John Davies, who died today aged 76, was one of those historians who occupied a central pillar in the cultural life of the nation. Although less well-known outside of Wales than he deserved to be, a reality I bet he was entirely comfortable with, inside Wales, it is true to say, John was an icon (and will remain so for a considerable length of time). A widely-published and read historian, tv personality, political activist (he was a founder of Cymdeithas yr Iaith), and go-to talking head, he was Mr History for a generation of us, picking up where Gwyn Alf Williams left off upon his untimely death twenty years ago.
I first met John at a Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym meeting at Oxford nearly a decade ago – I was twenty and my Welsh not quite strong enough to converse fluently with him, something he didn’t mind at all as my llais y cymoedd was a memory of home anyway. He came to talk about the Valleys, Cardiff, and Modern Wales – the Cefn gwlad or hinterland as he called it. For his was a mind trained on the relationship between places: between communities, be they Anglophone or conversant in the vernacular, be they rural or urban, Cardiffian or Merthyrian. In true Cymric fashion we drank and spoke about Wales and its future – and he smoked his pipe, a rare treat then, he said, as the smoking ban had just come into force in Wales but not yet in England. Somehow we ranged from Jack Jones’s Rhondda Roundabout to life in Neuadd Pantycelyn to the writing of Hanes Cymru and the likely future of Welsh history. I think, anyway, as my head throbbed the morning afterwards! It was a genuine highlight of my undergraduate career, a time that was not all that happy for me, and all the more important because John was the first Welsh historian of note that I’d met.
Ironically, John’s magisterial and vital Hanes Cymru was the first history book that I tackled in the Welsh language. At 900-and something pages, it was not an easy task – but the sense of pride proved all the greater for it. Only after I’d read Hanes Cymru in Welsh – which took a few weeks – did I set out to read it in English. The books are not quite the same – a point that awakened me, nearly too late, to the dualities of Welsh history. I don’t think I’d have remained a historian of Wales had it not been for those hours spent in the stacks of the Taylorian Institute in Oxford where the copy resides. Whilst around me language students devoured Gorkii, Proust, and Schiller, there was me coming to terms with my own nation, which I was in Oxford intending to escape. I never got to tell John, in the end, the role he’d inadvertently played in turning a would-be historian of anything but Wales into a historian who does (very nearly) nothing but Wales.
As I’ve been preparing for my conference paper this Friday – part of Kings College London’s Four Nations Conference – I’ve been reading John’s work on nationalism and socialism – it gets forgotten about, unfortunately – and his voice will be very much part of our session on Friday afternoon. It’s easy to forget just how wide-ranging his work was. From books on the Butes and urban history, to his histories of Wales and Welsh broadcasting, to his more popular work tied into his tv work, so much is familiar. But there are also the strands of his work that made John one of the first contemporary historians of Wales, and his work on Plaid Cymru (of which he was a life-long member) gave voice to a more complex understanding of Welsh nationalism than mere black and white, for and against. His pamphlet on left nationalism published in 1981 is testament to that.
John was part of that generation of historians who made what my generation of historians now does possible. Though slightly older than Dai Smith, Hywel Francis, Gareth Williams, and others, his work sits alongside theirs as a vital recovery of a ‘usable past’. Generations of Welsh people – who would otherwise have been treated with the profound ignorance of English (and British) historians – now known something of their past and can appreciate the struggles that the Welsh people went through to make and remake Wales. We who follow in his (and their) footsteps continue the work and the struggles. John’s passing deprives a nation of one of its most important intellects and bilingual voices. He goes to join the regulars in that great tavern in the sky, propping up the bar, smoking his pipe, and telling stories of the past which he did so much to recover and bring to life for us all. Diolch o galon John!