Richard Williamson: Sunday Mercury columnist, critic and feature writer

Sundays will never be the same again. For the past 35 years, Richard Williamson’s unique brand of journalism has been gracing the columns of the Sunday Mercury.

But now he is gone – cruelly taken from us by a sudden heart attack at the age of 56.

Dick Williamson was the very embodiment of the Sunday Mercury. He could have taken his towering journalistic ability to Fleet Street any time he liked – but he was a Brummie and proud of it. So he stayed. And we were all the richer for it.

Dick was born in a modest house in Handsworth, Birmingham, on 24 January, 1947, and went to Grestone Infants & Junior School from 1952 to 1958.

He went on to Handsworth Grammar from which he emerged in 1965 with five O levels and three A levels. Then he was off to Swansea University where he earned a BA in history and geography.

He always yearned to be a journalist and virtually the whole of his working life was spent on the Sunday Mercury. Dick first joined the Birmingham Post & Mail as a trainee journalist on Bonfire Night 1968 and spent six months with the Mercury then another half-year with the Sutton News.

In January 1970, he came back to the Sunday Mercury and in November 1970, after completing his indentures, he was taken on as a reporter and feature writer. He became chief feature writer in April 1978 and carved out a reputation for his thoughtful columns both under his own name and in the guise of Bill Newman’s diary.

His writing style was thought-provoking, trenchant, angry, sad, funny – and delivered with a deep love of the greatest language in the world…

English.

Many people sneer at journalese. Such critics never read Dick Williamson. He was deeply knowledgeable about almost everything, yet would wince at being called an intellectual.

Dick loved Shakespeare and he never missed a production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. He was also a film buff and a voracious reader of books, which made him the ideal choice to be both the Mercury’s film critic and books editor.

But it was in his own weekly column that Dick’s talents really shone. Tackling the thorny subjects of the week, he never shirked from telling it like it was.

Unlike most newspaper columnists, he was no populist ranter. Dick was a liberal, a man of compassion.

He was not interested in fuelling people’s bigotry but in trying to stop society from self-destructing.

Such principled stands did not always make him popular. His mailbag bulged most weeks, often with letters of unbelievable bile and venom.

Dick was an unashamed socialist and a stalwart member of the National Union of Journalists. He was the kind of man you would want beside you in a crisis – unswerving, unwavering, solid as a rock.

He loved life to the full. He loved socialising, and friends and colleagues found him marvellous company.

He smoked like a chimney, liked a drink, was overweight and suffered from severe rheumatism and gout. But this gentle giant never complained.

He hated television, which he thought was the real opiate of the masses. Outside the office, he loved wildlife and his regular bird-watching trips to Scotland were part of his multi-faceted world.

In recent years he had travelled in African wildlife reserves, across the Canadian Rockies and to the chilly wilds of the Faroes. Mother Nature was dear to him. He lived close to – and loved – Moseley Bog, the little haven in the Birmingham suburb where he lived and which helped to inspire JRR Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings.

Most of all, Dick was a lovely, lovely man. It is seldom that the exceptionally talented are very nice people, or the other way round. But Dick, at first seemingly irascible and achingly silent, had a dominating presence in the newsroom.

He could always be relied on for the quiet word of comfort or support for colleagues and for invaluable advice to young journalists starting off on the ladder he had already climbed to the top.

Life never passed Dick by; he passed it by. He viewed the coming and going of editors and eager newsdesk executives with scarcely disguised bemusement. Ideas of how to run newspapers change like the weather. But you can’t beat talent – and Dick Williamson brought a gravitas to the Sunday Mercury which helped to make it an awardwinner again and again.

Indeed, Dick won a hatful of journalistic awards, including twice being named Columnist of the Year in the Press Gazette Regional Press Awards.

Dick, who was single, is survived by his parents.

They have another son. Mother, father and brother have been dealt the most grievous blow while I, like many others, have lost a friend, a colleague and an inspiration.

It is said that nobody is indispensable. In Dick Williamson’s case, that remains to be seen.

Bob Haywood knew Richard Williamson for more than 30 years and the two journalists worked together on the Sunday Mercury for 18 years until Haywood retired six months ago

Bob Haywood

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