The most cosmopolitan of all Welsh historians

John Davies by Tom Beardshaw

A tribute by Peter Stead to the historian John Davies, who died yesterday

Historians are trained to identify turning points and the more perceptive of them sometimes highlight moments when history fails to turn. Blessed indeed, however, is the historian who lives through a period of decisive change, all the while playing a key part in the unfolding story, and who then lives on to become the prime recounter of and guide to of the corner that had been turned. Just to consider the fascinating career of John Davies is to become aware of a crucial half-century in which a new Welsh identity was forged.

By any reckoning John was one of the most interesting and important players in ensuring that a post-industrial and devolved Wales would be a country fully aware of those dynamic aspects of its history which needed both to be treasured and recast as forces that could give texture and meaning to a somewhat bemused generation.  The positive nature of the new Wales can clearly be seen in the way in which our academic, cultural and political leaders now lead the way in paying tribute to John, the historian who helped them to understand the country that they had been bequeathed.

It was fifty years ago that John joined the staff of the Swansea History Department in which I was a student. The news of his appointment occasioned a frisson in the coffee bars. ‘ Isn’t he a Nationalist?’ I impudently asked the Head of Department: ‘We need all shades of opinion’ explained Professor Glanmor Williams.  John came among us in dramatic fashion, a good-looking man in, always formally dressed in a dark suit that betokened political significance, walking quickly with exaggerated politeness and speaking in equally exaggerated senior-common room tones: ‘Shall we adjourn for some luncheon?’ he would ask. In our first conversation I explained that my parents had inducted me into a Welsh identity defined by the chapel and sport. ‘I have no interest in either’ John explained. That was my introduction to a more complex and vital Wales than I had ever bothered to consider.

Tributes to John will rightly concentrate on the ways in which he made his country fully aware of how both History and Language were living forces and could be used to release new energies and institutions. As we reflect on his public role we should give thanks too for the rich complexity of both his mind and personality. As a historian he had been meticulously trained at Cardiff and Cambridge: his initial work on Cardiff and the Butes was of the utmost importance and is an indication that in less political times John may well have inspired a badly needed fuller interest in the story of social complexity and wealth creation in Wales.

We should also remember that John was the most cosmopolitan of all Welsh historians. We always called him ‘Bwlchllan’ but in fact John belonged to the world. He loved travel and no traveller has ever gone to foreign parts knowing so much about where he was going.  Obviously he was the right man to edit a Welsh Encyclopaedia, but he could have rushed off similar volumes for any country in the world.  He could detect minorities and minority languages in places where the rest of us couldn’t even find a country. We should always treasure the image of John writing his definitive Hanes Cymru on the beach in Sicily.  He travelled lightly: on one European trip he opened his large case to reveal only a small toilet bag, a crumpled passport and a magnificent royal blue dressing gown: enough for one week.

Above all today we mourn a wonderful friend.  John was a delightful man and it was with considerable pleasure that those of us who knew him in academe saw him charm a nation in his broadcasting.

There was nothing of the fanatic or zealot about him: his wonderful laugh and smile were testimony of his humour and, as evidenced in his Encyclopaedia, his mischievousness was a wonderful weapon.  He was as sensitive a person as one would ever meet.  Women had been particularly important in his life and from his mother, sister, daughters and wife Janet, he had acquired insights that eluded many of the male groups that dominate public life. There were always new friends of all ages and both sexes and they were just as likely to come from Brittany, Kosovo, Valparaiso or the Punjab as Ceredigion or his native Rhondda (and how he loved that ironic badge of distinction).

John was above all perhaps a romantic, in love with Wales as if the country was really a person. He was easily moved to tears but just remember today that wonderful smile that came whenever the people of Wales did something of which we could be proud. We should all envy that kind of love and learn from it.

Prof Peter Stead is a cultural historian of 20th Century Wales

7 thoughts on “The most cosmopolitan of all Welsh historians

  1. This is truly sad news. What still amazes me was (and is) the breadth of his intellectual vision of and for Wales. As Peter says, he was not just an observing historian but one who participated. I remember attending a committee meeting of the Campaign for a Welsh Parliament at Aberystwyth and who should be in the translation booth for that meeting but John Davies. “We’re honoured,” I said. His suitably modest reply was, “You’re too kind.” If the Campaign needed a translator, then he was happy to do it.

    The impression I was left with was that history for John was something that had to be gotten on with and it is clear that A History of Wales was the vision that guided him on that journey. We are still, as a country, catching up with that vision which is the measure of his stature as an historian.

    You will be sadly missed, John, but fondly remembered.

  2. I purchased John Davies’ ‘Hanes Cymru’ soon after it was published. At the time I was living and working in France and had been for many years. The opportunities for speaking Welsh were few and far between and as my French improved, my mother tongue got rustier and the chance of finding reading material in Welsh seemed to be non-existent. Then one day I found myself browsing the bookshelves of the ‘Librairie international FNAC’ bookshop in Paris where, in the English-language section, under ‘British History’, two Welsh words, ‘Hanes’ and ‘Cymru’ leapt out at me – I couldn’t believe my eyes, or my luck! I bought the book immediately. I treasured it then and I treasure it now. John, diolch o galon.

  3. Whilst backpacking as a twentysomething in 1996, I unexpectedly and utterly randomly had the pleasure of first meetingJohn across the breakfast table at the Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta. I next bumped into him over a decade later (I distinctly remember a copy of Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac popping out of the pocket of his well worn gilet!) and, following a re-introduction, proceded to join him as a member of the quiz team at a local ale house in Cardiff Bay. The incentive of a bottle of red as the first prize coupled with his unwavering intellect , more often than not led to victory…. and the consequential in-house consumption of the aforementioned prize before ‘kicking out’ time. John would, more often than not, leave with purple lips from partaking of the winnings. I’ll miss his company dearly.

  4. John Bwlchllan was a supportive, strong, calm and reliable presence for so many of us in Pantycelyn down the years, and gave the (sometimes unbiddable and headstrong) residents the freedom and the confidence to organise the social, cultural and political affairs of the hall much as they wished.

    Professionally, he also gave the lie to those who insist even today on describing any attempts to build, re-vivify or even study in depth our own nation’s story as being “narrow” or “parochial”. He was a world citizen and a ‘gwir Gymro’, and rightly saw no contradiction between these two attributes.

    And let us remember also the quiet dignity with which he ‘came out’ in his sixties. No-one who saw the programme (was it ‘Y Byd Ar Bedwar’?) in which he went public about his sexuality could fail to be moved by it.

    Cawr o ddyn. Pob hedd i ti, John.

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