Robert Maynard Jones

1929-2017

The author and academic R. M. (Bobi) Jones died on 22 November 2017. He graduated in Welsh from the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff University’s predecessor) and went on to make a peerless contribution to the Welsh language and its culture. We are honoured to publish a tribute to him by Dr Eleri James, who completed a PhD thesis on his work in the School of Welsh before publishing the volume Casglu Darnau'r Jig-So: Theori Beirniadaeth R. M. (Bobi) Jones (‘Gathering the pieces of the jigsaw: the Critical Theory of R. M. (Bobi) Jones’) in 2009.

Robert Maynard Jones (R. M. Jones/Bobi Jones), the most prolific writer in the history of the Welsh language, was born on 29 May 1929 into an English-speaking family in Roath, Cardiff.

This introductory sentence contains a remarkable fact: the Welsh language’s most productive author acquired the language through the education system here in the capital city. This is both an inspiration and a challenge for all who are learning Welsh and to their teachers and tutors. But it was not of his own accord that Bobi Jones first learnt Welsh, as he testified in a humorous story of how he was ‘chosen’, rather reluctantly, to study Welsh at Cathays High School. The episode is quoted in full as a tribute to his unassuming sense of humour and humility and natural gift for storytelling:

There were ninety of us, and he [the headmaster] asked those who wished to ‘do’ Welsh to stand forward. Some five quivering schoolboys ventured a step. The rest of us stood our ground, certain that Spanish would be intensely useful for our commercial weekend trips to South America later on. And would we not have chosen Timbuktuish, if such a language existed, rather than degrade ourselves to do that indeed-to-goodness stuff?

But the headmaster had his job to do, and needed a ‘stream’: at a push, twenty-five might do, but certainly not five. It was wartime, and volunteering was in the air. ‘Tell me, my boy’, said he, turning on a fat blushing specimen in the middle of the front row, ‘why don’t you want to do Welsh?’

‘I know enough, sir.’

Had I not done it in the elementary?

‘Well, tell me, my boy. What’s “good morning” in Welsh?’

This was one of those phrases that had somehow slipped the syllabus of the elementary. The blush reached my knees.

‘Tell me, my boy. What’s “good night”?’

This too had slipped attention. The blush rattled to the floor.

‘Don’t you think you’d better reconsider your decision?’

The vision had come.

The language was, as he put it, ‘stuffed’ down his throat by his teacher W. C. Elvet Thomas (1905–94). Elvet Thomas was one of the most influential Welsh teachers of his generation and strove to introduce Wales in all her richness to his pupils. Bobi Jones on many occasions expressed his gratitude to this inspirational teacher and claimed he lost all ‘chances’ of escaping the claws of Wales and the Welsh languages once he came under his wing. Our own debt to him is equally great.

The young Bobi Jones went on to study at the University College in Cardiff with the intention of graduating in French. But it was not to be. He enrolled to study Welsh in the first year and was enchanted. Between the walls of the Department of Welsh he found much more than an academic subject. He discovered, in his own words, ‘a cause, a calling, an enchantment, a vision, a campaign, a life’.

These words are key to understanding this polymath’s remarkable career. The Welsh language – and everything it represented – came to be a vocation, a campaign and a crusade for him throughout his life. This enthusiasm for the Welsh language, along with his deep personal Christian convictions, would shape his career. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to sum up the breadth, diversity and originality of Bobi Jones’s life and work in a brief tribute such as this. How might one begin to chronicle and crystallize the life and contribution of this educator, poet, critic, campaigner, and theorist? One might list the highlights, of course: the brilliant academic career; his Christian conversion; his specialism in the field of linguistics and the psychomechanics of language and in teaching methods for Welsh as a second language; his authoritative writing about all periods in the history of Welsh literature; the fact that he was the first Welsh learner to be appointed Professor of Welsh; the establishment of the Welsh Academy; the publishing of a library of books under two names (‘R. M. Jones’ and ‘Bobi Jones’, without mentioning the nomes de plume he used for children’s books); the establishment of CYD (The Welsh Learners’ Association); the pioneering enterprise in the field of literary criticism; and, in his final years, the creation of a comprehensive website. But these are merely pieces of the jigsaw, and the links and ties between them must be understood in order to appreciate fully the extent of his contribution. In other words, one must – to use the terminology and ideology of Bobi’s own work in literary theory – see the composite picture.

Despite the sheer extent of the literary and academic output of this original and unique thinker, the amount of attention that has been given to his work is relatively small – both nationally and internationally. He attracted a relatively select audience, partly because of his commitment to publishing challenging material in Welsh. He often complained about the growing reluctance to ‘engage with grown-up work in Welsh’, insisting that if Welsh-language culture was to remain whole, multifaceted and rich, then life – in all its diversity and complexity – must be tackled through the medium of Welsh. In his autobiography O’r Bedd i’r Crud (‘From the Grave to the Cradle’, 2000) he writes: ‘I have seen “standards” being considered elitist: that’s the cry of the serf’.

Another reason for his work’s limited audience is the fact that he chose to publish mainly in Welsh. The inevitable consequence of his stubbornness in favour of the Welsh language and his ambition for Wales was to limit the pool of potentially appreciative readers. He was described during his lifetime as one of the few critics of European status writing in Welsh and it is not difficult to imagine that he would have received much more attention had he published in one of the major European languages. The biggest tribute that we might give Bobi Jones would be to rectify this situation by dedicating ourselves to studying his work in a meaningful manner, by getting to grips with the perplexing and the philosophical in his work in order to seek the treasure that he himself had found.