William Glynne-Jones, forgotten genius of Welsh literature

Friday 3 January 2014, 10:26

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

It seems that most parts of Wales are well represented when it comes to literature. From Glyn Jones and Alun Richards to Bobbi Jones and Gwyn Thomas, from the industrial valleys of the south-east to the rolling Pembrokeshire hills and the rugged mountains of the north, there has always been someone willing and able to put pen to paper in order to capture the essential essence of their particular part of the country.

But one man who vividly and memorably caught the magic of childhood in the steel town of Llanelli during the hard and draining 1920s, 30s and 40s has now been largely forgotten. That man is William Glynne-Jones.

Born in December 1907, William Glynne-Jones was, in many respects, just an ordinary working man. But this was an ordinary working man with an exceptional talent for words. He could paint skilful and empathetic word pictures about the life of young children that are still guaranteed to bring a tear of remembrance to the eye of any reader.

Glynne-Jones also wrote about the world of work, the gut-wrenching, pain-inducing life of the manual worker at a time when health and safety had never been thought of. He might be writing about Llanelli but his descriptions could equally apply to the Rhondda or Cardiff – even towns and cities beyond Offa's Dyke.

In his short story Up-Ladle at Three, William Glynne-Jones perfectly captures the atmosphere of the foundry and you can't help wondering if Alexander Cordell had not read the piece as background for his Rape of the Fair Country:

“The teemer pulled downwards. The white-hot steel rushed in a circular stream from beneath the ladle and dropped into the spindle with a hollow thud. A red tongue of flame shot into the air, and the gurgling boiling metal rose slowly to the brim of the mould.”

The son of a carpenter, William was born with a cleft palate and harelip, afflictions that often brought him ridicule and abuse from people who knew no better. He was a clever boy who read widely and was encouraged to write by his teachers at Bigyn and Llanelli Grammar Schools. But his love of words was undoubtedly fostered by his parents and grandparents who told him stories that set his mind turning and his imagination bursting.

As a working class lad there was no possibility of further education for William. When he left school at the age of 15 he began work as an apprentice moulder at the Glanmor Foundry. It was hard, dirty work but, in the evenings, he would come home and begin to write. Slowly he began to achieve success.

After 20 years in the foundry, William Glynne-Jones (the Glynne being added to distinguish him from the bevy of other Welsh writers named Jones) decided he would move to London to pursue writing full-time. It was a brave move as by now he had a wife and family. He had to become eclectic in his chosen profession, writing stories, sub-editing magazines and tutoring for a correspondence school among other tasks he took on.

In later years William opted for the financial security of a job with the civil service. Not for one minute did it stop him pursuing his main dream of being able to write stories with which people could relate.

By the late 1940s and early 50s, William's stories and accounts of Welsh childhood were regularly appearing in magazines as wide ranging as the Strand, Welsh Review and Esquire. He wrote two superb evocations of childhood and adolescence, Summer Long Ago and The Childhood Land, which were critically acclaimed by writers like Somerset Maugham and Emlyn Williams.

Looking back at the world created by Glynne-Jones it is easy to catch the emotion of long-gone days. Yet there is no sentimentality here. Life, good or bad – and it is mostly good, despite the deprivation of the times – is presented in all its detail and glorious complexity. As Jon Gower wrote in a recent essay in The Llanelli Miscellany on the man and his book The Childhood Land:

“The Childhood Land, with its marmalade of names – Jerry, Sunshy, Harry Cabbage, Eleazar, Sarannie, Alcwyn, Mostyn and Johnny Clampitt – is chockful of the little, unremarkable incidents of childhood which would have felt like high drama then. The little gang of five or six kids bathe in the estuary... enjoy the electrifying visit of an itinerant showman with his moving pictures, picking over cinders, living young life to the full.”

During his lifetime William Glynne-Jones knew most of the main figures in Welsh and English literature. Glyn Jones and George Ewart Evans were friends and Doris Lessing often dropped into the house in Hornsey for tea. His work appeared in magazines alongside writers like Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins and Rhys Davies.

Glynne-Jones was also a prolific children's author. As well as his four major novels he produced 12 children's books and an additional number of ‘school readers.’

William Glynne-Jones died on 26 January 1977. At the time he was well-published and well-respected. Unfortunately, now he seems to have been forgotten. Which is a terrible shame for this hard working and effective writer who managed to catch the mood of his age and a time that has now long disappeared.

What he wrote was, at the time, autobiographical fiction. Now it could be regarded as invaluable social commentary – and of course, it is hugely entertaining. It is time to resurrect his reputation.

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