Working Class Writers’ Week: The Sid Chaplin Award

In the early months of 1941 – the darkest time of the Second World War – a young pitman took a break in the deep recesses of the Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill. But he didn’t eat his bait or drink from a bottle of cold tea. Instead he wrote a poem, with stubby pencil on a dirty scrap of paper. It didn’t take long – it was just 13 lines – but more importantly it came quickly from his own pain and the need to expiate it. The words recorded the death of a miner underground – the writer lost more than one good friend in this way – and the journey of his body from the darkness of the seam where his life ended to the surface where the sun shone but many were beginning to grieve:

The sunshine greeted him

The wind caressed him

A widow wept for him

When they carried the body to bank

The 24-year-old miner’s name was Sid Chaplin and he was my father. A few months later ‘A Widow Wept’ began a 44-year career that finally encompassed 8 novels, five books of short stories and essays, sundry scripts for television and the theatre. But that 13 line poem was the start of it all, published in the literary journal Penguin New Writing, earning Sid his very first fee – five guineas (I love the fact it wasn’t paid in pounds), most of which went on a silver wedding anniversary gift for his parents – a dinner service from Binns of Darlington.

Now Sid Chaplin’s name is being given to a new category of the Northern Writers’ Awards for working-class writing. It seems fitting therefore to say something about the man and his background and draw parallels with writers today attempting to write from their own experience about working lives.

In the late 30’s Sid became radicalised by the bitter hardship endured by his parents, their six children and the mining communities of south west Durham during the Depression. His first ambition was political – to fight in the Spanish Civil War, become a trade union official or even a Labour MP. But when these dreams were scuppered by the need to earn a wage and then the outbreak of war. Sid began to think seriously of another apparently unattainable goal – to become a published writer.

Despite the fact he grew up in a house without books, from an early age my dad searched for them wherever he could find them – the library van that toured mining villages, penny book stalls, miners’ reading rooms, Workers’ Educational Association centres and the so-called pitmens’ academy, the Spennymoor Settlement. Another source was his fellow workers. One golden day a locomotive driver called Enoch Goynes introduced Sid to DH Lawrence and loaned him a copy of the play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. My dad read it by the roadside on his way home and was astonished firstly that someone had written a great and powerful work of art about miners like him. Then something struck him upon further research: that though Lawrence was the son of a miner, he himself had never worked below ground. It began to dawn on Sid that he had the knowledge of and insight into working class experience that middle class observers would never possess.

This revelation became another spur to action – and of course it still holds true today. I know myself after a lifetime in journalism, TV documentary and drama and writing plays in theatre and radio, that research however immaculate can only get you so far. Empathy can take you further, but perhaps the best way of achieving elusive- ities like veracity and authenticity is personal experience. In most cases there will only be one winner between lives lived and lives observed.

This was certainly the view of Sid’s first champion, the editor of Penguin New Writing, John Lehmann, brother of novelist Rosamund and actress Beatrix. He instantly saw the artistic merit of Sid’s poems and short stories, but also valued their social and political value, not simply because though educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was a man of the left, but also because he passionately believed that literature must illuminate the ‘undiscovered country’ of working class experience.

It is family legend that it took a long, long time before my father’s work was published; in my mother’s bleak phrase, she ‘could have papered a bedroom with the rejection slips’. Actually it turns out that this isn’t true. Lehmann published ‘A Widow Wept’ and two other poems within two months of them being submitted, then he started on the short stories. Other editors, among them Woodrow Wyatt, then still another man of the Left, published others, while George Orwell no less asked Sid to take over his columns for Tribune while he was on holiday. Within a couple of years he had his first book deal.

Would working class writers push at a similar open door today? It’s questionable. Publishers, it is said, are obsessed with middle class lives to the exclusion of all others. This may be a cyclical thing: in the late 50’s and early 60’s working class fiction became vital and ‘sexy’ as well as wildly popular, as the careers of Braine, Barstow, Sillitoe and Storey (for whom Sid was a role model as well as mentor) demonstrates. Something similar happened in the 90’s, but of late it seems large swathes of Britain have again become undiscovered countries, and compelling, vital stories are not finding readers.

It’s in this context that I welcome the Sid Chaplin Award. I think the man himself would be tickled pink. He was the recipient of an award himself, the Atlantic Award For Literature in 1947. The £300 he received from the Rockefeller Foundation (I try not to think it was some CIA scam) bought him a year out of the pit and the time to write his second novel. Let’s hope something similar happens to the talented person who wins the first Sid Chaplin…

The winner of the first Sid Chaplin Award will be announced at the Northern Writers’ Awards on Wednesday 26 June 2019