Peter Jones: on editing my father’s letters

Peter Jones Dear Mona Letters

In Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector, we are given a window into the life of Jonah Jones through private letters to his close friend and mentor, Mona Lovell. We see his character evolve as he nurtures his love of art and sculpture, and finds new ways to express his creativity.

A pacifist, Jones at first declined to enlist when war broke out, but later served as a non-arms bearing medic in the Second World War. His letters give an emotional insight into the prejudices he faced and the reality of his wartime experiences. Peter Jones, Jonah’s son, has edited this fascinating book and here gives insight into the difficult process of bringing its intimate contents to print.

 

Deciding to publish my father’s letters to Mona was both an easy step and one of the hardest things I have had to do.

Easy because of the quality of the writing and the interest the material holds. There is a clear narrative arc to the letters as the intense relationship between Len Jones (as my father Jonah was then known) and his friend and mentor Mona Lovell develops, and he simultaneously stumbles towards his vocation in art. This makes them a very satisfying read, and gives the whole a novelistic quality. Along the way we get fascinating insights into the life of a conscientious objector in the Second World War, vivid descriptions of action after Len joins the 6th Airborne Division as a non-combatant medic, and powerful accounts of the tension in British Mandate Palestine in the run-up to the birth of the State of Israel.

Len Jones, 1945
Len Jones, 1945
‘…there is no hysteria – only a desperate apathy & an anxious searching for belongings as they come from their cellars or from a few miles back. Once in the back area again they begin to smile even, as the war moves on & they feel safe again – but many have lost what can never be replaced…’

All of this compelled publication. Yet at the same time I wavered, for my father was a very private man in some ways, and I knew he would not have been glad to see these letters released to the world. They cover a time when he was mainly unhappy, a time he preferred to forget. And of course, fundamental to my whole dilemma, was his relationship with Mona – she was in love with him, he looked on her as a soul-mate whom he valued dearly as a friend but could not love in the way she wished. It was extremely hard to lay all this open before a reading public.

Len Mona
Len and Mona relax in the park

So the question arose: could I make the insightful, non-personal material available without publishing the deeply personal side of the letters? Yes, but this would run the risk of creating a narrative without a narrative, for Len’s relationship with Mona (and, to a lesser but still important extent with the poet James Kirkup) is the spine of the whole story. Most crucial, cutting out the personal would diminish Mona to little more than a sounding board for Len’s thoughts and experiences. This would be a grave injustice, for it is clear how vital she was in Len’s transition from his constricted working class roots to the man who could express himself through art. Too often women have been relegated to the shadows of history; Mona did not deserve this fate.

Dear Mona
Mona Lovell, 1935

So, with qualms, I decided to lay out the whole story. It reveals so much: how life was for conscientious objectors in the Second World War (we have heard a lot about their brave predecessors in the Great War, but much less of Len’s generation), the widespread frustration people suffered due to their lives being suspended by the war, the congenial debating society that was Carmel College in Haifa, where servicemen and women did university-style courses prior to demobilization. Some of the issues touched on in Len’s letters seem remarkably topical, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-semitism (whether among forestry workers in Yorkshire or British officials), and homosexuality, on which he evolved from unthinking revulsion to deep compassion. These letters are compelling; the world should see them.

Peter Jones.

Friday Poem – ‘Gen’ by Jonathan Edwards

Friday Poem Gen Jonathan Edwards

Costa Award-winner Jonathan Edwards is gifting us a splendid second collection, Gen, which arrives next week. Our Friday Poem today is the title poem from this new book.

You can catch Jonathan at Poetry in Aldeburgh on Sunday 4 November, 11:30am, where he will be reading some of his new poetry. Tickets available here.

Jonathan Edwards GenGen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. These poems give way to a sequence of monologues and character sketches, giving us the lives of crocodiles and food testers, pianists and retail park trees. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems. All in all, Gen is a superb follow-up to Edwards’ debut, My Family and Other Superheroes, which won the Costa Poetry Award in 2014.

 

Gen Jonathan Edwards Friday Poem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’, Carrie Etter

Friday Poem Carrie Etter Song a Year after My Mother's Death

This week our Friday Poem is ‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’, from Carrie Etter’s recently published collection, The Weather in Normal.

