Dr. James Thomas (1971–2007)
Dr James Thomas passed away suddenly on Friday 17 August 2007 after a cerebral haemorrhage; he was thirty-five.
James had been a valued member of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies since 2001. His background was in History, and he completed his Swansea PhD on the Labour Party’s relationship with the popular press in 1999. He taught in the History departments at Swansea and Bangor before arriving at Cardiff where his research on politics, the media and the culture of grief spawned a dazzling and controversial monograph on the aftermath of the Princess of Wales’s death, Diana’s Mourning: A People’s History (University of Wales Press, 2002).
Empirically thorough and methodologically astute, James’s iconoclastic anti-establishmentarianism was at full throttle as he exploded the myth of a nation united in grief over Diana’s death through the reflections of ordinary men and women collected at the Mass-Observation Archive. James quickly produced another major research monograph, Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics (Routledge, 2005), which argued that the media’s support of Labour after 1992 reflected a shift to the right by Labour rather than any fundamental change in political attitudes on the part of the tabloids. He was also interested in the role of the media in Wales, and was one of the founders of Cyfrwng: Wales Media Journal. He published a major report for the National Union of Journalists in 2004 about the role of Trinity Mirror in the Welsh media, which formed the starting point for an investigation by the National Assembly’s Culture Committee into the Welsh newspaper industry.
In his work James married a concern for the perspectives of ordinary people with a deep suspicion of the corporatisation of the media and the enduring influence of hierarchy, class and deference within its channels. This reflected his fierce pride in his roots as a boy from the Rhondda Valleys and a product of the comprehensive school system. James returned to the Rhondda to live near his parents and the people who meant so much to him. He was a unique and inspirational teacher of courses which (re)ignited students’ interest in History as presented in television and film. He helped them look afresh at familiar cultural reference points and inspired many through his innovative classes. Students spontaneously recorded their shock and dismay at his death and have universally remembered his generousness, compassion, empathy, approachability, enthusiasm and, above all, his humour. Some recall his stories of a bruising Rhondda nightlife as a way of interpreting the films of Ken Loach, others his ability to turn discussions of football round to Jurgen Habermas (and vice-versa).
James was one of the most irreverent, witty, funny and invigoratingly profane conversationalists one could hope to meet. A prominent and high-powered media figure at a major conference enquired condescendingly when introduced to James, ‘Who the hell are you?’ to which James shot back without pause ‘Who the f*** are you?’. This exchange says much about his attitude towards authority and his unwillingness to be intimidated by anyone.
He loved Lisa, his family, his friends, his home, teaching enthusiastic students, Cardiff City Football Club (though a committed Hammam sceptic), walking inordinately long distances to get anywhere, tap water, massive lasagnes, Orangeboom, missing trains, Pepsi Max, ham sandwiches, making you laugh and living his life without compromise. His untimely death has robbed the academy of a brilliant and committed voice, his students of a unique and irrepressible teacher, and his friends and colleagues of a warm and exceptional human being.
Dr. Lloyd Bowen, School of History and Archaeology