Friday, 30 September 2016

Gwyn (Alf) Williams ((30 /09/25 -16/11/95) - The People's Rememberancer

Gwyn "Alf" Williams was born this day in Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil. A.Socialist historian and broadcaster, of powerful force who I recognise as an early informing political influence when I first read his brilliant  books and subsequently saw his spellbinding documentaries he produced in the 1980's for  television in which he used his stammer to brilliant effect. Which was living proof also that speech impediments are no bar to acquiring great oratorical skills. I am grateful to him for helping me rediscover my peoples history, not the English history that was forced down our throats when we were at school, who is regarded as  an important influence on the way we now think about our country and people.
Like many others at the time of the Spanish Civil War he joined the Young Communist League . He did not mage to get to Spain but did become a D-Day lecturer and went on to read history at Aberystwyth University, and became Lecturer in Welsh history there in 1954 He was such an entertaining speaker that students from other departments, regularly sat in on his lectures, for the entertaining and passionate way he spoke about industrial Wales, after which he would often adjourn to the nearest pub to continue the flow of his lectures. .By now he had found himself opposing the party line on Tito, and left the party
He left Aberystwyth to take up a Readership at York University and spent from 1964 to 1974 as Chair of history. During this period he became a member of the Labour Party for a spell, then rejoined the Communist party in 1979 but left again to become an uneasy home in the Labour Party but eventually found a political home on the left wing  of Plaid Cymru, for a while he was a leading member of the editorial board of the magazine Radical Wales and served on the party's Executive Committee.
He had  learnt Italian and Spanish for his study of the history of Communism in Italy and his study of the life and works of Antonio Gramsci and Goya and the impossible Rrevolution.His wife, Maria, belonged to the community of steelworkers from northern Spain who were long established in Dowlais.Returning to Wales in 1974 he becameas Professor of History at University College, Cardiff,
But it was with his books on Welsh history that made the most impact " The Merthyr Rising" inspired by ten years of class struggle,it stands as a classic of Marxist historical writing and was the first full account of the workers' revolt of 1831 and the execution of Dic Penderyn, one of the earliest martyrs of the Welsh working class  In Madoc; the making of the myth,  he critically examined the evidence for the discovery of America by Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd in about 1170 and in particular, for the existence of a tribe of Indians , known as the Mandans, who were said to be his descenants who were said to speak Welsh, then there was "When was Wales?", which was perhaps his most popular and influential work, an excellent book which demolishes all the myths that are the stock in trade of Welsh nationalism. The 1980s also spawned his career as a broadcaster with the television series, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, which brought his passionate wit to a wider audience, as he sparred with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, a typically puffed up specimen of the Welsh establishment. In 1983 Williams took early retirement from his Chair at Cardiff (he was fond of describing himself as "a redundant historian") and began making films with Teliesyn, one of the independent companies on which the reputation of Welsh broadcasting now largely depends.Among the people about whom he made fascinating films were James Gillray, Sylvia Pankhurst, Pushkin, Mary Shelley, and the Welsh writers Saunders Lewis, T.E. Nicholas and Iolo Morganwg, showing of his impressive range.He cast a  marvellous figure, a unique cross of a Welsh revivalist preacher, revolutionary communist, distinctive with his shock of flowing white hair and obvious stutter.He moved from Cardiff to the village of Drefach Felindre, in Dyfed, where he shared a home with Sian Lloyd zt Ty Dyffryn.
Gwyn Alf was not content with scholarly work that was not backed up by political engagement. He tried to influence public opinion and in all his work the capitalist, centralist, British State (and English hegemony) had to be undone if Wales survive and prosper I wonder what he would have thought of the state of Wales post Brexit , perhaps he would passionately remind us to us that the poorest communities across Wales will get sympathy from Conservative governments we are now face an onslaught more devastating than back when Gwyn Alf roared so passionately in the 1980's. Do we never learn from our historians or do we simply ignore them.
Gwyn Alf Williams saw himself as “a people's remembrancer”, attempting to influence contemporary opinion by a dramatic presentation of Welsh history. More than anyone of his generation Gwyn A. Williams infused scholary history with immediate concerns, and his books, in range and content, reflect both his rooted particularity and his international perspective.
He died in 1995 in Drefach Felindre of cancer, he was a heavy chain smoker and was cremated at Parc Gwyn crematorium, Narberth, after a ceremony in which ‘The Internationale’ was sung together with a Welsh hymn. Even after death, he remains one of Wales’s greatest and most influential historians.
I will add the following poem that I dedicated jointly to Gwyn, when I heard about the passing of his fellow historian John Davies on a previous post of mine in February 2015..


As pages turn
they help us remember,
what has lay forlorn, almost erased,
allows us to search for the past again
to capture memories, tales of yesterday;
the hiraeth of longing of byegone time.
In our nations soil,tales of struggle buried deep
ancient shadows, greet today and tomorrow,
reflecting what has been,what will continue to grow
as our nation drowns in tears of history,
lessons can still be be  learnt 
from those that once warned,
forever unfolding, what began so long ago
carrying the vision of the past,
present and future for mankind
putting right to wrong.        

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