Professor John Rowlands
What is there to say about someone who said so little about himself? It would be easy to summarize his career, without getting close to the man. He was born on a farm in Trawsfynydd, and went on from Blaenau Ffestiniog Grammar School, as so many had before him, to the University College of North Wales, Bangor, where he graduated with a BA and then MA in Welsh. Having completed a DPhil in Oxford, he pursued an academic career in Wales, at Swansea and Trinity, Carmarthen and at Lampeter, before coming to Aberystwyth in 1975. He was awarded a personal chair in 1996, and retired in 2003. He spent the years after that keeping Y Goeden Eirin hotel in Groeslon, where he and his wife, Luned, welcomed guests from around the world with a combination of fresh air, delectable food and wine and shelves upon shelves of books.
In conversation – and we had many long telephone conversations after his retirement – one would learn hardly anything about him. He would certainly express plenty of opinions, in his own unassuming way, and a touch of polite disagreement on occasion; but rarely would he express anything deeper (or indeed more superficial) than that. John was not one for anecdotes, funny stories and reminiscences; he did not share details about what he was reading. And he definitely would not talk about his own work. I would sense his shyness and discomfort down the line if I asked him what he was working on. ‘Oh, some review or other, you know, nothing much … but what about you?’
It was a different story on paper. In print, he was invariably lively and witty and playful. He wrote a novel which was the nearest thing in Welsh to the Angry Young Men when he was still a student, Lle Bo’r Gwenyn(1960), and continued in another six novels to create unstable and complex characters which were both humorous and tragic. He also made a name for himself as a critic. Who else would have thought of turning a DPhil thesis on the Llyweni Salisburys into a Gramscian treatise? John’s constant goal – he was the first to identify the need and also respond to it – was to challenge what he called ‘genteel pietás’ in Welsh literary criticism: respect for tradition, literature as craft, the link between literature and religion, the noli me tangere status of the canon, those literary figures so cherished by their nation. I still feel a thrill when I share one quote with my students, and see the penny drop: ‘it would do us good in Wales to go to extremes and get rid of authors, because they can be quite a nuisance. They often stand between the reader and the work.’
I never heard him lecturing, but former students can reproduce his stance: his head inclined to one side, resting on his clenched fist. He would prepare every word meticulously, but the most memorable parts, I’m told, were when he wandered from the script. He said once that there would be something seriously wrong if he held the same opinion about a piece of literature for more than five years at a time.
He was most comfortable in the seminar and tutorial class – and to some extent the National Eisteddfod stage. There he could think on his feet and debate and pursue unexpected avenues of thought. His influence is evident today in the dozens of students who have gone on to be academics and writers themselves or who have entered the media. One story says it all. When a colleague of mine was contacted to pay tribute to him on television and radio on the day he died, 24 February, the interviewer and the production team had all been taught by John.
The Society has lost a Fellow. The publishing world has lost one who could turn his hand to reviewing a volume of strict metre poetry or a restaurant and New World wines. The Eisteddfod has lost a steadfast judge and the Departments of Welsh have lost one whose name always came up when a balanced examiner was sought for a research thesis. We have all lost a friend.
We extend our warmest sympathy to Luned, Huw, Dyfed, Sioned and the whole family.
Dr Robin Chapman DLitt FLSW