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.

Because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people — the ancient Greeks, for instance — more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker.
Friedrich Nietzsche

2022