Jack Grassby: An Obituary of a Philosopher

I recently learnt about the passing of Jack Grassby. Jack died on January 12th 2022 – only a few months before his 97th Birthday. I think it’s difficult to summarise Jack. He was a truly interesting and unique individual

During the Second World War he served in the navy. I don’t know much about his time at sea but I know on at least one occasion his ship was attacked by the Luftwaffe.
He became involved in local Socialist politics and the economic turmoil of the 1970s – something he documented in this book “The Unfinished Revolution: South Tyneside 1969-1976.”
It was also sometime in the 1970s that Jack helped found the annual Westoe Village fair.

Jack developed a deep interest in philosophy and became an important figure within local philosophical circles. He would frequently give lectures on behalf of such groups. It was at one of these public lectures that I first met Jack. I believe it was late 2015 and he gave a well informed talk on the philosophy of Nietzsche ironically in a church hall. He was already rather old at this point but despite his age his mind was still sharp. He could speak at length about complex matters such as the thinking of Derrida and Wittgenstein.

Jack’s abilities as a speaker were far surpassed by his abilities as an organiser. I’d seen Jack chair board meetings – maintaining order when rivalries were bitter and emotions ran high. Skills I suspect he perfected during his trade union days. On a few occasions I found myself disagreeing with some of his decisions – sometimes seeing that he was right in retrospect. Unlike other board members Jack was respected by his critics. I think its fair to say that when Jack Grassby spoke everyone stopped to listen.

Jack authored several books on the topics of philosophy and local history. Unfortunately they’re all out of print. A friend and I once found a copy of his “Postmodern Humanism” in a used bookstore in Jesmond. I knew I’d be seeing him the following weekend and brought the book with me.
When I presented it to him he smiled and laughed saying “You know, this is all just student stuff.”
I asked him if he’d sign it and he did. That book is sitting on my shelf only a few feet away from me now as I type this article.

The last time I seen Jack was on a cold December day in 2019. We’d both attended a rather dry public lecture. Afterwards everyone planned to head to a pub across the road for food and drinks.
Jack and I spoke on our way there. We discussed the lecture, my first essay which I’d published a few months earlier, the state of the philosophy scene. Once we got there we’d sat at different tables but before he left he came over to me, said good bye and shook my hand. I’d enjoyed speaking with Jack that afternoon.

He and I exchanged emails for a while after that. By now I’d become rather critical of the philosophy scene and we discussed my criticism via email. Despite my criticism I never had any ill feeling towards Jack – he was one of the few people there I still had any respect for. The last messages we exchanged were in late 2020. I’d told him I was planning to write an essay on Lovecraft and he’d told me of his plans to write an essay on Nietzsche and language.
After that we lost contact. I’ve no idea if he ever finished that essay. I never finished mine on Lovecraft.

I know that Jack remained active in philosophical circles after that and only fully retired in his mid-Nineties shortly before his passing.
I’m disappointed no one I knew from the period informed me. I only found out after bumping into a mutual acquaintance. I discovered that the North East Humanists paid tribute to Jack in their newsletter but I never subscribed to it.
A friend and I had planned to make a short documentary on Jack. We’d pitched the idea to him and he seemed to be willing but due to the lockdowns the project never went ahead. I’m rather sad now to think this documentary was never produced.

Unfortunately Jacks website has now gone down. You can still find partly preserved on the “WayBack Machine.”
Although his books are out of print you can still occasionally find them in used book stores and libraries scattered around North-East England.
I was surprised to hear that Jacks’ artwork was on display at the Customs House art gallery in South Shields. I’d never known that Jack was an artist. I hope to make the trip to the gallery soon.

Despite everything he did and achieved – I think those who knew Jack will remember him for the strength of his character, his integrity and the strong influence he had on those around him.

I know that’s why I’ll remember him.

“The deepest and most organic death is death in solitude, when even light becomes a principle of death. In such moments you will be severed from life, from love, smiles, friends and even from death. And you will ask yourself if there is anything besides the nothingness of the world and your own nothingness.”
Emil Cioran


Books And The People Who Used To Own Them

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time and money in used book stores. I’ve purchased books both famous and obscure – editions both common and rare.
Used books often have little markings left by their pervious owner. They often give books a little character or sometimes even mystery.
Here I’d like to display a few of these little marking that for one reason or another I found interesting.

It used to rather common for people to write their name on the inside cover of books. It’s something few people still do.

A few years ago I came across a rare English translation of Ernst Jünger’s “On The Marble Cliffs.” The novel was first published in Hamburg, Germany in 1939 and first published in English in 1947, a time when German literature was very unpopular in Britain.
This copy of the anti-authoritarian novella was originally purchased by Brenda Horsefeild in London 1948.

Although rather rare it’s not to hard to find a copy of “D’Annunzio” by Tom Antongini for a reasonable price. Despite being obscure it is considered to be one of the best biographies of D’Annunzio due to Antongini’s long service as the poets right-hand man.
In this copy a pervious owner has signed not only their name but given the place of purchase as Cairo, dating 14.26.38 (putting the month before the date suggests that the previous owner was an American). This little note has always inspired by my curiosity and imagination. I’ve not doubt that this book has a lot of untold history and has had adventures of it’s own. I’ve always wondered who it was who picked up this book all those decades ago.

Worn out, battered and falling apart by the time I’d got it this copy of 1984 was previously owned by Sarah Hughes. I assume she was an English literature student who studied this book as several sections are underlined and annotated in mostly blue ink.

At first I enjoyed reading Sarahs little insights until she gave away the ending less than half way in. I have never forgiven her.

This pre-owned copy of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is almost completely unmarked other than a faintly copied the Walt Disney logo in pencil on page 21.

I picked up a copy of Plato’s Symposium in an English book store in Amsterdam. The previous owner had used a boarding pass as a book mark, which they left between pages 56 & 57. They had travelled from Montreal to Brussels.

In this collection of Thomas Mann novellas the previous owners name has been blacked out with marker pen, presumably by a book store worker.

In the days before Doctor Who fans could rewatch their favourite episodes on VHS or DVD several classic series stories were novelised and published by Target books. This copy of “Death to the Daleks” was perviously owned by Robin Turner who illustrated his own little Dalek making it’s way across a blue ink landscape.

Young Robin Turner was an avid reader of Doctor Who books as he ticked off almost all the titles advertised on the inside cover.

This copy of “The Joke” by Milan Kundera was gifted to it’s previous owner by two of their travelling companions. I’ve always felt it was rather sad that this one ending up in a used book store.

One of many notes made in “Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy” by R.J. Hollingdale.

Inside “An Outline of the Doctorates of Thomas Carlyle” the previous owner left not only their name but also a newspaper article on Carlyle dated Friday February 8th 1952. The book however is much older, dated 1869.

I came across these three books in the winter of 2015. I was surprised to find all three had belonged to the same person, who marked how and when they got them. Two of these books were gifts from to the previous owner from their father for their Philosophy degree at the university of Hull. Like another book mentioned in this article, I think it’s a little sad to see these gifts ended in a used book shop.

I own perhaps over a dozen books that have been either stolen from or sold off by various libraries.

One favourite used book store finds was a collection of essays by Schopenhauer. J.R. Adamson purchased this book in 1911 – just a few years before the start of the first world war. I’ve always wondered if Adamson found him self involved with that conflict and what fate would he later meet?