Peter Stead in conversation with Elaine Canning – Centenary Interview

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and your school years in Gowerton, Swansea?

I was born in Barry in 1943 and for thirteen years lived at the top of the town's steepest hill in a house that afforded great views of Exmoor. That same house was a little higher up in the very street that years later achieved fame as one of the chief locations of the TV comedy Gavin and Stacey. In 1957, my police-officer father was promoted and we moved to Gowerton at the opposite end of the county. After two and a half years at Barry Boys Grammar School, I now transferred to the third form at the equivalent school in Gowerton.

At that time Gowerton was still very much an industrial village rather than a Swansea suburb and life revolved around its steelworks, rugby and cricket clubs, its three pubs and five places of worship. Swansea, however, was just a short ride away (by bus or two railway lines) and the town was familiar, as we had spent two family holidays at the home of a friend who lived near the Guildhall. As a young visitor, I had immediately been fascinated by the waterfront, with its trains to Manchester, the rocky tram to Mumbles, the games at the famous Vetch and St. Helen's and the music at the Brangwyn Hall. Little did I think that much of my subsequent life was to be spent living life to the full-on Dylan's 'splendid Bay'.

I loved my four and a half years at Gowerton School. We were all very aware that it was rugby and classical music that formed the basis of the school's reputation and it was the litany of distinguished old-boys who had played for Wales or become composers, as well as the style of both the First XV and the School Orchestra (starring Karl Jenkins) which rounded out the sense I had of an education steeped in a rich culture of the humanities. It was the two years in the Sixth Form which determined the academic, cultural and social values that shaped my whole life. My subsequent passion for international travel developed in Geography lessons; I wanted to visit every country and feature studied. I owe so much to English masters in whose memory I still recite vast chunks of Chaucer, Wordsworth and Browning. I made my political debut as a candidate in the Mock General Election of 1969 and it was attaching the prefect's tassel to my school cap which first made me think that I should consider going to university.

Why did you choose to study History at Swansea?

History would have to be my subject. I loved the narrative and it all stuck: once read, it was understood and easily recalled. I was offered a place at Cardiff University and was on the reserve list for Nottingham. But I knew my parents wanted me to opt for nearby Swansea and such was the reputation of Professor Glanmor Williams, not to mention the Swans, All Whites and Glamorgan Cricket, that I saw little point in settling for less.

"My career has given me ample opportunity to reflect on the many benefits that a life based on Singleton Park has guaranteed."

Can you tell us about your time at Swansea University, both as a student and member of staff?

I entered Singleton Park as a 'fresher' in 1961, graduated in 1964 and after two years as a post-graduate joined the staff in 1966, eventually retiring from the History Department in 1997. My appointment as an Honorary Fellow has ensured that my association with Swansea University has continued for almost sixty years. My career has given me ample opportunity to reflect on the many benefits that a life based on Singleton Park has guaranteed.

In early 1962 at the start of my second term, the Police transferred my father and family home to Pontypridd and I was fortunate to secure a place in Neuadd Sibley, a campus hall that had opened four months earlier. I was to spend two undergraduate years ‘in halls’ and later, when a lecturer, four years in the adjacent Neuadd Lewis Jones as a tutor.

At first, I was astonished by how many students in halls had come from English grammar and boarding schools. My new friends were mostly from that background and in fact, my closest life-long friends were to be from good English schools but were the sons of Welsh fathers, a profile that has given Swansea many of its best students. During my undergraduate years, I came to feel that I was learning as much from my fellow students as from lectures. Living on campus one was always learning about what was going on in other subjects and one learnt how to identify the star lecturers and scholars in other faculties. This sense of belonging to a small community of scholars intensified when I became a tutor - I was then living with a group of lecturers from other departments and meeting their guests at formal evening dinners. In this way, I met a colleague from Maths who in 1971 became my wife. When I had explained that I was 'an expert on the Tonypandy Riots' she had replied that she was 'a student of the Universe'!

Singleton Park was forever broadening my horizons. The History Department encouraged me to spend time in London for much of my second post-graduate year and later for further periods of research in London archives. They allowed me to spend two separate years in the USA on Fulbright Fellowships and to attend many academic conferences in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Austria. This sense of belonging to an international community of scholars is the greatest gift an academic career offers.

What is your fondest memory?

