties. Here was all the evidence of the remarkable range of your self-educated magpie mind: quotes from Tolstoy, the natural history of the cormorant, a note on the derivation of the phrase “put a sock in it” (something to do with lowering the volume on ancient horn gramophones) and an account of a conversation with an old caretaker about the whores of old Newcastle.
But most of the pages dealt with the obsession that you never quite exorcised in print: your not-quite-happy, not-quite-sad childhood in the pit valleys of South-West Durham sixty years ago.

You’ve drawn a very detailed map of the Byers Green of the 1920’s; there’s a list of the ten houses you lived in during childhood and adolescence; anecdotes about your Uncle Edward‘s eccentricities, as well as copious notes on pits poaching, tripe, placenames, silent films and all the other bits of reality and memory that you hoped to stitch together in a novel that would be in many ways your life’s work.

The book was never written. But it seemed to me, sitting there that at the end all that scribbling had found another purpose. They spelt out a message from you to me. And so the last gift you left me was a rich one indeed, a realisation that I must use whatever talents God gave me and you taught me, to write—if not your story, then other tales of my world.

And now the words fairly dance across the page and I feel you here with me now, as you always will be, dad, a grin on your face, your hand on my shoulder and whispering softly into my ear: “Go on, my bonny lad, get stuck in, show them what you’re made of. .


The original of the notice:


Sid Chaplin
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