Meic Stephens (1938-2018)

I only have to glance at my bookshelves to grasp the scale of the loss following the death of Meic Stephens in July. As anthologist, compiler, literary editor, translator and poet, his presence is everywhere. My life would have been impoverished without the Companion to the Literature of Wales he edited in 1986, a matchless achievement of immeasurable importance, or the superb Poetry 1900-2000 anthology he produced for the Library of Wales series in 2007, or the many volumes he edited for the University of Wales Press Writers of Wales series. Then there is his scintillating biography of novelist and short story writer Rhys Davies (1901-1978), winner of the Welsh Book of the Year award in 2014; Necrologies, his absorbing 2008 gathering of 60 Welsh obituaries he wrote over the years for The Independent newspaper; his eye-opening and strangely moving compendium from 1992, A Most Peculiar People, Quotations about Wales and the Welsh; his extraordinary 2003 poetry book Wilia, in which he singlehandedly revived the near-extinct Glamorgan/Gwent Welsh dialect Gwenhwyseg; his gripping 2015 autobiography My Shoulder to the Wheel; and his brilliant last hurrah in 2017, the co-edited anthology of Welsh language literature The Old Red Tongue.

But these jewels of Welsh culture that happen to sit on my shelves barely scratch the surface of Meic Stephens’ prodigious achievements on behalf of Wales. The son of a power station worker from Trefforest was a central figure in every key event and development associated with the awakening of Welsh national feeling in the second half of the 20th century: he was there on Pont Trefechan in Aberystwyth in 1963 at the first ever Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg protest, bringing Aber to a standstill; in the same year it was he who daubed ‘Cofiwch Tryweryn’ on a wall alongside the A487, Wales’ most famous piece of graffiti; he founded Poetry Wales magazine in 1965, still going strong in its 54th year, a vital birthing pool of talent as well as the conduit which enabled the stellar careers of major Welsh poets like John Tripp (1927-1986), Harri Webb (1920-1994), Lesley Norris (1921-2006), Dannie Abse (1923-2014), Gillian Clarke and Robert Minhinnick; he was one of the euphoric young activists who carried Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005) shoulder high across Guildhall Square after he won the 1966 Carmarthen by-election to become Plaid Cymru’s first MP; and in 1967 he was founding director of literature for the Arts Council of Wales, a position he held for a quarter of a century in which he transformed the landscape for Welsh writers and publishers in both languages, squeezing funding out of thin air to support pivotal projects like the relaunch of Planet magazine, the establishment of Golwg and New Welsh Review and the opening of the Tŷ Newydd writers’ centre, while being instrumental in ending the false divisions between practitioners in the two languages and paving the way for today’s widespread acceptance of Wales as a bilingual nation (except among rightwing imperialist Neanderthals).

It virtually goes without saying that, like all the best Welsh people, he was a committed and unwavering supporter of Welsh independence. A member of both Plaid and Cymdeithas, he learnt Welsh as an adult (as his 3rd language, after English and French) – becoming so expert that he translated countless Welsh writers into English and opened the hidden treasure troves of Cymraeg to a new readership across the world. His love of Wales, his Welsh patriotism and his awareness that the very survival of Wales is a continual defensive struggle that requires all the troops it can muster were always his overarching motives and drives. He was the very personification of the stark contrast between inclusive, open, outward-looking, progressive, idealistic Welsh nationalism and the insular, xenophobic, racist, reactionary, hostile ugliness of British nationalism – perfectly personified currently by the brute brainless bigots of Brexit. He led by example, not just through his astonishing output of over 160 books and innumerable articles and academic works, but also with his implacable determination to place the past, present and future of Wales at the centre of everything he did. The despairing, pessimistic cynic in me might be tempted to think that all his work was in vain, with vile British rightwing thugs and morons in Westminster and Cardiff Bay running Wales into the ground and with Welsh national feeling at its lowest ebb for a century. But then I’ve only got to imagine how much worse things would be without his monumental efforts. He did far more than could be reasonably expected from any single individual. He never shirked the challenge of political activism, standing as the Plaid Cymru candidate in Merthyr in the 1960s and being instrumental in Plaid actually taking control of Merthyr council in the 1970s – something quite inconceivable in today’s thoroughly broken, Britified Merthyr where Plaid doesn’t have a single councillor and, for instance, the crude Cymruphobia of England’s trashy Trago Mills and the demented not-Welsh treachery of England’s Merthyr Town football club are tolerated. Nor did Stephens ever shy away from taking the fight behind enemy lines, not only in the undemocratic quangos of pre-devolution Wales but also in the pages of the Western Mail, that perennial anti-Welsh mouthpiece of Tory Unionism, where he persevered for years with the thankless task of educating the rag’s ever-shrinking readership with the only words worth reading in the weekend edition. Only a man with his energy, his warmth, his persuasive charm and his strategic political cunning could have pulled it off.

These then are the lessons the life of Meic Stephens teach us: keep the flame flickering, never give up the struggle, put your shoulder to the wheel, we shall overcome.