Phil Morris reflects on the life of Meic Stephens, Welsh literary editor, journalist, and poet and one of the most influential figures in Welsh writing in English.
Such has been the heavy toll of much-loved Welsh artists this year – we acknowledge the passing of Helen Griffin, Jeff Teare, Frank Vickery and Alex Beckett in recent months – Wales Arts Review has required an obituarist of the singular distinction of Meic Stephens, who died this week at the age of 79. Meic commemorated the lives and works of Welsh cultural leaders in the obituary pages of The Independent, with his customary lucidity and erudition, until the end of 2017. Toward the end of a lifetime of service to his nation, he made sure that the passing of its great and good was comprehensively and appropriately documented. So it is with particular sadness to write of Meic’s death, realising that there is no comparable figure in possession of both his encyclopaedic knowledge of Welsh artists and his passionate commitment to the languages of Wales.
Others who knew Meic better than me will attest to his personal qualities, friendship was clearly one of his many gifts, but I wish to speak to his encouragement and support of young Welsh writers, and his tireless dedication to the legacy of Rhys Davies, one of Wales’ most celebrated writers. I first met Meic when he was in his early seventies, when most are happy to wind down their work activities or are forced into lives of leisure due to diminishing capacities; yet while his movements were slow and he required a walking stick to get about, his mind remained impressively agile and quick. I recall, as Managing Editor of Wales Arts Review, discussing with him the new possibilities of online publishing. He didn’t pretend to understand the new digital technology, but his intense curiosity was clearly piqued at what he instinctively understood was a new paradigm for arts coverage in Wales.
As the former secretary of the Rhys Davies Trust, Meic supported two projects created by Wales Arts Review to commission and promote the latest in short fiction from Welsh and Welsh-based writers – A Fiction Map of Wales and Story: Retold. With the support of Meic and his fellow trustees, Wales Arts Review commissioned new works from young Welsh writers, including; Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Tom Morris, Alys Conran, Rebecca F. John and Horatio Clare, among others. The Rhys Davies Trust became our first funding partner, although the sums of money provided were not as important to us as the encouragement we received at a delicate time in our founding. Whenever I ran into Meic at some conference or event he would always ask after our projects and members of our team. Every now and again I’d also receive a brief email offering some gentle guidance that was always pertinent and welcomed.
Meic’s achievements can be listed in a considerable resume; founder of Poetry Wales, literature director of Arts Council Wales, editor of the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales and Professor of Welsh Writing in English at the University of Glamorgan. What is missing from this list however, as it cannot be adequately measured, is the immense contribution he made to the languages of Wales through his countless, and often unacknowledged, acts of kindness and mentorship to several generations of Welsh writers. Many secured their first publishing credit under Meic’s editorship, others received their initial affirmation as writers through his acknowledgement and praise. His autobiography titled My Shoulder to the Wheel, is an apt assertion of his formidable work ethic, it details a life during which, in addition to being the author, translator or editor of around 170 books, he was also a political activist, campaigning as a parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru and taking part in the famous sit-in on Trefechan Bridge in 1963.
His loss will be keenly felt across Wales, none more so than in the office of Wales Arts Review which salutes his lifelong efforts to broaden and deepen the cultures of Wales. Our condolences to his wife Ruth and their family.
Phil Morris is Wales Arts Reviews Managing Editor.