OBITUARY: Glyn Jones
Tuesday 11 April 1995
His book The Dragon Has Two Tongues (1968) is a largely autobiographical account of how a generation of writers was formed by the religious, political, and educational forces shaping South Wales in the years between the two world wars.
Glyn Jones was typical of them in several crucial respects. Born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1905, into a Welsh-speaking home, he suffered a wholly English education at the Grammar School at Cyfarthfa and, after nearly losing his Welsh, had to educate himself in the language and literature of his country. Although he became a fluent Welsh-speaker, and able to render the most technically complex Welsh poetry, almost all his own writing had to be done in English, the language of his schooling, his adolescent reading, and his awakening imagination.
Like so many of his contemporaries - Jack Jones, Rhys Davies, Gwyn Thomas, for example - Glyn Jones was politically of the Left, though never an active member of the Labour Party and always sympathetic to the aims of Plaid Cymru. It was the wretched condition of the industrial valleys of South Wales during the Depression, and later the deprivation he witnessed as a young teacher in a Cardiff slum, which made him a Socialist. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he registered as a conscientious objector on pacifist grounds, a stand for which he was temporarily deprived of his teaching post by the Glamorgan Education Authority.
What made Jones different from his generation, who were for the most part agnostic if not downright hostile to the narrower aspects of Welsh Nonconformity, were his Christian beliefs and practice. Brought up by devout parents, he was a chapelgoer all his life, regularly attending Sunday School and taking a full part in the affairs of Minny Street Congregational Chapel, one of the bastions of the Independent cause in Cardiff. A mild- mannered, diffident man, loth to say anything ungenerous about others, he seemed to have a saintly touch to his character, though there was nothing smug or sanctimonious about him and he had a delicious sense of humour.
Staunch though his political and religious convictions were, little of them was allowed to impinge on his poetry and prose. He was concerned, rather, with the English language and its use as a medium for the depiction of human character in all its astonishing variety. "I fancy words," he wrote in his panegyric to his home-town of Merthyr Tydfil, delighting in a "gift for logopeic dance" which he had learnt from D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The images of his poetry are fresh and bountiful, the words have a shining newness, as though they have just been turned over for the first time like pebbles on a strange beach. There is something, too, of Welsh prosody in his English, as well as the observations of a painterly eye which he cultivated as a young man.
Jones's early poems appeared in the Dublin Magazine in 1931 but, although poetry remained his first love, his output was comparatively small - there will be about 90 poems in the edition of his work which, as his literary executor, I am now preparing for the press. His first volume, Poems, published by the Fortune Press in 1939, reflects his fascination with alliteration and copious metaphor, while The Dream of Jake Hopkins (1944) includes a long poem for broadcasting which is among the most moving ever written about the teaching profession. He continued writing well into his eighties, adding new work to the two volumes of his Selected Poems which appeared in 1975 and 1988. A selection of his poems, stories, translations, and critical writings may be found in his last book, Goodbye, What Were You? (1994).
It was as a short-story writer that Jones excelled most consistently. Like Dylan Thomas, an early friend who thought highly of his work, he used a boy-narrator for many of the stories in The Blue Bed (1937) and The Water Music (1944). Almost all are set in the Merthyr of his boyhood or else in the greener landscape of Carmarthenshire, particularly Llansteffan on the Tywi where his people had their roots and which held a special place in his affections.
The middle of Jones's life was devoted to the novel. His first, The Valley, The City, The Village (1956), brims with character, incident, and splendid description of places and people. In The Learning Lark (1960) he pilloried the corruption associated with teaching appointments in the Labour-controlled Valleys of South Wales. His most important novel, which has attracted a good deal of interest from academic critics, is The Island of Apples (1965), which weaves realism with fantasy in a retelling of the legend of Ynys Afallon, the magic island to which Arthur was carried after being mortally wounded in battle.
The poetic quality of Jones's prose was vividly demonstrated in 1965 when, in a famous case of plagiarism, it was revealed that Hugh MacDiarmid had lifted verbatim some lines from a short-story of his and recast them in a poem, entitled "Perfect", about the wing of a dead pigeon. During the ensuing correspondence in the columns of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two opposing camps emerged, Jones could not bring himself to complain, keeping a typically dignified silence until the Scot's supporters began to claim that he had somehow "improved" the quality of the Welshman's prose. Some 20 years later, over supper at my home, the two poets were able to laugh off the episode, and move on to some splendidly scurrilous gossip about mutual acquaintances among the London literati.
Glyn Jones received several honours during the course of his literary career. He was elected President of the Welsh Academy, the national association of writers in Wales, and was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of Wales in 1974. He enjoyed his status as the doyen of Welsh prose-writers but was always ready to encourage younger men and women in their literary endeavours, and never sought the limelight. With his wife Doreen, whom he married in 1935 and to whom all his books were dedicated, he kept open house for a wide circle of their friends, whose conversation was the only pleasure he allowed to interrupt his daily writing schedule.
Glyn's last years were marred by the amputation of his right arm, for a writer the ultimate indignity, but his interest in the republic of letters remained vital to the last. Among those who gathered at his bedside during his final illness none was untouched by the serenity of his temperament and his undiminished delight in the world he was about to leave.
Glyn Jones, poet, short-story writer, novelist: born Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan 28 February 1905; married 1935 Doreen Jones; died Cardiff 10 April 1995.
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