Tuesday, 17 February 2015

About a man called Dr John Davies

John is the only one wearing a suit. I won't tell you which one I am.

I don’t usually blog about anything very much other than my books and other people’s books and sometimes characters in books and, maybe, now and then, libraries.  But today, I’m going to write a few words about a historian called Dr John Davies.  He died, just yesterday, aged 76, and the news of this has made me sad.  I knew John Davies was an important figure in Welsh culture and, over the years, I’d got used to spotting him on any TV programme where the services of a Welsh historian were needed.  And, always, he’d be on my telly wearing a khaki sleeveless jacket-thing with millions of pockets in it and speaking in this beautiful and unmistakable way he had which was quite unlike any other voice my ears have ever heard. 
But the reason I shall remember John Davies has nothing really to do with his voice or Welsh history or culture – although I like those things too – or about his many books or his impressive academic achievements.  It’s because of a brief but colossally important conversation we had when I was eighteen years old.  I was a student then at Aberystwyth University and John Davies was the warden of Neuadd Pantycelyn – which, if you’re English like me, means Pantycelyn Hall.  I wasn’t living in Pantycelyn.  It was the Welsh hall for Welsh students who spoke Welsh so what the heck would I be living in there for?  Nope, I lived further up the hill in a student hall of residence called Penbryn.  Think of a shoebox and the smell of disinfectant and you’ve pretty much got it.  But for some weird reason, all my friends lived down in Pantycelyn.  To this day, I don’t really remember how that situation happened.  I know it had something to do with Freshers’ Week.  I know it involved a conversation about the choices available on the Jukebox in the bar at the Central Hotel – but beyond that, exactly how I came to be part of the Welsh-hall crowd has always been an interesting mystery.
But I was and they were halfway down the hill in Pantycelyn – where I discovered all the best parties were and the rooms had sloping ceilings and bags of character and there was a parapet running around the attic rooms which you could happily climb on to and break every health and safety rule under the sun - and I was at the top of the hill in my horrible room in Penbryn.
And that separation aside, I was having a hard time.  There were things I was having to deal with – things which had nothing to do with Aberystwyth or my degree or being a student – which I wasn’t actually dealing with very well at all.  And the truth is that during the whole of my first year at university I was pretty much living on the edge of something – I don’t know what exactly but I was definitely on an edge.  My personal organisation had gone up the spout, my ability to concentrate had gone on strike and I kept genuinely forgetting that food is a necessary part of staying OK.
And being stuck in that horrible hall by myself wasn’t helping much.
So at some point near the end of my first year, I asked Dr Davies if I could move into a room in Pantycelyn.  And then – as if it weren’t obvious - I’d said, ‘I don’t speak Welsh though.’
I remember John Davies looking horrified and saying, ‘What? Whatever next?’  And then he’d laughed and said, ‘Of course you can move in.  If you must.’
I’m sure that this conversation made absolutely no impression on John Davies. But it meant an awful lot to me.  And I’m sure he had lots of other conversations with other young people that meant an equally huge amount to them too.  So, while I admire his brains and his work on TV, it’s this Dr John Davies, I remember.  Hall warden of Pantycelyn.  The grownup who came into the lolfa – that’s the lounge, if you please – in the early hours of the morning to tell us to keep the noise down or came into the lolfa in the early hours of the morning to find his youngest son or came into the lolfa in the early hours of the morning to set up his chessboard and patiently play chess with which ever drunk student fancied a game or came into the lolfa in the early hours of the morning just to make sure that we were safe.

My thoughts are with his wife and with Anna, Beca, Guto and Ianto.


  1. A lovely comment on John, which I will pass onto the family. Diolch.

    1. Diolch yn fawr. Sometimes it's not til you're a grownup yourself that you truly take in what extraordinary jobs some people do.

    2. Hayley, thank you! Lovely story. I remember you as the author of a beautifully evocative piece about that grand old Welsh insitiution, the National Milk Bar. Knickerbockerglories (was that ever one word?) just don't taste as good anywhere else. Diolch yn fawr. Anna Brychan

    3. Diolch Anna, I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it - and the NMB article too - ahhh flat cola x