Obituary: Peter Davies

Peter Brinson
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:11

Roger Peter Havard Davies, cultural ambassador and human-rights activist: born Colwyn Bay, north Wales 4 October 1919; served Royal Artillery 1939- 46; British Council 1949-80; OBE 1978; Director, Anti-Slavery Society 1980-87; married 1956 Ferelith Short (two sons, two daughters); died Chipstead, Surrey 9 October 1993.

LIFE for some inspires a defence of human rights. Most of us accept life as we find it. Peter Davies was inspired. His inspiration brought honour to the British Council and distinction to his cause.

Born in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, in 1919, and educated at Bromsgrove School, Davies fought in North Africa, Italy and North- west Europe as an officer in the Royal Artillery, and was wounded twice. After the war he went to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, before joining the British Council in April 1949. Exuberant and outgoing, he had toyed with journalism and an acting career, inclinations which remained with him all his life. Life with the British Council took him to Hungary, Israel and back to London before posting him to Malaysia for four years in 1956, then Finland from 1960 to 1965. In Britain from 1965 to 1970 he looked after specialist tours and the affairs of the drama and music department, before moving to Chile from 1970 to 1974. He directed the council's information services in London for a year until his final posting to Calcutta in 1975 and retirement in 1980.

So far so typical in a British Council career, except that council typicality in my experience is laced often with what Davies called 'extras'. There are many things council representatives do to advance Britain's cultural presence and the English language. In remote places as well as metropolitan centres I have found regular English classes, the presentation of British arts, libraries of British books and the visits of cultural celebrities. This work shows the human face of Britain.

Humanity, though, lies not only in official activities but in the personal contribution of council representatives, often beyond the call of duty. Built like a rugby player, devoted to sports especially golf and cycling, gregarious, curious, ever leading from the front, Davies believed passionately in the humanitarian role of his work. Chile and the Pinochet coup focused his passion on human rights. I came to know him in that way when he helped Claire de Robilant, a distinguished dance archivist and specialist in South American dance, to escape the Pinochet regime. Settled now in Britain and adding much to British dance scholarship, she owes her liberty and probably her life to him. There were others Davies helped similarly, not only in Chile, the 'extras' he admitted when pressed but of whom he would not talk. His official work was recognised with an OBE in 1978 and then with the rarer distinction of honorary membership of the British Council on his retirement.

Retirement released him to concentrate on advancing the human rights to which he dedicated his life since Chile. For seven years, until 1987, he directed the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights, the oldest human rights organisation in Britain. He became chair of the United Kingdom Human Rights sub-committee of the United Nations Association and chair of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, commuting to and from Geneva. He wrote articles, made speeches, raised money, besieged the consciences of foundations including the UK branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, where our paths crossed again. After 1987 he became consultant on human-rights issues more generally, particularly in defence of children, and edited Human Rights (1988), a book of articles and papers by human-rights activists which has become a seminal text, the work of reference on its subject.

Never the dark fanatic, Davies conducted his campaigns as part of the joy of life. An actor manque, dispenser of hugs and warmth, he scattered fun wherever he went, preferring Shakespeare's groundlings to the great ones of the world, embracing all. At Christmas, Ferelith, his wife and his four children never knew for sure who would turn up. He kept no record of invitations. His house was open all year round.

These attitudes and generosities became epitomised in his Mala Project, developed from the offices of the Anti-Slavery Society in the early 1980s. Through this he sought to help children in India's carpet factories, young people in virtual slavery, losing their childhood, their education and their futures toiling for 10 to 12 hours a day seven days a week.

Davies set up schools beside the factories, persuaded factory owners to provide buildings, time and money. He raised funds from the overseas Development Administration, from the European Commission and private sources. Some of the money went to children's families to make possible the children's part-time release to school; some went to improve the looms on which the children worked; some went to establish the trust which now runs the project. It is staffed by Indian people because Davies rejected any dominant role for white people. India, he felt, encapsulated both the problems and solutions of the struggle for human rights world-wide. When cancer took him from this struggle he had become a father-figure and counsellor, leaving the struggle stronger than when he joined it. His departure therefore deserves not tears but celebration.

(Photograph omitted)

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