Robert Cecil Jones (1932 – 2023)

My father, Robert Cecil Jones, died on Friday 8 September 2023. His 90 year life spanned a childhood and youth in Aberystwyth, 16 years service in the Royal Air Force, a spell as an adult educator in Birmingham and a second career as a priest in the Church in Wales. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Sheila, and me, his only child, Richard.

Robbie’s mother, Gladys Jones (née Williams), was from Yspyty Ifan, in the Conwy valley; Len Jones was a journeyman butcher from Conwy. Robbie was born in Colwyn Bay in 1932, but the family soon moved to Aberystwyth, where Len carried out his trade for Dewhurst the Butchers until his death in 1971. The family lived without interruption in the same house on Dinas Terrace, where Gladys took in visitors for Bed and Breakfast.

Robbie was an only child, and for much of the war he was brought up by Gladys alone – Len was conscripted in the Royal Armoured Corps. He was a tank crewman who was captured at the Battle of Tobruk, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, first in Italy, then Germany. Robbie attributed his close bond with his mother (and, less plausibly, his love of ice cream) to this wartime period.

He was educated at Ardwyn Grammar School – there, in 1949, he first met Sheila Howell Lewis, the love of his life. They married in 1956. He did well at school (except at maths, which in those days didn’t seem to matter so much), and was offered a place at Oxford. He couldn’t afford to take that up, but instead studied geography at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, living at home, alongside the other students Gladys took in as lodgers.

He’d talk about his university years with great affection – he was active in student politics, in amateur drama, in entertaining visiting dignitaries to the university (a rowdy night out with Dylan Thomas being something he recalled with particular pleasure). He was involved in many high spirited pranks at the expense of the town and university authorities. He’d recall these with all the more amusement for the fact that some of his co-conspirators went on to become pillars of the Welsh legal and political establishment.

Robbie always spoke with enormous gratitude for both his parents, who had had very little education themselves, but never hesitated in their support for his studies. After his BA, he trained as a teacher, and then started research for a Masters in historical geography, working with the great Welsh geographer Emrys Bowen, while supporting himself working as a journalist on the Cambrian News. But he concluded that the academic life wasn’t for him.

Faced with the need to do National Service, he chose to apply for a short-service commission in the RAF instead. After officer training in the Isle of Man, he was posted to the V-bomber base, RAF Wittering, near Stamford, moving there with Sheila. At the end of the commission, he and Sheila stayed in Stamford, where Sheila had a teaching job. Robbie got a job teaching in the same school. This didn’t really work out – it didn’t do a lot for his self-confidence that his wife had to intervene to maintain discipline in his classes. But it was in their short stay in Stamford that their only son, Richard arrived.

The solution was to rejoin the RAF, which accepted Robbie for a full 16 year commission. His first posting was back to the Isle of Man, turning from trainee to trainer at the Officer Training Unit at Jurby. This was a happy time for Robbie and Sheila, who made some lifelong friends there.

Robbie’s RAF service continued, with postings to Feltwell and Brampton in East Anglia. A less happy time followed in 1967, when Robbie was posted to Aden, to assist with the UK’s chaotic and violent withdrawal from this outpost of Empire. Aden, in the grip of a bitter insurgency, was too dangerous for families, so he had to leave his behind, to live in Pwllheli close to Sheila’s parents. Better times came with a move from Aden to Sharjah, in what’s now the United Arab Emirates; still without his family, but without Aden’s bloody conflict. There he enjoyed roving across the deserts and mountains of Arabia, training with the RAF’s Mountain and Desert Rescue Team.

Back in the UK, and back with the family, postings followed to Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and finally to Bicester. Then the time came to leave the RAF, and adjust to civilian life. He took up a position in adult education in Birmingham, a rewarding time.

Christianity was always important to Robbie. He’d considered entering the ministry as a young man, but had been discouraged by his mother (though she herself was always a devout churchgoer), and had followed the advice of an important mentor that he should spend some time in a secular career first. While he was in Birmingham, he became a lay reader. Finally he decided that the time was ripe for him to enter the ministry full time, and he was accepted as a trainee priest by the Diocese of St Davids, in the (Anglican) Church in Wales.

After 2 years in theological college in Birmingham, he returned to Aberystwyth as a curate in the beautiful and historic church of Llanbadarn Fawr. His mother Gladys was thrilled to have him back close, and he spoke with huge admiration and respect for the Vicar he served under and learnt so much from, Hywel Jones. With his return to Wales came a refreshing of his Welsh language. Welsh was Robbie’s mother tongue, but as was very common in those times, his education was exclusively in English. Expressing the subtleties of theology in Welsh was a challenge at first, but he soon found his feet for preaching in his native tongue. Whether in Welsh or English, some who knew his quiet-spoken everyday manner could be surprised by the passion of his public speaking – real hwyl.

His first parish was the Ceredigion coastal resort of New Quay/ Cei Newydd. Before long he was offered the opportunity to move to Newport/ Trefdraeth, in Pembrokeshire. This he gladly seized; Sheila was born and spent her early childhood in North Pembrokeshire, so this was a return to the family homeland for her. The position of Rector of Newport wholly suited Robbie, who took very seriously the idea that an Anglican priest should serve the whole of the community whenever there was a need, whether they identified as churchgoers or not. He could relate equally to the Welsh speaking rural communities of the Gwaun Valley, with their deep traditions, as to those who had retired to this charming seaside village. He was proud to be appointed to the traditional position of Mayor of Newport.

After retirement, Robbie and Sheila moved a few miles down the coast to Fishguard. But the arrival of grandchildren persuaded them to relocate once again, to Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, to be closer to their son Richard, daughter-in-law Dulcie, and grandchildren Rosie and Thomas.

