BA English. Class of 1965. Cultural Historian. Gorsedd of the Bards.
Why did you choose to study at Swansea University and why English literature?
It was all an accident born of misfortune. My intention was to aim for Oxford. But my father died very unexpectedly when I was on the brink of A-levels, leaving my mother without a penny of pension and psychologically shattered. I therefore thought it best to stay near home. At the end of my first year, I was strongly tempted to take a degree in History -- a subject I found much easier to handle than English, although I had performed equally well in both. But my first love was literature, so I decided to follow my heart, accepting that I was very unlikely to excel.
What are your defining memories of being a student at Swansea?
I have no vivid memories -- my ties and friendships were really still at home in nearby Gorseinon. But I do have extremely grateful memories of a few of my teachers -- such as the great Augustan Scholar and later Professor at Cambridge, Howard Erskine-Hill, and the outstanding American scholar George Dekker, later of Stanford. And but for the encouragement of the renowned Welsh Medieval Scholar R.R.Davies, who later enjoyed a stellar career at Oxford, I might very well have become discouraged and given up at the end of my first year. I recall several colourful members of staff, too, such as the elderly spinster Isabel Westcott, someone straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. She'd been in the department since the 1920s, had cared for the 'fallen women' in the Strand area during the Swansea blitz, and in my time was given to spooning out icecream from a kettle to cool students who were sitting their Finals exams.
What are your memories of being a Welsh speaking student at Swansea University?
I felt isolated in a great sea of Englishness -- an alien world: culture shock. But I was also afforded refuge, since I was able to follow one History course through the medium of Welsh in both my first and second years -- Rhys Davies being my first-year tutor, and John Davies (later the famous author of the Penguin History of Wales) my second.
"Welsh is now not only acknowledged but respected and valued, as it never was in my early days."
How has the University changed since your time here as a student - and during your long career here?
An impossible question to answer in few words.
The changes have been too numerous, too sweeping -- indeed revolutionary -- for me to detail. In my day, unIversities were attended only by a tiny, highly selective, percentage of the population -- the total student population was 3,500. Competiton was incessant and ruthlessly discriminatory -- from the 'eleven-plus' onwards. At university I had to sit fateful, very high-pressured exams at the end of each of my three years. And for Finals i sat three-hour exams for eleven days on the trot. Firsts were rare as hen's teeth. I continuously wrote essays, and teaching included tutorial groups two or three in number. And there was only one Professor in every Department.
Of course, there have been some improvements. Lecturers work far harder. There's less snobbishness, thank heavens, though sadly at the price of a precipitous decline in standards. Teaching is more emphasised, although the 'customers' expect spoon feeding, which is slowly but surely killing all love of literature. Welsh is now not only acknowledged but respected and valued, as it never was in my early days.
What were your reasons for staying on at Swansea after graduating?
Because I was appointed to the staff -- totally unexpectedly -- when I was only 21, and had just begun postgraduate work. I then chose to stay because my roots were deep, not in college but in the culture of the surrounding area.
You have written many books on the two literatures of Wales and on American literature - of which one are you most proud ?
I'm not sure that 'proud' is the word, but I'm fairly satisfied with four that I think suggest my range -- I write Cultural History as well as Literary Interpretations (I dislike the limp term 'literary criticism'), and encompass American poetry as well as the two literatures of Wales.
Therefore: The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (Harvard, 1987); Corresponding Cultures (UWP, 1997); In the Shadow of the Pulpit (UWP, 2010); R.S.Thomas: Serial Obsessive (2013). But there are only two works whose interest will outlast me, and they're both really the work of other people -- Emyr Humphreys and R.S.Thomas!
You have taught generations of students at Swansea, why has lecturing been a satisfying career?
My father and mother were Primary teachers, an uncle taught in Llanelli Boys' Grammar School, two more were university lecturers! Yet mine was a free and ardent choice, and I began at university wanting to be a decent teacher, not a publishing scholar. The sadness is that I had lost that pedagogic zeal -- which had sustained me almost throughout my career -- before the end. Because I could no longer muster up the exceptional energy and enthusiasm necessary these days to arouse even a minimal interest in literary texts in jaundiced, apathetic students.
How did it feel to receive your OBE and to become a member of the Gorsedd of the Bards?
The OBE has been an embarrassment from the very start. I declined the invitation to Buckingham Palace, and (after much uncertainty) accepted the honour for two reasons only. That some unknown kind friends had gone to the considerable trouble of preparing a nomination (unknown to me, of course); and in the hope that it might prove of use when I was writing supporting references for others working like me on the literatures of Wales who were applying for grants from London sources. I have never used the OBE in any other context, and I fear that use of it has brought few benefits, if any.
The Gorsedd is an entirely different matter. I was nominated by my dear old friend and Swansea Univeristy Colleague, Professor Hywel Teifi Edwards, with the explicit intention of seeing me installed at 'his' National Eisteddfod in Llanelli in 2000. And accordingly I value it as a very special privilege.
"My career was transformed when I became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995, a rare honour, and the highest honour for any British scholar."
What is the highlight of your academic career ( up to now!)
An exceedingly difficult question. My career was transformed when I became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995, a rare honour, and the highest honour for any British scholar. My experience of being Visiting Professor at Harvard was electrifying and a huge boost to morale. And I had the privilege of being among the tiny handful who established the Learned Society of Wales, and the further honour of being one of its two inaugural Vice-Presidents.