Obituary: R. Gerallt Jones

Meic Stephens
Wednesday 13 January 1999 00:02

ONE OF the most prolific Welsh authors of the post-war period, R. Gerallt Jones excelled both as poet and prose-writer, and more unusually, in both Welsh, his first language, and English, the language of his early schooling. He also took a passionate interest in the affairs of the Third World, especially those of the Indian subcontinent, and of Jamaica, where he spent two years as the first Principal of Mandeville Teachers' College.

He was born, a poor Anglican vicar's son, at Nefyn on the Lleyn in north- west Wales, the rugged peninsula that points towards Ireland. At the age of 10, still a monoglot Welsh-speaker, he was sent by his Anglophile, High Church, High Tory father as a boarder to a school near Shrewsbury and thence to Denstone College, a minor public school for boys, in Staffordshire.

Although his schooldays were happy - his exceptional intelligence and prowess at cricket ensured that he was not ragged on account of his very un-English background - the experience made him think of Wales, and the wild scenery of Lleyn in particular, as an ideal country. "Wales for me," he wrote, "was a hearth, a home, a wonderful world, hidden, separate from the world of school, a proud possession of my own, a secret room that my English friends knew nothing about."

It was to the sea-girt peninsula that he was to return so often in his writing, sometimes to the rather daunting figure of his father who, of illegitimate birth and Methodist upbringing, had decided that his only child would not be tainted by what he considered to be the hypocrisy of the Welsh Nonconformist chapel.

At the University College of North Wales, Bangor, where he first encountered the harsher realities of Welsh life, R. Gerallt Jones took a degree in English and went on to write an MA thesis on the work of Robert Graves. Also at Bangor, in association with Bedwyr Lewis Jones, a lifelong friend and co-religionist who later became Professor of Welsh at the College, he launched and edited the magazine Yr Arloeswr ("The Pioneer"). Brief though its lifespan was - it ran for only eight numbers between 1957 and 1960 - the magazine published the work of Gwyn Thomas and Bobi Jones, who were to join him in a triumvirate of poets now acknowledged as the most important of their generation.

This interest in literary journalism remained with him for the rest of his life: he was a regular contributor to Welsh periodicals and from 1987 to 1992, again with Bedwyr Lewis Jones, he edited the Welsh Academy's influential magazine Taliesin.

The versatility of R. Gerallt Jones as a writer was quite remarkable. He published five volumes of verse in Welsh: Ymysg y Drain ("Among the Nettles", 1959), Cwlwm ("Knot", 1962), Cysgodion ("Shadows", 1972), Dyfal Gerddwyr y Maes ("The Relentless Walkers of the Field", 1981) and Cerddi 1955-89 ("Poems 1955-89", 1989); and one in English, Jamaican Landscape (1969), the fruit of his two years in the Caribbean. A deeply meditative poet, he was able to give the numinous concrete form by the use of striking imagery and the rich idiom of his native district. His command of English, together with his belief that Welsh poetry deserved and needed a wider audience, led him to translate a good deal of it, notably in the substantial anthology Poetry of Wales 1930-70 (1974).

In his prose writing, he tackled contemporary social problems with a special sympathy for the marginalised and dispossessed. His first novel, Y Foel Fawr ("The Great Hill", 1960), is about a Welshman who campaigns for the rights of black people in South Africa; its sequel, Nadolig Gwyn ("A White Christmas", 1962), set in Bangor, is more concerned with politics and social justice at home. In Triptych (1977), one of two novels with which he won the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod, he dealt with the spiritual disintegration of 20th-century culture as a background to the slow death from cancer of a physical education teacher, while the other, Cafflogion (1979), described a commune in Lleyn after an unnamed catastrophe in a dark, dystopian future. His novel Gwyntyll y Corwynt ("Fanning the Whirlwind", 1978) is about terrorism in Ireland.

But perhaps his most celebrated book is Gwared y Gwirion ("The Loss of Innocence", 1966), a collection of seven short stories exploring the innocence of childhood and the burgeoning of conscience in a boy growing up in Lleyn during the Second World War. In 1982 the stories were adapted for television by their author as Joni Jones, one of the most enchanting films made since the advent of S4C, the Welsh- language television channel, and filmed by the American Stephen Bayly. One episode, "The Evacuees", was the first Welsh-language production to be screened at the London Film Festival.

