Book review: My Histories
My Histories is Ken Morgan’s candid, reflective, memory-jogging, argument-stimulating, funny, spite and self-justification free account of his 81 years, 60 of them filled with relentless teaching and writing.
With over 30 published books, countless learned papers, articles and reviews, and huge commitments to lectures and seminars, he is an academic Stakhanovite, with a touch of Maghdi Yacoub’s gift for incision and a bit of provocative Socrates thrown in – except that he imparts knowledge with answers as well as questions.
Heeding the maxim of his mentor and friend AJP Taylor that “every historian should write an autobiography”, Ken decided that his should not be “grist to the mill of possible obituaries or the product of self-indulgence or vanity” but “an indication of how a working, writing historian went about his task at a time of sweeping historical change”. So while this is a fascinating story of his time, complete with contemporary observations and insights, it is also (unselfconsciously) a helpful guide to writing about the past that offers illuminating summaries of arguments, methods and conclusions which have guided his work for six decades.
Of course, Ken Morgan has history in his bone-marrow: if science permitted it, I’m certain that there would be proof that he is directly descended from the cyfarddwyddiaid, the Bardic storytellers of ancient Wales with Y Tri Chof – the three memories – knowledge of languages, genealogies, and (crucially) history that were the tools of their trade.
Thankfully, he’s written in fluent prose rather than the strict stanzas – the englynion – of his forerunners.
But, like them, his output has been for audiences, and not only for other scholars. He has written readably. And he’s done that because, while he regards the discipline and veracity of scholarship to be vital and irreplaceable, he believes that “history is for everybody” and “the life-blood of an informed democracy” – as long, of course, that it is not conformist Establishment propaganda of the “Island Story” kind.
When he was – more or less – done with brilliantly unearthing truths that shifted perceptions about Lloyd George and his times and ventures, Ken – in his words “moved sideways” and used his gifts of dissection and perception as a prodigious producer of broader, deeper histories of Wales and of the United Kingdom. Best of all, for me, he also became the most penetrating and authoritative Labour historian of all time.
Everyone – friend and foe, enlightened comrade and benighted philistine – has cause to be grateful for that. It might even help to prevent the tragic parts of that history being repeated as farce – who knows?
Those books did, of course, attract criticism from doctrinaire ultra-Leftists. They have joined nationalists ,patronising products of public schools ,and that mighty organ of the Fourth Estate, the Cambrian News, in periodic attacks on Ken Morgan for revisionism, deviationism, proletarianism…and – most heinous of all – getting modern central heating for the Principal’s residence in Aberystwyth. Such luxury! Such prodigality!
Clearly, Ken Morgan is as fortunate with his enemies as he is cherished by his many more friends and admirers across at least four Continents.
This autobiography, he tells us, is “the contented chronicle of a very lucky man”.
Some of that luck – his upbringing in Aberdyfi and Dolybont (which made him of Wales, and not merely from Wales) and in London; the love of his parents, his endless extended family, and two extraordinary women; the devotion of his children and grandchildren – was (and is) truly good fortune. Much of the rest of his “luck” he’s made for himself through gargantuan hard work, insatiable curiosity, and a sense of adventurous mission that took him to many challenging places, demanding jobs, and leadership of a University which, when he arrived, was under existential pressure but, when he left six years later, was thriving.
All of that – and much more – is in My Histories without the embroidery of a vainglorious boast or a wistful “if only”. The book also – essentially – provides a statement of priorities and timeless values from a democratic socialist, rational patriot and internationalist. And it is emphatically enriched by a final chapter which provides a calm but passionate declaration for reasoning, justice, humanity and liberty and against what Nye Bevan called “the meretricious society” and its pervasive inequalities, paralysing class divisions, exploitation, waste, “value-free managerialism” and conflicts.
It’s what we’d want and expect from someone who is proud – as he says – to be “a citizen of the Republic of Learning” – a State, or at least a state of mind, which knows and accepts no boundaries.
Even more, it’s what we enjoy in a man who has the vitality, the unstoppable enthusiasm, the irrepressible hwyl of the Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi, PhD and several Honorary bars, Fellow of the British Academy, Druid of the Gorsedd of Bards, Cymrodorion Gold Medallist, Arsenal fanatic and (by his account – he’s not perfect) under-appreciated inside-forward and batsman.
Lord Kinnock was leader of the Labour party, 1983-1992. My Histories is published by University of Wales press (£24.99 Hardback. ISBN: 9781783163236).
This article first appeared in The House magazine.