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Death of poet and a scholar

Sep 18 2007

by David Whetstone, The Journal


FFIENDS and colleagues are mourning the death of Dr Bill Griffiths, poet, Ango-Saxon scholar and champion of North-East dialects.

Dr Griffiths, who lived in Seaham, County Durham, died last week at the age of 59.

On September 8 – as he did every year – he hosted a Heritage Open Day event at the Morden Tower, Newcastle’s famous poetry venue, but left early after saying he felt unwell. He told friends he had left hospital a few days previously.

Connie Pickard, who founded the Morden Tower as a poetry venue in the 1960s, said last night: “I am devastated by his death. Bill was so erudite and dedicated to his work.

“Every year he would come with his books and his recording equipment for the Heritage Open Day and would give a prize for the best Geordie accent.

“He had been reading his poetry at the Tower for many years before he moved to the North-East. He became a very loved friend of many people in the region. The scope of his work was enormous. In some ways he was like Bede.”

Colleague and friend Dr Bill Lancaster, head of the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University, said: “Bill had a genius for carrying out serious scholarship of international quality which also had an appeal to a popular audience.”

He said that after moving to the North-East from London in 1990, Bill had reinvigorated serious scholarship on regional dialect.

Within a short period he produced three important books on dialect: A Dictionary of North-East Dialect, Stotty ’n’ Spice Cake: The Story of North-East Cooking and Pitmatic: The Talk of the North-East Coalfields.

The manuscript of a fourth book, a study of the dialects of the North-East coast, had just been handed in before he died.

Andrew Peden-Smith, manager of the university’s Northumbria Press, said: “We are extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Dr Bill Griffiths.

“Bill was a brilliant scholar and academic and had the ability to make his subject area accessible to the man on the street, which was demonstrated by the critical and popular acclaim with which his books have been received.”

Born into a distinguished musical family in Middlesex, Bill trained as a classical pianist before studying history at the University of Central London. Later he did a doctorate in Old English at King’s College, London.

As well as his North-East dialect books, he edited The Battle of Malden, described as the second most important piece of early English literature after Beowulf.

He was also a respected poet – “Great Britain’s least known major poet”, according to one national newspaper – whose work is included in the Oxford University Press Anthology of 20th Century British and Irish Verse.

In 2000 he was commissioned to catalogue the archive of the Northern Sinfonia and to produce a commemorative book about the orchestra. Two years later he organised an exhibition in his adopted home of Seaham which was seen by the Queen on her Golden Jubilee Tour.

Bill was not married but is survived by a brother and sister. His funeral will take place at 2pm on Wednesday, September 26, at Sunderland Crematorium.


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