It is perhaps inevitable that I look at Singleton Park through rose-coloured spectacles. I met my wife-to-be and our wedding reception was held in a Fulton House Dining Room. I was taught by several outstanding scholars and some of my colleagues in History were not only close friends but would be certain candidates for my list of 'most unforgettable characters'.

In my early days we were aware of the Kingsley Amis dimension (he had departed just before my arrival) and we were forever being told that 'so-and-so' was the model for Lucky Jim. For a decade or so, all the talk was of 'the campus novel' which was so much in fashion - perhaps we began to behave as if we were characters in what was sure to be, once it was written, the greatest and funniest example of the genre! These were the years of laughter: there were a professor and his wife who sunbathed in the nude and countless stories involving student trips to Gregynog. Several witnesses commented on how, whenever I met a friend from Economics on the Mall, we would collapse into each other's arms in laughter.

Peter Stead with the 2018 Dylan Thomas Prize winner, Kayo Chingonyi.

I know that you’ve always loved literature, and your passion for reading, for books, led you to establish the Dylan Thomas Prize. Why did you feel it was important to establish an international literary prize for young writers?

By the 1990s, I had become an ardent reader of British and American novels and an enthusiastic supporter of cinema, theatre and opera. In Wales, there was a growing awareness of the role of culture in urban regeneration and as a member of various arts committees as well as a broadcaster, I was very conscious of the desire for Welsh authors, artists, film-makers and musicians to make an impact on the international stage. In Swansea, those concerned with regeneration were looking increasingly at ways in which the international reputation of Dylan Thomas could be harnessed for the good of the city and its inhabitants.

In 1994 I stayed for a while in the Tuscan resort of Viareggio. It was in 1822 in the waters off Viareggio that the 29-year-old poet Shelley had lost his life and on one particular walk I came across a plaque commemorating his cremation on the beach, and then nearby a notice advertising the current Viareggio Prize for new novels. I noticed with interest that a feature of that Prize was that the six shortlisted writers would each come to the town to give readings. This, of course, was the precise moment that the International Dylan Thomas Prize was conceived. Swansea should use Dylan's name to bring the best young writers in the world to the city and every year the news of Swansea's role in sponsoring new writing, as well as the names of possible Welsh entrants, would be taken to every corner of the globe. A unique feature of the Prize as I conceived it was that it would be open to writers of new fiction, verse and scripts thereby reflecting Dylan's own versatility.

I returned to Swansea and began to develop my idea. Eventually, after several years of endeavour by a small group of enthusiasts who had first constituted a Board, appointed an officer and obtained charitable status, the Dylan Thomas Prize was launched in 2005. Fundraising events followed in London and New York. And after nine years of support from various quarters, Swansea University took over management of the Prize in 2014.

"The names of Dylan Thomas, Swansea University and the Prize are now well-known wherever young writers are setting out to achieve recognition."

The Prize has an important educational strand of work through its DylanED programme. Can you tell us a little about the origins of DylanED?

The small group that had brought the Dylan Thomas Prize into existence were thrilled that the first winner, of what at that stage was a £60,000 prize, was Rachel Tresize from the Rhondda who beat off fierce competition from a distinguished international shortlist. But the directors wanted more: apart from rewarding one young writer aged under 29, we wanted the Prize to catch the imagination of even younger writers in Wales. And so it was that DylanED came about - it would directly involve local school children in the annual programme of the Prize. Over the years, the programme has taken a number of forms, including the shortlisted writers making classroom visits, cross art workshops for primary school children, and review competitions. Swansea University and the Board are fully committed to a policy of expanding and broadening this aspect of the Prize.

At the same time, the Prize has formed the basis of a module in the University's Creative Writing degree programme. This pioneering initiative is fully in accord with the original aims of the Prize founders who were well-aware of the incredibly popular Creative Writing courses that have been established in almost every University in the English-speaking world. The names of Dylan Thomas, Swansea University and the Prize are now well-known wherever young writers are setting out to achieve recognition. From the outset, the most thrilling aspect of the Prize has been the regular arrival in Swansea of a group of young writers from every corner of the globe. What better inspiration and incentive could there be for the students of the University and local schools!

What would you say to anyone considering Swansea as a place to study?

Undoubtedly, Swansea is the best located University in the land. The Bay, the Gower and the surrounding hills, are alive with the sound of verse and music. We must ensure that students, scholars, writers and performers want to come to Swansea to participate in its role of speaking in clear, original and exciting terms to the current generation. A University must speak to the world and make it think.

How would you describe yourself in three words?