But retirement, for Anglican priests, is a relative concept, and Robbie was soon drawn in to frequently helping out with services in the local churches, supporting the overstretched rural vicar. He continued serving the community in this way well into his 80s, until deteriorating health finally forced him to retire for good.

Climbing stories, climbing fictions

I call myself a rock climber, and sometimes I manage to do some climbing too. This summer I’ve been out a few times with a new climbing partner, Mike. Mike’s a writer – M. John Harrison – whose most famous work is the science fiction trilogy Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space. I’ve written about these brilliant books before. But it’s another novel of his that these climbing trips have brought to mind – his 1989 novel “Climbers”.

“Climbers” is a beautifully written book, formally clever and an utterly perfect evocation of a certain time and place, a certain milieu – the Peak District climbing scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This I know, because I was there – at least, as a youth learning to climb myself, I was on the fringes of this scene.

This is how it happened. 1979 was the year I left school. That summer, my friend and climbing companion, Mark, having been expelled from school (the reasons for which are another story), had moved to the Peak District. His parents had divorced, and he went with his mother, first to a mobile home outside Chesterfield, then to the village of Tideswell. I visited him there, staying in his mother’s tiny cottage and hitching to the crags, Mark in a greatcoat, with their Jack Russell sticking its head out of his rucksack, an ancient Karrimor Pinnacle that he’d stolen from school. Continue reading “Climbing stories, climbing fictions”

Land of my Fathers (and they can keep it)

When someone asks me “where do you come from”, my reply is generally “I’m Welsh. A Welsh Jones. Descended from a long line of Joneses” (and Lewises and Williamses and Howells and so on). But then I have to qualify this, not least because I don’t sound Welsh: I sound like someone who’s spent 15 years in Cambridge (with maybe a bit of east midlands/Yorkshire influence). I was born in England (Stamford, Lincolnshire); my father had left Wales to join the Air Force, so my early childhood was spent trailing around a series of RAF bases in the Midlands and Eastern England. It was only after I finally left home that my parents moved back to Wales. The only time I properly lived in Wales myself was for a year in 1967, an experience that was so alienating and unhappy that, even though it was a short time, and a long time ago, it colours my emotional response to that part of North Wales, the Lleyn Peninsular.

The circumstances were this – after a couple of postings in East Anglia, my father was sent abroad, to help with what turned out to be the shambolic and violent end of one corner of the British Empire, in Aden, now in the Yemen. Aden was then a Crown Colony, a strategic port and military base for the British, usefully placed on the way to India and the Far East. Britain’s retreat from Empire reduced the port city’s value, but through the mid-1960’s a worsening insurgency had destabilised the British’s attempt to install a friendly government before they left. By 1967 parts of the city were alternately a no-go zone for the British troops, then being reoccupied with some brutality. Finally (and I think uniquely in the end of Empire) there was no orderly hand-over when the British left, no ceremonial lowering of the flag, no hand-shakes between the Governor-General and the incoming President, just a scramble by the British forces to get out with as much of their kit as they could carry. My father’s part in the retreat, having organised the repatriation of the remaining families, was to tip Radio Aden’s record collection off the Steamer Point quay into the harbour, to make sure the Communist hordes of FLOSY and NLF didn’t benefit from the latest Jazz and Pop sounds (for some reason he saved one Thelonius Monk album, which I still possess).

Aden was clearly not a place for dependents, so my mother and I were packed off to the North Wales seaside town of Pwllheli, where my mother’s parents lived. There my mother tried to avoid reading the newspapers, with their reports from Aden of random shootings and grenade attacks, while the six-year-old me went off friendless to a new school. I remember the terrible food and the boys’ toilet, outside, in the corner of the playground, a slate urinal brilliant green with moss and with an overwhelming ammoniacal smell of decaying boys’ urine. The school was old-fashioned in teaching methods and discipline – I vividly remember an assembly with a purple faced teacher standing on a stage, roaring with anger and threateningly waving his stick above his head. I never found out what atrocity it was that some child had committed, as the diatribe was conducted, like all the other business of the school, entirely in Welsh, a language I didn’t know then (and still don’t).

West End Parade, Pwllheli
West End Parade, Pwllheli, N. Wales. A flat in one of these houses was my unhappy home for a year.

My mother must have been bored, worried, lonely. At least she had a car, a sweet little Mini, in which she frequently drove me to Caernarvon Castle, with which I became fascinated. She would take her own father on trips a few miles up the coast, to see his friend, the priest and poet R.S. Thomas. I don’t exactly know what had drawn Thomas and my grandfather together, whether that was religion, or poetry, or simply a shared gloomy disposition. My grandfather died before I got to know him properly; I know he was a cultured man, though he had dropped out of theological college to become a Conservative Party activist.

Something I don’t remember myself, but which my mother tells me, is that for the first few months I refused to talk about my father at all, or even acknowledge his existence. Continue reading “Land of my Fathers (and they can keep it)”

I chose to graduate

I’m sure there are some people who, very early on in their lives, work out what they want to do and then set out single-mindedly to achieve their aims. For the rest of us, choices are made and paths are set without us really being conscious of those junctions, so we look back and wonder how was it that our lives unfolded in this way and not in another. And yet, looking back, we sometimes can see moments, or short periods, that were decisive in setting us down one path and cutting off other possibilities. For me, the summer of 1982 was the time that determined that I was going to end up being a scientist, and to some extent what sort of scientist I would end up being, though I don’t suppose at any moment at the time I had any idea that this was the case.

Mont Blanc du Tacul

The East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, a 4,248 m peak in the French Alps

It began on the bus to Chamonix, in the French Alps, in the summer vacation after my second year at University. Continue reading “I chose to graduate”