January 01, 2021

In Memoriam

In Memoriam
Malcolm Gilbert in January 2020.

In a year filled with death and mourning, I pause here to remember an individual who was for me, and for this magazine, profoundly influential and truly remarkable.

Malcolm Martin Gilbert passed away at the age of 88 last October. A professor of geography and history in Carmarthen, Wales, he impacted thousands of students over the years, myself included. His colorful, charismatic lectures on Russian and Soviet history* led me down a path of study and work that inexorably led to this magazine (which he loved). We kept in touch over the years, and last January I managed to return to Wales to spend a treasured afternoon with Malcolm and his daughter, Jane.

According to Jane (who provided the text below), Malcolm always said that he hoped there was no reincarnation, as he could not imagine enjoying a second life as much as he had this one. Born in Cwm, a mining village in the Ebbw Vale, he recalled a halcyon Valleys childhood, sliding down mountains and slag heaps on tin tea trays, bunking off school, learning to improvise jazz piano and walking miles to play cricket, two of his great loves – and meeting the greatest of those loves: pretty, clever Norma Handy of neighboring Abertillery.

A familiar social history unfurls: tin baths in the kitchen with the whole family bathing in turn; dog-racing, where a rabbit-skin-covered football powered by a motorbike played the hare’s role; mustard-gas canisters in the landing cupboard; constant, low-level food-poisoning; summer work as a fitter’s mate in the mine. A lifelong commitment to left-wing politics was formed. 

Having done poorly in his school-leaving exams, Malcolm had one of the many lucky breaks that characterized his life. In the expansion of higher education following the War, he won a place at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, to study Geography, where he again encountered Norma. Marrying in 1953, they taught in Cardiff schools before another huge stroke of luck took him, in 1962, to Trinity College, Carmarthen, then a teacher-training college.

He had a prodigious ability to get by (and often a lot more) in a wide range of European languages, starting with German and Welsh at school, Anglo-Saxon at university, and Norwegian from a stint as a pianist in a nightclub frequented by the Crown Prince. But it was Russian that dominated his interests, and that was to give his working life the scope he craved. After a visit to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, he taught himself Russian, read Russian literature extensively, and studied Soviet politics and history.

The freedom that Trinity offered allowed Malcolm to extend his teaching into the field of Soviet politics and history. A program administered by Central College, Iowa, delivered him a long series of US students, eager to study and visit the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation. Twice-yearly trips to the USSR gave him the opportunity to befriend numerous Soviet citizens. His children remember (but cannot confirm) stories of how, should a student get into a scrape, Malcolm would seize the opportunity to visit the authorities with several bottles of vodka and emerge, hours later, with the student, the expectation of a hangover, and a hoarse voice from much discussion and singing.

He was an inspirational teacher: entertaining, attentive, intelligent, hugely knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, and inventive in his pedagogical methods. At least one cohort of students found themselves charged with “being” the Politburo, grappling with such issues as Jewish emigration and Nixon-Brezhnev detente. Malcolm had an extraordinary memory and a gift for turning historical detail into engaging narrative, complete with striking characters.

Like many people with absorbing work and interests, he was not a very attentive parent while his children were young, and left most family and domestic labor to Norma (including when she was working full-time as a teacher). But, to his own surprise, he became an excellent grandfather, eager to entertain and charm (his poems for my children on their birthdays stand in family legend). In his last decade, he became an extraordinarily tender, patient, and competent carer for Norma, who died with Alzheimer’s in 2016; they played duets, he on the piano, she on the violin, almost to her dying day. He moved in September 2018 to a residential home in Newcastle Emlyn, where the wonderful staff’s care, attention, and catering gave a golden glow to his life’s final phase, although lockdown isolation took a severe toll on a man who considered himself a sociable introvert.


The End. Or just the beginning?

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