My revolting past

September 17, 2004

London South Bank University vice-chancellor Deian Hopkin recalls the turbulent political climate of 1960s Aberystwyth

While many leading academics become interested in politics, Deian Hopkin was born into it. He says: "My stepfather was the political boss of Llanelli, full-time agent to Jim Griffiths MP for 30 years, an alderman and leader of the town and county councils. My mother was Labour candidate for Cardigan in 1959, and I met Paul Robeson when he sang at a concert to raise funds. Hugh Gaitskell stayed with us, Jim Griffiths was deputy leader of the Labour Party, and as a teenager I knew Nye Bevan and every other important Welsh figure."

He followed family traditions, both in politics and in becoming a third-generation Aberystwyth student, reading history from 1962. Then, as now, "Aber" was highly distinctive - small, but with a copyright library on the campus that was "a remarkable resource for research". "Isolation made student life very intense, although in some respects it's worse nowadays.

We still had a railway line to South Wales, and it changed the university when that was lost."

Hopkin says: "I'm not going to pretend I was a wildly radical figure, but I was heavily involved in politics, becoming president of the Labour Club and a member of the student union executive when we organised a strike to get a licensed bar on campus."

Much debate focused on Welsh nationalism, but in spite of deep Welsh roots he rejected political nationalism - "I had been the youngest pupil at the first-ever Welsh-language state school, set up after my mother discovered a loophole in the 1944 Education Act, when it opened on my third birthday on St David's Day 1947."

His first year at Aber was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. He says:

"There was one night nobody went to bed. The entire population seemed to be on the front, staying near the sea because that might be safer!" The aftermath was an extraordinary pilgrimage to the home of philosopher Bertrand Russell. "His letters to Kennedy and Khrushchev had been published and thousands trekked to Penrhyndeudraeth to thank him for saving us."

When Kennedy was shot little more than a year later, he remembers a jazz concert by Tubby Hayes. "We had a two-minute silence then he played the US national anthem."

Playing jazz piano was almost as important as politics. "It was always an important outlet," he says with the wistfulness of a man who finds the impossibility of performing regularly the sole drawback of his present job.

A broadcasting contract gave him an unusually high standard of living for a student, while his band provided the musical accompaniment for Aber's satirical Cabaret Club. Since he also acted and edited the Poetry Society magazine, the wonder is that he ever did any academic work.

But the history department at Aber always attracted charismatic teachers, with the remarkable Gwyn Alf Williams inspiring Hopkin's generation. "From him I discovered that history was about real politics, not dead politicians. He always contextualised events, linking them to the present and making real people of the protagonists, and he went in for extraordinary flights of historical imagination, such as finding an echo of the French Revolution in a pub in Dolgellau where they unfurled the Tricolour."

Little wonder, perhaps, that after a single year at Queen Mary, University of London, Hopkin returned to Aberystwyth to spend the best part of 30 years teaching history there.

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