Obituary: Horace Charles Jones

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a living tradition in Wales, and in Ireland and Scotland, of the bardd gwlad - the country poet who is called upon to write verses in celebration of local events such as births, marriages and deaths. His function is to praise, to honour, to make the community feel good about itself, often in verse that is witty and sometimes memorable. Many of his poems are carved on tombstones or committed to memory for generations after the events they celebrate have been virtually forgotten.

The tradition is inextricably bound up with the Welsh language and the status of the poet in Welsh-speaking Wales, particularly the rural areas where many can still turn their hand to the writing of verses in cynghanedd - the ancient prosody which Gerard Manley Hopkins called "consonantal chiming". Rarely have there been poets of this kind writing in English and they are rarer still in the industrial areas.

Horace Charles Jones turned all this on its head. He wrote in order to offend, to degrade, to make fun, and to castigate those among whom he lived and who, for one reason or another, had upset him. And he was very easily upset, taking umbrage at the slightest hint of criticism and reserving his most vicious spleen for those who did not share his own high opinion of himself as a poet.

I fell out with him in 1963 when I lived in Merthyr Tydfil, the town where he spent most of his life. I had it in mind, as a fledgling publisher, to bring out a small booklet of my poems, together with a selection by Harri Webb, another Merthyr poet, perhaps two dozen in all. When Jones heard about this he called on me to insist that I include him in the project. I was prepared to consider it until I found that he wanted me to print a hundred of his poems, on an all-or-nothing basis. He would not be persuaded and left my home in high dudgeon, never to speak to me again. When the booklet eventually appeared, he burned a copy in Merthyr's High Street.

What had made Jones think he was a great poet was being taken up by Keidrych Rhys, the editor of the prestigious magazine Wales, to whom I had introduced him, and who - in what seemed a temporary lapse of judgement - wrote a fulsome foreword to his first and only hardback collection of verse, The Challenger (1966). With this accolade, he would never again doubt that he was as good as Dylan Thomas. The book was published with the help of a grant from the Merthyr Borough Council. Immediately after publication Jones, who always savaged those who tried to help him, took the council to task in the local newspaper for wasting rate-payers' money.

At the time both Harri Webb and I, and Peter Gruffydd, who was to join us as a third contributor to Triad, were active members of Plaid Cymru, and now Jones's animus was extended to the party and all its works. He began denouncing Welsh nationalism and became an inveterate writer of vitriolic letters to the newspapers. Between 1976 and 1985, when Plaid Cymru was in control of the Merthyr Borough Council, he voted with his feet and left Wales for England, returning only when the Labour Party, which he detested only a little less warmly, was returned to power in the town.

He also took against the Welsh Arts Council, perhaps because I had joined its staff in 1967, although I do not recall the Literature Committee ever receiving an application from him for financial support. More likely, his suspicion of all Welsh institutions and the grim satisfaction he gained from attacking them fuelled his sense of his own importance. The chapels, the Church in Wales, BBC Wales and the University of Wales were also among his targets, mainly because he thought they had failed to recognise his talent.

All geniuses are neglected, his argument seemed to run; I am neglected, therefore I am a genius. As for solicitors, magistrates, civil servants, headmasters, bank managers and policemen, he had nothing but bile for them, printing his lampoons at dead of night and circulating them anonymously next day. I once saw him put the witch's hex on someone with whom he disagreed.

Jones had a talent for self- publicity that was encouraged by some sections of the local press. He was usually to be found standing against a lamp-post in Merthyr's High Street where, for a few hours every day, he would harangue anyone who had the slightest connection with the town's public life, from councillors to lollipop ladies. Most ignored him, but some were entertained by his lashing tongue, and a few would egg him on to say ever more outrageous things.

He had a huge repertoire of aphorisms, some of which are memorable: "The best place to bury the hatchet is in your enemy's head" is one that has remained with me; "A nation can be great only when it's hungry" is another. About 200 such one-liners were published as A Dose of Salts in 1957. Scottish readers who remember the late Oliver Brown or are familiar with the flyting tradition will recognise the genre.

Jones was brought up at Abermorlais, a poor district of Merthyr. When he was 13, his father was killed in an accident in a coal-mine and the boy left school soon afterwards to work underground. He received little formal education and it showed, particularly in his lack of self- criticism and his steadfast refusal to read any modern literature. He once told me that he had been given the name Horace but, thinking it not literary enough, had taken to calling himself Charles after the author of Great Expectations. It was clear to me that he had never heard of the Latin poet until then.

He was often in trouble with the law and with the townspeople of Merthyr. He used to recount with glee how in 1955 he had been escorted from the field of the National Eisteddfod because someone had spotted a mildly satirical remark about that august festival in one of his pamphlets: "An eisteddfod is a cultural circus where everything is Welsh except the money." He was also fined for refusing to fill in a form prior to the Census of 1971 because it was, he told the court, "an insidious attempt on my rights as a free man".

He carried a homemade knuckle-duster as a precaution against being beaten up by the rougher elements of the pubs and cafes he frequented, although I can't help thinking that in such an easy-going place as Merthyr it was hardly necessary; it was, rather, part of his paranoia, which he cultivated seriously.

The theme of personal liberty and the threat of interface by the state recurred in many of his poems, as in "The Jingle" (1971). He was capable of writing a vivid line but too often went in for the worst kind of word- play and usually ruined the meaning with bizarre syntax. Only one or two of his poems are wholly coherent and none has found a place in any anthology, although municipal patronage ensured that for a while his books were used in Merthyr's schools. Perhaps his most passable poem is "My River", which was inscribed near a path known as Poet's Walk on the bank of the River Taff that runs through the town.

It must be said that, for the most part, what Jones wrote was the worst kind of doggerel, without the genius of a McGonagall or even the charm of an unlettered versifier or the truly comic talent of a Pam Ayres or Spike Milligan. To have suggested as much while he was alive and kicking would have been to incur his displeasure and a campaign of vilification that few were prepared to risk.

If there was a whiff of brimstone about Jones - someone has said, "Had Satan been a spiv, he would have looked like Jones" - there was also something sad about this venomous man who, with little talent except for controversy, believed himself to be a poet, and was encouraged in that belief by people who were really making fun of him. If he had been an innocent rhymester, like the 19th-century Cockle Poet of Anglesey who believed that Queen Victoria wanted to marry him, it might have been possible to take him seriously. But Jones was marked indelibly by the hatred he felt even for those who relished him at his barmiest.

He may have been one of the last "characters" of the old Merthyr, that raffish, ramshackle town that was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. But if so, he also marked its demise and, with his passing, will be missed only from that lamp-post in the High Street.

Horace Charles Jones, writer: born Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan 6 February 1906; married 1928 Delia Griffin (one daughter); died Merthyr Tydfil 12 September 1998.

The Enigma

They say that I'm common

a scoundrel a spiv -

where others will starve

they say that I'll live.

I steal little babies

away from their nurses

of course I'm coarse

I bloody-well curses -

but the one thing they'll not say

though by jiminny they know it,

'tis the fact that I am a first-rate Poet.

from The Challenger