'Goodbye to Aberystwyth'
Goronwy Rees was the Principal of University College of Wales, Aberystwyth from 1954 to 1957, before being ousted by the university establishment there – on the face of it, largely on account of his connection with Soviet spies. Aberystwyth’s now half-remembered ‘Cold War Vice-Chancellor’ ? When I first came to Aberystwyth in the 1970s there were some people who occasionally referred to him in hushed and pious tones as somebody best not remembered. But the more I think about and discover about the man, the more I feel that he should be celebrated. My impression of him is much more like the character in the classic Carly Simon song ‘You’re So Vain – ‘You’re where you should be all the time, and when you’re not you’re with some underworld spy …’ (though not, I think, the following line, ‘or the wife of a best friend’).
I think that it would be fairer to say that, as Principal, he was in the right place at the wrong time. I sense that he would have fitted well into early twenty-first century Aberystwyth – liberal, cosmopolitan, tolerant, yet also distinctively West Welsh. Although born in Aberystwyth, and conscious of his own character and identity as Welsh, he was intellectually much more of London, Oxford and Berlin. As many of his friends feared at the time of his appointment he was misfitted to lead the University at that point in its history.
His intellect, writing, perceptions and argument were all impressive. His writings and publications were voluminous and varied – journalism, novels, fictive autobiography, business histories. His political and psychological analyses of totalitarian systems and their grip on whole populations were incisive. Writing both an account of a Nazi soldier in England and a history of Marks and Spencer demonstrates versatility. Nor was he wholly unsuited to lead an academic institution. He was popular with the undergraduates in Aberystwyth and had forward-looking ideas on the role of a university education and how students should be taught. But his versatility struck some as dilettantish, he was too intellectually restless to sustain a career, and he was not always a judge of his own best interests. There is a colourful anecdote relating to the time of his ousting. The President of the University College, David Hughes Parry (a noted and impressive academic lawyer in his own right) took Rees and their two respective wives to a public house in Dolgellau to persuade him to resign as Principal. Rees reputedly agreed to do so, over the drinks. But later he reneged for a while, to Hughes Parry’s embarrassment. Perhaps what Rees regarded as a political manoeuvre, Hughes Parry saw as a binding contract sealed with beer. And their relations became bitter.
A revealing episode, and one of my favourite stories about Rees concerned his association in the 1970s with the now iconic reformed serious criminal (‘Public Enemy No 1’ in tabloid terms), John McVicar. Originally McVicar was viewed officially as a highly dangerous offender and serial escapee of maximum security prison establishments. But he did genuinely reform while on the run and back in prison, and wrote the seminal and articulate autobiographical account ‘McVicar by Himself’, which became a major criminological tract. Goronwy Rees was the editor and wrote an introduction to the first publication of this work. But he was refused access to McVicar while he was still in prison, and the manuscript had to be smuggled out for Rees to work on. Rees’ introduction remains a masterly insightful and informed account of his subject and could well serve as compulsory reading for all students of Criminology. Well, all of that would have confirmed those old school disapproving views which I encountered in my first years in Aberystwyth. But now times have changed, and so too has Aberystwyth.
At this time of writing, the Council Chamber in the Old College building on Aberystwyth sea-front still has a sequence of portraits of Principals/Vice-Chancellors and Presidents of the University along its walls. But there is, and was, no portrait of Goronwy Rees. It is to the credit of Vice-Chancellor Derec Llwyd Morgan that he caused a plaque to be placed on the Council Chamber wall, recording that Goronwy Rees, although unportraited, was among that number of University leaders.
Goronwy Rees, A Bundle of Secrets (Chatto and Windus, 1960), A Chapter of Accidents (Chatto and Windus, 1972), St Michael: A History of Marks and Spencer (Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1967).
John Harris, Goronwy Rees (University of Wales Press, 2001).
John McVicar, McVicar By Himself (Arrow Books, 1974).