Jack Jones - writer and political activist

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In many respects Jack Jones, the writer of “Off to Philadelphia in the Morning” – a fictional picture of the early career of Welsh composer Joseph Parry – was a typical product of life in the industrial valleys of South Wales in the first half of the twentieth century.

He was a writer, a fine public orator and a political activist who at various stages in his life pledged his allegiance to no fewer than five different political parties. Despite this he remained a man with firm left-wing convictions whose interest and affiliation were always with the ordinary working people of Wales.

Jack Jones

Jones was born on 24 November 1884 at Tai-Harri-Blawdd in Merthyr Tydfil. He was the eldest surviving son of miner David Jones and his wife Sarah. The couple had fifteen children in all but only nine survived infancy. Educated at St David’s Elementary School, Jack finished formal education at the age of twelve and went to join his father working in the mines.

In 1901 the young man joined the army and, in the wake of the Boer War, was posted to South Africa. He was unhappy there and went absent without leave. On his recapture he was sent to serve in India. His term of enlistment over, Jones returned to work in the coal mines in Wales.

In 1908 he married Laura Evans from Builth Wells and took work as a bark stripper in his wife’s native area. The money was poor and as they soon had children to support, Jack moved to Pontypool where he once again went down the pit. He was working underground when war was declared in 1914 and as a reservist he was immediately recalled to the colours.

Jones served on the western front in the Great War and was mentioned in dispatches. Wounded by shrapnel, he was invalided home and made Recruiting Officer for Merthyr Tydfil.

In 1920 Jack joined the Communist Party founding the Merthyr Tydfil branch. He remained a communist until 1923 when he left to join the Labour Party. In 1923 he was appointed full-time secretary of the Blaengarw branch of the Miner’s Union, moving his wife and family to live in Bridgend where he was to remain until he left his job with the union soon after the General Strike, when they settled in Cardiff. The General Strike of 1926 had seen him, like many other trade union officials, traipsing the roads of the country making speeches, urging miners to continue the fight for decent wages.

Disillusioned by Labour’s stance on nationalisation, Jones left the party and moved on to the Liberals, taking a job at the end of the 1920s as a speech-maker.  David Lloyd George – about whom Jack was later to write a book, “The Man David” – was apparently hugely impressed by the rhetoric of his fellow Welshman. By 1930 he was unemployed and took a variety of different jobs to make a living – as a salesman, a cinema manager, a navvy and, in particular a writer.

His first published article had been on the need for a Lib-Lab coalition in 1927 but Jack was really interested in the power of fiction. It was, he felt, the best way to reach more people. A play he had written, “Dad’s Double,” had done well at a Manchester festival and by 1934 he had published his first novel, “Rhondda Roundabout”.

Several other novels, a play and the first in a series of autobiographies, “Unfinished Journey” appeared before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Jack Jones continued to vacillate in his support for different political parties and during the 1930s, in the days before the full evil of fascism was realised, he even gave speeches on behalf of Oswald Mosley’s new party. He had already stood as a candidate for the Liberals, fighting the safe Labour seat of Neath where, despite all predictions, he managed to poll 30% of the vote and come a respectable second.

Jones became a speaker for the Ministry of Information in the Second World War, making two successful lecture tours of the USA and Canada. He continued to write and change political affiliations, supporting the Conservatives in the 1945 election. In an almost naïve and childlike way, Jones saw nothing wrong in such prevarication – his concern was still with the people.

Jack Jones

His masterpiece, “Off to Philadelphia in the Morning,” was published in 1947. It was the story of another Merthyr boy, the composer Joseph Parry, following the would-be musician and his family in their move from the poverty of south Wales to the hardship of industrial America. The book was an instant success and was later made into a highly successful TV film.

Jones' son Lawrence was killed in the war in 1942, and the year before “Off to Philadelphia” came out his wife Laura also died. He remarried in 1954. His later works; books like “Lily of the Valleys” and “Come Night: End Day” were not as powerful, nor so well-received as his earlier productions but this did not stop him writing. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1948 as a reward for his services to literature and was elected the first president of the English language section of Yr Academi Gymreig.

Jack Jones died in May 1970, leaving an unfinished work “Burnt Offering,” based on the life of Dr William Price of Llantrisant, the early pioneer of cremation. His fame now rests on a handful of works – “The Black Parade,” “Off to Philadelphia in the Morning,” “Bidden to the Feast” and his autobiographical “Unfinished Journey.”

These days Jack Jones is seen as an unfashionable writer and this seems a shame as his sense of humanity shines through in all of his works.  More than that, they give an accurate and powerful picture of life in the industrial valleys of South Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arguably, it has never been done better.

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