Doctor Harri Pritchard Jones: Psychiatrist and author whose writing and activism made him a giant of Welsh literature and language

Although he wrote exclusively in Welsh, most of his stories and novels are set outside Wales and deal with characters and events far beyond the usual confines of contemporary Welsh literature

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The Independent Online

Harri Pritchard Jones was among the most urbane of Welsh prose-writers, a doctor by profession and, a convert to Roman Catholicism, an hibernophile and francophile whose work was influenced by Irish and French writers in both its modernism and its concern for traditional ways of life. Although he wrote exclusively in Welsh, most of his stories and novels are set outside Wales and deal with characters and events far beyond the usual confines of contemporary Welsh literature.

That he wrote in Welsh at all was a piece of good fortune, for he was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, a fact on which he sometimes reflected with wry humour, though his Welsh-speaking parents soon brought him back to Wales and he grew up to speak the language in Menai Bridge and Llangefni in Anglesey.

Welsh meant a great deal to him, not only as the medium for his literary work but also as the language of a small community of Catholics who, mostly under the influence of Saunders Lewis, one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, have made it the language of their religious, intellectual and social life. This connection made him something of a rara avis in the republic of Welsh letters but also gave him a perspective that helped him to write perceptively about his own country and its people, seeing them, as Lewis had taught, as part of European civilisation unfettered by the influence of English thought and customs. He was the only Welshman of my acquaintance who habitually read The Irish Times, The Tablet, Le Monde and The New York Review of Books as well as the Welsh-language periodical press.

As a layman in the Catholic Church, to which he turned from agnosticism in 1958, Jones was a close associate of the Welsh-speaking Archbishop Daniel Mullins and other luminaries. A shadow was cast over his years of loyal service to the Church when in 2000 the Archbishop of Cardiff, John Aloysius Ward, was involved in controversy over the appointment of a paedophile priest which eventually led to Ward's resignation. The cleric had been acquitted of indecent assault on boys, but instead of sending him for specialist psychiatric assessment, Ward asked Jones to interview him, after which he was cleared as fit for the priesthood. The subsequent revelation that the priest was an active paedophile caused the doctor great heartache.

Although a fairly devout Catholic, Jones was unable to accept all the Vatican's teachings, especially those regarding birth control and the role of women in the Church. He was ecumenical in his attitude to other faiths and attempted to reconcile some of his beliefs with those of Welsh Nonconformity, notably in Cyffes Pabydd wrth ei Ewyllys (A Catholic's statement of his faith, 1996), a collection of essays which are little more than short homilies about ethical problems posed by life and death.

The English writer whose influence he was readiest to acknowledge was Graham Greene, author of The Power and the Glory, but he was more deeply engaged with the work of the patrician, right-wing, medievalist Saunders Lewis, translating his plays for television and editing an anthology of his writings, Saunders Lewis: a Presentation of his Work (1990). When ribbed by his more liberal friends about his admiration for a writer whom many consider the arch-reactionary of modern Wales, he would always point to Lewis's achievements as a dramatist and literary critic, while conceding that as a politician he had been an utter failure.

After Llangefni Grammar School Jones studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became deeply immersed in Irish culture and a friend of many well-known personalities such as the broadcaster Sean Mac Reamoinn, the composer Sean O Riada, the scholar Proinsias Mac Cana and the writer Mairtin O Cadhain. Dublin, where he spent 10 years, became a second home to him and many of his stories and novels are set in Ireland. But the time he spent as a locum on the Aran Islands proved crucial to his development and vision as a writer. It was there, while serving a community that had changed little since Synge's day, he began writing the stories published in his first book, Troeon (Turns, 1966), some of which are set on Inish Mor and others in Paris, where he was a regular visitor. By that year he had found employment in the psychiatric hospital at Hensol, near Pontyclun, just outside Cardiff, and later worked with patients at the hospital in Whitchurch, a northern suburb of the city.

His first novel, Dychwelyd (Return, 1972), also set in Dublin, both in intellectual circles and in the seedier working-class parts of the city, won an Arts Council prize in the year of its publication. Two more collections of stories confirmed his reputation as a prose-writer of consummate skill and power: Pobl (People, 1978) and Ar y Cyrion (On the edges, 1994), the first of which was translated as Corner People (1991) and in both of which the delicate evocation of place, whether the backstreets of Cardiff or the boulevards of Paris, is matched by masterly analysis of human motives and behaviour. Two of his stories appear in English translation in the Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories.

His novel Ysglyfaeth (Prey, 1987), of which a film was made for television, is a love story set in Wales and against the background of conflict in Northern Ireland, while Bod yn Rhydd (To be free, 1992) deals with social deprivation and the plight of ethnic minorities in Cardiff, specifically with the experiences of a black prisoner from the dockland area of Butetown and those of his white wife, who works in a psychiatric hospital. Jones's interest in psychiatry also prompted him to write a monograph on Sigmund Freud in the series Y Meddwl Modern (1982).

Jones was a fervent believer in trying to bring the literature of his country into contact with European modernism by translation from and into Welsh. Among the writers whose work he translated was Albert Camus, whose story "Les Muets" appeared in the anthology Storiau Tramor which Jones edited in 1974. The story took its place with work by, among others, Kafka, Maupassant, Babel, Unamuno, Verga, Strindberg, O'Flaherty and Joyce, the last-named represented by a Welsh version of his masterpiece, "The Dead".

Jones might have done much more good work of this kind, but by his own admission he was easily enticed from his desk by invitations to sit on committees, write journalism, and appear on radio and television as one of the comparatively few Welsh-speakers able to speak for his Church. He was a leading member of the Welsh Academy, the national association of writers in Wales, and was usually to be found at its meetings and conferences, after which he would hold court in inimitable style well into the small hours.

An early member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), founded in 1962 with the aim of winning official status for Welsh, he took part in many of the militant campaigns of the 1970s and in 1973 was jailed for 30 days for refusing to pay his TV licence as part of the call for the creation of a fourth channel broadcasting in Welsh. In the cells of Cardiff Jail he saw how abominably inmates were treated and was disconcerted to find himself being given more sympathetic treatment by warders who recognised him as a doctor who was frequently called to the rougher parts of the city. One of his most impassioned lectures, in which he made a plea for more compassionate sentences, was given to a conference of magistrates in 1980.

A bon viveur and the most companionable of men, he was fond of good food and red wine in generous helpings – during a visit to Georgia and Abkhazia in 1975 he impressed our hosts, writers renowned for their Gargantuan appetites, by matching them glass by glass, bottle by bottle, without much sign of inebriety; he delighted in the resemblance between gvin, the Georgian word for wine, and gwin, its Welsh equivalent.

At their home in Whitchurch he and his wife Lenna, a radio producer, kept open house for friends and visitors to the city who were encouraged to talk about the news and gossip in the cultural and political life of Wales and Ireland.

MEIC STEPHENS

Harri Pritchard Jones, doctor and writer: born Dudley, Worcestershire 10 March 1933; married 1965 Lenna Harries (one daughter, two sons), died Penarth 10 March 2015.

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