In his literary criticism R. Gerallt Jones displayed a fundamentally liberal outlook, examining Wales and its culture in a wider context which took in the problems of the Third World, about which he made several television programmes. He published three collections of essays on literary subjects: Yn Frawd i'r Eos Druan ("Brother to the Poor Nightingale", 1961), Ansawdd y Seiliau ("The Quality of the Foundations", 1972) and Seicoleg Cardota ("The Psychology of Begging", 1989). Particularly concerned about the effects of television on literature, and how to use the medium creatively, he grappled with some of the threats to a literate society in much the same way as cultural analysts like Richard Hoggart have done in England.

He also wrote monographs in Welsh on T.S. Eliot and T.H. Parry-Williams; his full biography of the latter is due to be published by the University of Wales Press later this year. Among his miscellaneous prose are Jamaican Interlude (1977), an account of his time at Mandeville College, and several books in both Welsh and English about Ynys Enlli, the island off the furthermost tip of Lleyn known in English as Bardsey, to which he was a frequent visitor. As a literary critic, he was always ready to put his gifts at the service of his English-speaking countrymen, publishing numerous reviews and articles in such magazines as Poetry Wales and Planet, in which he wrote engagingly about what was being produced in the Welsh language.

The professional career of R. Gerallt Jones reflected his restless energy and preference to be always "fully stretched". He began as a teacher of English at the Sir Thomas Jones School at Amlwch in Anglesey in 1957 but, four years later, was appointed lecturer in the Education Department at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. After his sojourn in Jamaica, he returned to Wales in 1967 to take up the wardenship of Llandovery College, a public school in Carmarthenshire and one of the few in the whole of Wales, and there he remained until 1979.

After a year spent as a freelance writer, he was appointed Senior Tutor in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at Aberystwyth. From 1989 until his retirement in 1995 he was Warden of Gregynog Hall, the University of Wales residential study-centre near Newtown in Powys. It was in the last-named post, amid the old mansion's mock-Tudor architecture and splendid park, with access to a fine library and an ever-changing company of visiting students and academic staff, that his genial personality, wide interests and independent views (he was active on behalf of no political party) were given fullest play. His dark, Venedotian features, broad grin and generous disposition made him a popular Warden, although he sometimes gave the impression that the minutiae of administration held little appeal for him.

Although he once described himself as a reluctant committee man, the list of public bodies of which R. Gerallt Jones was a member is a long one. Principal among them was the Church in Wales, in which he had been brought up and to which he remained loyal throughout his adult life, despite his profound understanding of Nonconformist Wales and the pressures which had led to Disestablishment in 1920. He served as a lay reader in the Church in Wales, editor of its quarterly journal Impact, and a member of its Governing Body. But there was nothing narrow or exclusive about his allegiance to the Anglican Communion. In fact, he was interested in all religions, and I well recall how, during a trip to the Caucasus in the 1970s, he could not be kept from the icons and rites of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Among other bodies on which he served were the Broadcasting Council for Wales, the Welsh Academy (of which he was chairman), the Welsh Arts Council, the Court of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, the Welsh National Film and Video Archive, and the Board of Governors of S4C. To all these appointments he brought balanced judgement, a dryly witty manner, and a broad spectrum of interests which, though deeply rooted in Wales and the Welsh language, looked out at England, Europe, and the wider world with a mixture of fascination, amusement, sympathy, and sometimes consternation.

Robert Gerallt Hamlet Jones, writer and educationist: born Nefyn, Caernarvonshire 11 September 1934; Principal, Mandeville College, Jamaica 1965-67; Warden, Llandovery College 1967-79; Senior Lecturer, Department of Extra-Mural Studies, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1979-89; Warden, Gregynog Hall 1989-95; married 1962 Susan Lloyd Griffith (two sons, one daughter); died Dol-y-bont, Ceredigion 9 January 1999.

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