Bobi Jones: Scholar of Welsh who taught Prince Charles and whose native English became a foreign language

His hopes for the Welsh language were buoyed by the project that brought Hebrew back to life in Israel and his work as a poet, novelist and critic was as prolific as it was high-brow

Meic Stephens
Thursday 23 November 2017 19:02
Finding his voice: having mastered Welsh as a second language, Jones made it the language of his home and writing
Finding his voice: having mastered Welsh as a second language, Jones made it the language of his home and writing

By far the most prolific writer of the Welsh language in his lifetime, Robert Maynard Jones was born into a working-class, English-speaking home in Cardiff in 1929.

His grandfather, a Marxist, instilled in him an egalitarian spirit which coloured all he wrote and did in later life – novels, short stories, poems, literary criticism which made no apology for being intellectually challenging. His aim was never to produce popular texts but to exercise both the reader and the language.

His non-creative work was published under the name RM Jones. His poems painted pictures of time he spent in Ghana, Quebec and Mexico City, where he fell ill.

Such was the scale of his output that Jones’s peers joked he had more books to his name than he had readers – undeterred, he kept producing and consolidating his position as a stalwart of Welsh literature.

At Cathays grammar school he learned Welsh as a second language, and was inspired to study it at degree level at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

After teaching at Llanidloes in Montgomeryshire and Llangefni in Anglesey, he lectured at Trinity College, Carmarthen, and at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, joining the staff of the Welsh Department in 1966. He was appointed Professor of Welsh Language and Literature at Aberystwyth in 1980 – in 1969 he had taught Prince Charles Welsh there. He retired in 1989.

His marriage in 1952 to Anne Elizabeth (Beti) James, a native Welsh speaker from Pembrokeshire, proved crucial in his development as a poet. She inspired him towards Welsh literature, which was to remain – along with his Calvinist faith – the driving force of his career. At this time, too, he joined Plaid Cymru. The couple had two children, Rhodri and Lowri.

He made the case for what he saw as the complementary notions religion and nation in Crist a Chenedlaetholdeb (“Christ and Nationalism”), published in 1994.

Bobi Jones' book 'O'r Bedd i'r Crud - Hunangofiant Tafod'

In 1976 in, perhaps, a belated response to complaints that he was writing too much, he announced that he would publish no more verse for 10 years.

He found it difficult to keep his word and, as he once remarked to me with a wink, it did not mean he had to stop writing altogether.

He was no less prodigious in the writing of prose. His three novels are Nid yw Dwr yn Plygu (“Water does not bend”, 1958), Bod yn Wraig (“To be a woman”,1960) and Epistol Serch a Selsig (“An epistle of love and sausages”, 1997). Making no concession to “the common reader”, these books are difficult even for those familiar with literary theory and are not meant to be popular – a category he despised and for the promoting of which he often took the Welsh Books Council to task.

In his view, the Welsh reader needed to be “fully stretched”, for the integrity and vitality of the language depended on it. He regarded the minimalists among his critics, especially those poets who were content to bring out a slim volume and then fall silent, as exemplars of the Welsh inferiority complex, which he was fond of examining at every opportunity. His readers were taxed to the utmost by his works of literary theory.

As a student he was particularly anxious to learn why the language and literature of Wales play such a crucial part in the maintenance of Welsh nationhood.

Having mastered Welsh as a second language and made it the language of his home and writing, RM Jones turned to the teaching of Welsh to adults, a field in which he played a pioneering and inspirational role for many years, particularly as the prime mover of Cymdeithas y Dysgwyr (CYD, or “The Learners’ Society”), which since 1984 has been active in organising classes in all parts of Wales.

What he called for was a mass movement similar to the Ulpan scheme which had restored Hebrew in Israel, seeing it as the only hope for the survival of Welsh, and he worked tirelessly in pursuit of this ideal. He was fond of telling the story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his wife Devora who, after landing in Jaffa in 1881, resolved to speak only Hebrew with each other and swore to become the parents of the first child in modern times to have that language as its mother tongue.

Although he produced a number of works in English, it became to him a foreign language.

Jones’s last years were marred by severe physical back pain which prevented him from sitting down, so that his reading and writing had to be done in the upright position or lying prone on his stomach. Even so, he did not let it interrupt his 12-hour days. His collected poems were published as Canu Arnaf (“Singing me”) in two volumes in 1994 and 1995, and yet another as Ol Traed (“Footprint”) in 2003. It was thus he served the language and literature of his country, and the God he revered above all else.

In one poem, he wrote: “Death, you’re afraid of me, because I’m young”.

Bobi (Robert Maynard) Jones, writer of the Welsh language, born 20 May 1929, died 22 November 2017

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