Modern psychologists would likely diagnose David Jones as autistic or agoraphobic, but in the 1930s, he was simply considered to be eccentric.
The David Jones most Baby Boomers will be familiar with is David ‘Davy’ Jones, best known as lead singer for the pop rock band the Monkees, consisting of Davy, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz. The Monkees had several hit records in the sixties and a popular television show of the same name. Davy also starred as the Artful Dodger in the hit musical Oliver on both Broadway and in London’s West End. The Monkees disbanded in 1971 and Davy, who was born in Manchester on December 30th, 1945, never achieved such popularity again, but he continued to work – occasionally with the regrouped Monkees minus Nesmith – up until his death by heart attack in 2012, while training horses on his Florida Ranch.
The David Jones who is the subject of this article was as talented as his namesake but in the fields of poetry and art. Personality-wise he was the direct opposite of Davy. While the musical Jones, ‘the cute one’ of the Monkees, was cheeky, ever-smiling and gregarious, the poetic Jones was intellectual, sombre, introverted, and as mentioned above probably autistic.
Curiously, an indicator of Jones’ autism came in the form of a ‘little coat’ purchased in Gibraltar.
In 1932-33 Jones was writing the first draft of In Parenthesis. This epic poem told of the horrors of warfare he experienced while fighting with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the Western Front in World War One. The memories that surfaced during the writing caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. He experienced insomnia, anxiety and depression and ceased all writing and painting. Concerned for the well-being of his good friend, prominent Catholic and magazine editor Tom Burns arranged for Jones to be seen by a neurologist named Dr. Woods. The doctor, who considered Jones to be suffering remedial ‘shell shock’, decided a bit of travel in the sun would do more good than any treatment available in London. With the financial support of benefactors, art collector Harold Stanley Ede and Helen Sutherland, one of the richest women in England, Burns arranged a 12-day holiday for himself and Jones to Cairo and Jerusalem, including a stop at Gibraltar.
Biographer Thomas Dilworth related how Jones was so “bewildered and frantic” that he refused to go. His friends finally convinced him it would be in his best interests, but he was so flustered that they had to do his packing for him. On the morning of departure, April 6th, 1934, Jones surprised Burns by saying that he couldn’t possibly go because when the weather became warmer he had no little coat to wear in place of his tweed jacket. In the book David Jones Man and Poet, published by the University of Maine, editor John Matthias cites the conversation:
“No Tom, it’s no good…no little coat…I can’t face it without a little coat; it’s too late, too difficult…drop the whole thing.”
“We’ll get you a little coat before it’s too hot. I`ve bought all your tropical clothes and we’ve got the tickets – you’ve just got to go.”
Ignoring his persistent protests, Burns carried Jones on board the P&O liner Maloja. They had a second-class cabin and thankfully, that first night sailing over an unusually calm Bay of Biscay, Jones slept blissfully and deeply for the first time in nine months.
On reaching Gibraltar, the still recalcitrant Jones refused to go ashore. But that afternoon, while watching fellow passengers crowding into a launch, Jones suddenly turned to Burns and said: “Bugger me, let’s go.” So, Burns hired a dinghy and sailors rowed them to the Rock. Together they walked around Gibraltar and Burns bought his now more relaxed companion a light ‘little coat’.
While researching autism I came across a letter that a woman wrote to the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders of Cincinnati, Ohio, asking for advice. The woman was concerned that her grandson, who suffered from autism, “…has to have his coat on when going outside even if it’s hot”. In reply psychologist Stephanie Weber acknowledged that a symptom of autism is an “Insistence on routine and a resistance to change.”
Jones wore the Gibraltar coat for the remainder of the holiday; by the time they put into Alexandria he was noticeably better, talking to others, even playing deck quoits and shuffleboard. Late in life Jones wrote to a friend: “I used the little unlined light jacket for many years afterwards”.
Walter David Jones was born on November 1st, 1895 at Brockley, Kent. His father, James, was a printer from Flintshire, Wales while his mother, Alice Bradshaw, was the daughter of a mast maker from Rotherhithe, London. David had a sister Alice and a brother Harold, but the latter died aged 19 of tuberculosis. David showed artistic promise from an early age and he entered his drawings and paintings, mostly of animals, into exhibitions of children’s art work. He said he knew by age six that he would devote his life to art, and in 1909, aged 14, convinced his parents to send him to Camberwell Art School. There he studied under Archibald Standish “A. H.” Hartrick, Reginald Savage and Herbert Cole. Hartrick had worked with Van Gogh and Gaugin and Savage and Cole introduced Jones to the works of the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites.
Jones’ artistic aspirations were interrupted with the outbreak of war. He volunteered and enlisted as a private with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and served on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918. The Great War, most notably the assault on Mametz Wood, had a profound affect on Jones’ future painting and poetry. His first book, In Parenthesis, was published in 1937. The poem narrates the experiences of a fictional English Private in a mixed English-Welsh regiment starting with embarkation from England and ending seven months later at Mametz Wood. The work employs a mixture of lyrical verse and prose, and ranges in tone from middle class to colloquial Cockney and military slang. In Parenthesis won the major literary prize of the day, the Hawthornden Prize for “imaginative literature”, and T.S. Eliot proclaimed it to be a “work of genius”.
The fighting in and around Mametz Wood took place in the early days of the First Battle of the Somme. On July 7th, 1916, despite heavy rains, the 38th made a frontal attack against hardened German troops and were cut to ribbons by machine-gun fire when a promised smokescreen failed to materialize. The Welsh retreated after suffering heavy losses but three days later, following a heavy artillery barrage on the German line, the Welsh attacked again, and this time through fierce hand-to-hand combat captured the wood on July 12th, 1916. The 38th Division suffered heavy losses, including 565 killed, 585 missing and 2,893 wounded, but besides Jones, two other poets destined for fame, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, fought in and survived the battle. In 1987 a memorial by Welsh sculpture David Petersen featuring a Welsh dragon on top of a three-metre stone plinth was erected on a low hill over-looking the wood.
When WWI ended, Jones won a Government grant to return to study at Camberwell Art School. Later he attended the Westminster School of Art in London. In 1921 he became a Roman Catholic and in 1922 joined Eric Gill’s Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic at Ditchling, Sussex where he was taught the art of engraving in wood by Desmond Chute. Later he would join the Society of Wood Engravers.
Following the holiday to Cairo and Jerusalem Jones returned to London refreshed and revitalized. Over the next four decades he completed hundreds if not thousands of paintings, books and poems and was exhibited all over the UK, Europe and North America. He did suffer another nervous breakdown in 1947, but with the help of Helen Sutherland he was sent to a nursing home near Harrow where the therapy included drawing and painting. He emerged from this hiatus full of vitality. In 1952 The Anathemata was published and in 1954 an Arts Council exhibition of his work toured Britain. W.H. Auden judged The Anathemata, an examination of Western Culture, to be “Very probably the finest long poem to be written in English this century.”
Jones, despite being frail and in ill-health for the last ten years of his life, continued to work right up until a few months before his death. The Sleeping Lord, a collection of short and mid-length poems, was published in 1974 and Jones, a life-long smoker and whisky drinker, died of congestive heart failure in the nursing home at Harrow on October 28th that year, three days before what would have been his 79th birthday.
BY REG REYNOLDS