Outside Edge: Sabine Durrant meets the man who pulls strings for the string-pullers

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The Independent Culture
THE HARPIST is usually the most feminine of players, rarely out of powder-blue eyeshadow and long floral skirts. Ieuan Jones clears his throat: 'It can be a very aggressive instrument,' he says in his deep Welsh voice. 'It's really very physical and, played the right way, it can be very, very dynamic. A lot of women actually don't have the strength, but I pull very hard.' He pauses. 'Really, I have very strong hands.'

Ieuan Jones, who hails from Montgomeryshire, has taken the harp out of the drawing-room and into the rugby field. This is the harpist as prop-forward: with a manly dimple in the chin, muscular, hairy legs (we met on a hot day) and a receding hairline ('I don't know why the women always have those long tresses,' he says). His instrument is no weed either. Jones plays a Swiss / Italian Superharp, which has a higher tension than the softer German harps of his female counterparts. It allows him to modulate the tone 'from absolute nothing to full blast', and demands, as he says again, a lot more strength.

What with one thing (novelty value?) or another (virtuosity?), Jones is greatly in demand. He has plucked at private soirees and weddings, at stately homes in Scotland, big houses in London and, once, at Windsor Castle. The Queen Mother found him through one of her ladies-in-waiting. 'There were just a few of us for dinner,' he says. 'Two of her grandsons were there - I'm not going to say which two, you can guess. Dame Peggy Ashcroft read some poetry and I played. The Queen Mother loves the harp, adores the harp.'

And he also appears, twice weekly, at the House of Commons. He is, in fact, the only musician ever to be employed by the H of C on a regular basis ('Sometimes members have parties or weddings where there's music, but that's privately done'). He was spotted by the parliamentary catering hierarchy in a London hotel in 1982. They were so determined to book him for the Churchill Room (the visitors' grill), they put it to the House. 'There'd been a ruling to have no music since the time of Cromwell,' says Jones. 'But they had a vote on it and there was a green paper or something and I was allowed in.' So, strings were pulled.

At first, his performances were a little hairy. For one thing, dressed in a DJ, he 'kept being asked for the wine list'. He got fed up with that and moved on to a suit, but there were still some dodgy moments. Some of the members hated him being there. 'Enoch Powell would always mutter 'It's not the bloody harp again]' I've become much more comfortable now he's gone.'

Others continue to be enthusiastic. Jones bends over backwards to satisfy 'the most left-wing Labour to the most right-wing Conservative, from the Appassionata sonata, to 'Hello Dolly' ', but still comes up against demands. Dame Janet Fookes complains about the chatter ('Though there's nothing I can do about that'). Mrs Biffen asks for Bach and, rain or shine, there's one MP who always puts a request in for 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'. Jones, whose own preference is for 'the romantic pieces, Liszt, Parish-Alvars', goes into it the moment the MP walks in. 'I know he's only going to ask if I don't'

One thing Jones doesn't do at the House is talk much, though he does quite a lot of that elsewhere. If he's giving a recital, he'll often interrupt the music to give a little spiel or crack jokes about pedal changes. 'If you don't communicate with an audience,' he says, 'it can become hard work.' Sometimes, he'll conduct a question and answer session in which he's happy to explain why men make better harpists.