Some reflections on the life of a good friend of ours, John Waddington-Feather, who died on 28 April. His funeral is being held in Shropshire this afternoon (18 May).
Born in 1933, John grew up in the Lawkholme area of Keighley and studied at Keighley Boys’ Grammar School. He received his B.A. in English (with Italian and History) from Leeds University in 1954. John took a particular interest in dialect studies, an area in which the university had considerable expertise. He recalled his fieldwork:
‘I remember being pushed in the direction of an elderly farmer above Haworth – a real old Joseph – and his door opened about an inch. His gnarled face peered out and he eyed me suspiciously a while before asking, “Are ta frae t’tax?’ (Fees, 1991).
John’s ‘post-graduate education’ included three months as a ward orderly at a tuberculosis sanatorium near Ilkley and national service in the Intelligence Corps and as a paratrooper. ‘I needed compassion and a good stomach in the one; and in the other low cunning and native guile!’. An enthusiastic sportsman, John played rugby union for Crowborough and Sussex.
After national service, John studied medicine for a year, but failed Chemistry, which put an end to his medical career. He decided to use his English degree as a teacher on HMS Worcester, where he met his future wife. They moved to Yorkshire where John took up a post at Salt Grammar School, and three daughters were born.
In 1969 an eventful trip across North America on Greyhound buses changed John’s life. He was mugged, but found unexpected help: ‘I sat next to two ex-convicts newly released from penitentiary, who regaled me with a string of stories about life in prison and looked after me as I recovered’. On his return to England, John became a prison visitor, wanting to give something back in return for the help those men gave him. He found the work rewarding, and later decided to become a priest, thanks in part to the suggestion made by a young prisoner. After studying theology at St Deiniol’s Library, he was ordained in 1977. The role of non-stipendiary Anglican minister was ideal as he could continue to teach. He retired from teaching in 1995 though continued prison visiting until very recently: ‘I believe I’m the oldest working prison chaplain in Britain, with more ‘time’ behind me than any of the men I visit.’
However, Special Collections knew John best as an author and as a J.B. Priestley enthusiast, Chairman Emeritus and Vice-President of the J.B. Priestley Society.
Like JB, John was a prolific and fluent writer, and experimented with many genres: scholarly articles, poetry, verse plays, history plays, children’s books, detective stories, historical romance and more. Following the removal of his one, cancerous, kidney in 2001, John had to spend many hours a week on dialysis. Writing was, as he said, a lifeline for him during these difficult times. He used writing as a lifeline for others, for instance, encouraging prisoners to reflect and improve literacy via Poetry Church magazine, which he founded in 1997. John’s works are characterised by his concern for others, his faith, and the inspiration he continued to draw from his Yorkshire childhood and his wide experience of life.
Witness the Quill the Hedgehog series, for children (and grown-ups). Quill and his friends fight to save their world from the destructive evil of Mungo the alleycat and his armies of rats, a parallel to the fate of the West Riding’s countryside during the Industrial Revolution. Quill’s Adventures in Grozzieland was nominated for the Carnegie medal in 1989.
John was early to see the value of online platforms to authors and publishers, creating ‘waddysweb’ to publicise his imprint Feather Books. More recently he found the Kindle format attracted many purchasers of his Blake Hartley mysteries, (3000+ sales per month). The mysteries are classic light detective fiction, featuring Inspector Hartley and Sergeant Khan, up against sleaze, crime and red herrings in ‘Keighworth’.
To sum up, it was a privilege to know and work with John. We are proud to be the home of his archive and book collection, which will ensure his works are remembered and enjoyed for years to come.
Fees, Craig (1991). The imperilled inheritance : dialect & folklife studies at the University of Leeds 1946-1962 Part 1, Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey. Folklore Society Library. In Special Collections, or online on the author’s website.
Quotations are taken from two essays by John, Autobiography (2009) and Post-graduate education (2012), sent in digital pre-publication form.
Obituary in the Keighley News, by Ian Dewhirst.