The Plum Tree and Other Short Prose [Y Goeden Eirin]

Jones, John Gwilym



Reading these short stories by John Gwilym Jones when they were first published in 1946 must have produced a shock similar to that experienced by the first readers of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The settings, in a semi-rural, semi-industrial quarrying district in north-west Wales, would be familiar enough, whether from personal experience or from reading the pre-war stories of Kate Roberts. But the modernity of content and form caused considerable discomfort. Like the stories of Joyce (whose influence Jones acknowledged in an interview reproduced here) or Katherine Mansfield, these are not so much narratives of external events as studies of a psychological state or reaction to specific events or circumstances. In the story that provides the title, for example, identical twins, Wil and Sionyn, share as children the same experiences, thoughts and feelings to the extent that they seem to be a single person in two bodies, yet as adults their paths completely diverge. It is only years later that Sionyn realises that his fall out of the plum tree when they were growing up brought about this distance between them.

Although these stories are located within the Welsh-speaking community in which the writer lived for most of his life, they are not purely time- or place-specific, because the focus is on individuals. Each offers a case study of the peculiar ways in which human minds work. John Gwilym Jones’ stories make no attempt either to idealise or to satirise individuals or community, though two of his real-life friends, Tomos and Enid, make their appearance in the frame of the story-within-a-story of ‘The Stepping Stones’. Nonetheless the cultural world inhabited by his characters is intensely Welsh. Reading them today, a Welsh-speaker may be forcibly struck by how foreign a country the Wales of the mid-twentieth century has become and begin to realise how deep were the differences between Wales and England then, in contrast to today’s Anglo-Americanised society where language is often the only defining factor of a Welsh identity that remains. It is ironic to find that even in the 1940s many of John Gwilym Jones’ readers complained that his stories were ‘too Welsh’:



‘Your characters have too much Welsh culture, too much Welsh literature in their memory and consciousness for Welsh readers to be able to understand them’.

Fortunately this volume of translations provides not only explanatory notes and an afterword but also the texts of radio broadcasts made by the author, which provide far more help — and fascinating information — to the reader than was available in 1946.

It is tempting, and in fact fruitful, to pick up on some of Jones’ comments about Freud or on the social disapproval of any discussion of sexuality, for they invite us to read into his work some reflection of his own psychological identity, especially given his own euphemistic status as a ‘confirmed bachelor’ at a time when homosexual acts were illegal as well as socially unacceptable. In any case John Gwilym Jones’ voice is entirely his own and after sixty years the brilliance and modernity of these stories is still staggering. CL-M



Sample


My brother Wil and I are twins. We were conceived at exactly the same moment, in the same place, and by the same love and the same desire. Mam ate the same food to give us both strength and felt the same pain while carrying us in her womb; we moved inside her at the same time and were born at the same time. The same hands brought us into the world and we were washed in the same water. We gave our mother the same fright and our father the same pride. We were put in the same cradle and suckled at the same breasts. The same hand rocked us and when we were weaned we ate from the same bowl. We followed each other around the oor like shadows one of the other, and exactly the same person taught us to say Mam and Dad and Sionyn and Wil and Taid and Nain and bread-and-milk and pull-your-trousers-down and now-run-like-hell, and A for apple and B for baby, and who was the man beloved of God, and twice-one-is-two, and rest O wave, ow softly, don’t slash against the rocks, and drink this cup for this is my blood, from the New Testament.

 But today Wil, my brother, is in Egypt and I am working on the land at Maes Mawr. 34