Lifelong friend and comrade

David Douglass remembers Tom Kilburn, August 25 1946 - March 17 2024

It is with indescribable loss and a feeling of utter wretchedness that I announce the death of my dearest friend and comrade of 62 years, Tom Kilburn - always known (for some reason, now lost in the foolishness of youth) as ‘Black Tom’.

I first met him when I was searching for answers in the turbulence of the 1960s as a fresh-faced youth of 14. Tom was slightly older and already was fluid in the Marxist-Leninist twang, which I thought was the source of all wisdom. I had found him in the musty People’s Bookshop in Newcastle and he was already an experienced member of the Young Communist League, which I was keen to join. He was a real proletarian - an apprentice fitter-turner in the giant arms manufacturer that took up so much of the higher reaches of the Tyne. He sometimes came to communist meetings in his boiler suit and donkey jacket, smelling of diesel.

Later through the whirlpool of argument, postures, and the clash of identity and titles we parted political company - he veered off to Trotskyism, while I adopted anarchism - although we never abandoned our social relationship and the same circle of friends.

Tom’s impact on the youth scene was powerful and unlikely - as a youth of deeply serious views, he struck an imposing intellectual presence. This was a time when argument art, music and science were aspired to - even among your average beat, or mod (or in Tom’s case sheik scruff). He struck the posture of a well-read, witty eccentric - something readily accepted among the youth movement which dominated the town.

Tom was from the Gateshead Jewish community and probably single-handedly infused the Geordie dialect with Jewish expressions such as schnorrer (beggar) and meshuga (crazy). He was something of an expert on Jewish religion and little-known points of theory - so much so in fact that, when the mood took him, he would let his sideburns and hair grow down over his distinctive Jewish features purely to engage in arguments with random rabbis in the circle of Jewish men in the town. While arguing the toss over this or that, he was, of course, an implacable atheist.

Tom was enthralled for a decade and more by J Posadas and the International Bureau of the Fourth International - as was I. Indeed I was to become a member of the central committee of the Posadist Revolutionary Workers Party, while Tom gorged on Posadas’s theories and speculations. I eventually led a split from the RWP of its northern branches and later returned to anarchism, but Tom remained within ‘the party’ until he found the monolithic centralism too much to stand, although he never strayed too far from the general thrust of Trotskyism. He damned the “infantilism” of my anarchism, my non-materialistic drift to Buddhism and my eternal damn optimism. Tom not only bought into the ‘human catastrophe’ of climate change: he believed we bloody well deserved it!

Tom spent his last years in Hull, where he had been the senior shop steward at the Birds Eye factory. And, strolling along to the shops one day, I was regaled by people who not only knew him, but were grateful to him for having cut the hedge, walked the dog, got the shopping in, and generally for being a key person in the community.

Tom loved the outdoors - camping under the stars, walking for miles, at home looking outside at howling gales and blizzards. He loved the rugged coastline, the rocky crags, and had the spirit and endurance of an Arctic explorer. He also had the most rich and wonderful of folk voices. He was rich in the northern border traditions, in the Irish west coast traditions, in the industrial raw music of the Tyne pits and seamen’s hearty shanties. His voice was deep and rich like the wind over the moors. He knew many of the famous folk stars of our lifetime - particularly Waterson Carthy and Ian Manuel, amongst many others.

I have not yet taken in that he is gone: how can a man who was such a useful and widely admired person, such a presence, ever be gone? Gone where? He was the wittiest, funniest, most intellectual, kind and generous man I have ever known. I am so proud to say he was my lifelong friend and the greatest comrade anyone could hope for. I will treasure the memory of his company forever.

I could say, ‘Farewell, comrade - till we meet again!’ But I’d hear his voice boom: ‘Douglass, there’s that bloody anti-materialistic, mystical nonsense again!’

So I’ll just say goodbye: knowing you was a privilege - the best 62 years of our lives.