John Ackerman

Dylan Thomas scholar and biographer
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John Ackerman Jones (John Ackerman), literary critic: born Maesteg, Glamorgan 24 March 1934; Lecturer in English, Glamorgan College of Education 1962-66; Lecturer in English, Avery Hill College 1966-84; died South Cornelly, Bridgend 2 March 2004.

John Ackerman came to prominence as an early critic of the work of Dylan Thomas and did much to lay the foundations for what has since become something of an industry. Ackerman's seminal book Dylan Thomas: his life and work, published in 1964, only 11 years after Thomas died in a New York hospital, was a pioneering study that was noted for its critical acumen and balanced account of his life and the circumstances of his death.

It was particularly good on the writer's roots in Swansea, where he had been born and brought up, and in Carmarthenshire, from where his people had come and where he still had relatives, and took as its starting-point his famous description of himself: "One: I am a Welshman; two: I am a drunkard; three: I am a lover of the human race, especially of women." Ackerman examined the extent to which Thomas's poetry and prose were influenced by his Welsh background, arguing that it was more relevant than such passing interests as Surrealism and Freudian psychology. The poet who emerges is not the Dionysiac rantipole of popular anecdote but a religious artist capable of writing 200 drafts of a single poem.

Other biographers, such as John Malcolm Brinnin, had recorded Thomas's calamitous last weeks in America, but Ackerman pointed to the peculiarly close relationship between the work and early life, bringing to his task a thorough understanding of south-west Wales in the inter-war years.

He visited most of the places with which the writer had been associated, and laid down a number of important markers - for instance, that Thomas, who knew no Welsh, could not have been influenced by Welsh-language poetry - and dispelled several misconceptions about what later commentators have persisted in calling, despite all the evidence to the contrary marshalled by Ackerman, the "bardic" nature of his role as a poet. Above all, the book was exemplary in avoiding literary over-elaboration and the sensationalism which has dogged Thomas studies ever since.

I first came across John Ackerman in 1970, when he began contributing poems and reviews to my magazine Poetry Wales. He went on to publish only one slim volume of verse, The Image and the Dark (1975), but it contained a handful of poems that have ensured for him a place in most anthologies of Welsh writing in English. I recall, in particular, his elegies for Aneurin Bevan, Vernon Watkins and L.A.G. Strong, in which he blended a sense of personal loss with an awareness of more public themes, though he was deeply distrustful of "polite and politic men". His elegy for Bevan (recently voted Welsh Hero of all time) ends with the memorable line: "We fail our heroes, that's what they are for."

When, in 1975, the Welsh Arts Council decided to mount an exhibition in the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff to mark the 20th anniversary of Dylan Thomas's death, John Ackerman was the obvious choice for curator. The catalogue he put together, Welsh Dylan, now a collector's item, was a fascinating album of photographs, manuscripts and other artefacts, many of which had never been seen in public before and on which all subsequent biographies have drawn. Ackerman turned up at the reception at which the exhibition was opened by Aeronwy, the writer's daughter, with a Wildean carnation in his lapel, hardly able to contain his delight that so many wished to see the fruits of his meticulous research.

He was born John Ackerman Jones - Wales is a country where the surname Jones can be dropped to no great disadvantage - in the mining town of Maesteg in 1934. His father, a slaughterman and butcher with a stall in Bridgend Market and a van taking meat to outlying villages, soon left his mother and he grew up in the company of numerous aunts; Ackerman described his father as "a ruthless, crooked, remote, confident, energetic, and violent man" and his loathing never diminished. The family, being "trade" in a society where almost everyone worked in heavy industry, was comparatively well off and all its members of independent spirit.

His matriarchal grandmother Florence, an autodidact of strong left-wing convictions and literary tastes, presided over a kind of salon in the Lamb, the local pub, where she would address customers on questions of the day before reciting such music-hall favourites as "The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight" and "The Women of Mumbles Head" and Utopian poems like Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" that speaks of "the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world". It was she who took the boy to London in 1945 to watch, in Downing Street, members of the new Labour administration leaving No 10 for the State Opening of Parliament. John Ackerman was to be a Labour supporter for the rest of his life.

Florence is the heroine of his "fictional autobiography", Up the Lamb (1998), which describes with love, sympathy and percipience a resilient, working-class community in which the role of women was paramount. Many of the book's readers were reminded of the autobiographies of Richard Hoggart and the monologues of Alan Bennett, so much were understatement and a nice sense of humour used to make telling points not only about individuals but the communities in which they lived. The book's epigraph is a quotation from Proust: "The true paradises are paradises we have lost."

But, although Maesteg was to keep a hold on Ackerman's affections, as a gay man who cultivated the campest of manners he found its macho society claustrophic and threatening. After taking degrees at King's College, Westfield College and Birkbeck College at London University, he became an English teacher at St Olave's Church of England School, near Southwark Cathedral, and then lecturer at the Glamorgan College of Education in Barry, and from 1966 to 1984 at Avery Hill College, now part of the University of Greenwich.

He maintained his keen interest in "the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive" throughout his academic career, publishing Welsh Dylan: Dylan Thomas's life, writing, and his Wales (1979), A Dylan Thomas Companion (1991) and Dylan Thomas: the filmscripts (1995), all three of which were important contributions to our understanding of the writer's oeuvre.

The last title presents a unique portrait of Thomas as a professional writer for the cinema, especially what he called "my war-work" - the documentaries he wrote about London and Coventry during the Blitz. Written to raise public morale, these filmscripts revealed Thomas's political views and promoted an ideal of a more just post-war society of social welfare and full employment.

John Ackerman was a gentle, sociable man who enjoyed friendships with many writers in Wales and London. A bookman to his fingertips, he had no hobbies except that, on his frequent return visits to Maesteg, he enjoyed nothing better than listening to the choir practice that is still held at the Tyla pub in the nearby village of Llangynwyd every Friday evening.

The book about Dylan Thomas's adventures in the bibulous ambience of Fitzrovia and another about the more ascetic R.S. Thomas on which he had been working for several years had to be put aside with the onset of dementia, and he died in a nursing-home at South Cornelly, near Porthcawl, surrounded by books that he could no longer read.

Meic Stephens