- Remembering Alun
One of the very many things Alun was really good at was writing obituaries. I was scrolling through History Workshop yesterday and found Alun's tributes to John Saville, George Ewart Evans, Raphael Samuel, John Gurney, and, most recently Andy Durr. Steeped in the History Workshop ethos from his time at Ruskin, Alun sometimes appeared as a sort of keeper of both oral traditions and collective memories. Alun had a prodigious memory. Becca Seale recalls being taught by him as an MA student and him pacing the room quoting Cobbett, John Clare, Thompson and others verbatim and very occasionally reaching up to his shelves to check that he'd got it right: he always had. In contrast to Alun, I've got a very poor memory. In my mind he's an omnipresent figure at Sussex – wandering around the Arts B quad, smoking, talking and sometimes singing – although he tended to save the latter for a larger audience.
I think I must have first met Alun in the late 1990s shortly after I arrived at Sussex to take what I thought was going to be an undergraduate degree in history.
When I arrived I discovered that half of my degree would consist of 'School' courses – which could be in literature, philosophy, sociology or whatever. Panicking somewhat after a poor experience with Philosophy, I picked Alun's 'Politics Literature and Society in the Thirties' course. Here I vaguely remember giving an abysmal presentation on Edward Upward. Despite this fact Alun was incredibly kind about it. It left me with an abiding dislike of Upward's writing and an abiding fondness for Alun. It was a fondness which deepened as I began to discover more about the New Left and the History Workshop movement of which Alun was a part.
Most of what I learned from Alun was imparted not in the seminar room but in other locales. Three were in fact very local to one-another – the History Work in Progress seminar at Sussex – the Arts B Quad and the IDS bar. He was always entertaining company and took our gentle teasing in good humour. Kate Hodgkin and others have talked about the role of song in Alun's life and Nicola Verdun mentioned the bets we would take on how long it would take before Alun broke into song whilst giving a paper. Another thing we'd enjoy was waiting for 'The Donkey' to make an appearance. I'm not sure if there was one in every paper but his inaugural lecture from 'Diggers to Dongas' definitely included an early Donkey, or 'Dicky' as we say in Norfolk. (He did love to do a Norfolk accent did Alun.) For Alun an insistence on intellectual work and political work as collective endeavour [End Page 327] was key. I'm sure many will remember Alun fondly as a dynamic and hugely supportive director of the Humanities Graduate School at Sussex. Here he formed a formidable partnership with Margaret Reynolds and between them they helped dozens of grad students (and their supervisors) through their PhDs.
While I wasn't his PhD student, that didn't seem to matter to Alun. He was always incredibly kind and generous with his time. I remember one occasion, probably round about my second year, where I felt that everything was getting rather too much. Alun saw that I was in a bit of a state, told me these things happened and it probably meant that I was onto something. Well what he actually did was buy me a pint and tell a long and involved story about the time when he was living in a caravan in a field near Trunch in Norfolk trying (and failing) to analyse the political and moral economy of several Norfolk villages for his PhD. This failure resulted in Poor Labouring Men – not bad for a PhD that didn't quite work.
When Alun moved back to Norfolk I saw him much less frequently but I was delighted when he called on me at work at the University of East Anglia where he had an emeritus professorial fellowship. The last time we met we talked about Sussex...