Carrie Etter The Weather in NormalEtter’s fourth poetry collection, The Weather in Normal is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Its focus is Etter’s hometown of Normal, Illinois, lamenting its loss through the death of her parents, the sale of the family home, and the effects of climate change on Illinois’ landscape and lives.

‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’ first appeared in Poetry Review.

 

 

Carrie Etter Song Mother's Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An extract from A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn

David Llewellyn A Simple Scale Extract

In David Llewellyn’s compelling new novel, A Simple Scale, a single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York, as the mystery of the lives of two gay composers is uncovered.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a man arrives in New York to claim that the theme tune of a popular tv series, said to be written by composer Sol Conrad, in fact belongs his grandfather Sergey, an eminent Russian composer who was sent to the gulag by Stalin, and from whom Sol stole the score. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her elderly employer, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds of which she barely knew – Russian labour camps, McCarthyism, repressive governments, and the plight of homosexuals in the USA and USSR during the twentieth century.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, David Llewellyn explores the points at which the personal and the political meet. Throughout, his depiction of ’30s Leningrad, ’50s California and post-9/11 New York is only too believable.

Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel. It opens onto a wintery scene, in what was then Leningrad…

 

Chapter 2:
LENINGRAD, FEBRUARY 1950

Another time, another place; the city grey, the snowflakes falling in the street like ashes. Beneath the station’s clock tower, two heavy doors swing open with a gasp, and Sergey Grekov steps out, his coat held around him and his gloveless hands clasped tightly in his armpits. Thirty-seven years old but prematurely grey and uncommonly thin, he looks at Leningrad as if it still might be a mirage.
From everything he has been told these last few years, he was anticipating ruins. Hollow buildings and charred timbers, streets strewn with rubble. Instead, he finds it repainted and rebuilt,and yet the place is different,as if everything has been moved around in his absence, as you might rearrange the furniture in an old room.
He’s unaccustomed to choice. When he comes to a junction, he can go in any direction; left, right, straight ahead. The space is almost limitless. No perimeter fence, no watchtowers, no guard dogs. Yet this isn’t complete freedom. His papers tell him where to go and when. The tenement, the factory. Disobey them, and there’s every chance they could send him
back.
The streets around the station are almost empty. The few people he passes look shabby, not how he remembers them. Moscow was always the peasant city, the place where people look as if they’ve just arrived from the country. Not Leningrad. Not Piter.
Moskovsky Prospect is busier, especially once he’s crossed the bridge. There, he moves through a shuffling black mass of other people, winter coats and hats dusted with snow. A xylophone-ribbed dog shivers and keeps pace with him along the gutter. Red and white trams whisper through the slush, passengers pressed against windows opaque with steam. The bell of a nearby clock strikes one.
The last time he saw this street it was through the windows of a police car, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. It was August then, the air already humid, and stuffier still inside the car. He remembers an agent, a lad barely older than twenty, lighting his cigarette for him – his own hands were cuffed – and the way the car was filled almost immediately with smoke.
As a young man, Leningrad’s winters seemed so much colder than this – far too cold to consider walking very far – but the last leg of his journey was spent in a train compartment with ten others. They took it in turns to sit, but there was no room to lie down and sleep. Cold as it might be, it’s good to be out in the open. Besides, he has known far colder.
His papers tell him to report to the tenement building no earlier than 3pm and so, to pass the time, he finds a café where he orders coffee, black bread and a bowl of rassolnik.
The secret police and their informants were everywhere in the north; guards spying on prisoners and even prisoners spying on guards. No-one trusted anyone. But what about here, in this café? The skinny lad behind the counter, perhaps. The old woman eating some indeterminate grey mush out of a chipped bowl. The crooked figure hunched over a newspaper in the far corner.
The soup, when it arrives, is mostly barley and carrots, little in the way of meat. Sergey dips his bread into the soup. He hasn’t eaten in more than a day. The broth dances on his tongue. Its warmth spreads out, from his chest and through his limbs and into his fingers and toes. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he senses someone staring at him.The figure in the corner; the small man with stooped shoulders, his face drawn, pinched and beetle-browed. Though as threadbare and hungry-looking as everyone else in the city, this man could be secret service.
After studying him a moment longer, the stranger gets to his feet, tucks his newspaper into the inside of his overcoat, and crosses the café.
“Seryozha?” he says, his smile a gash of yellow teeth and greyish gums.“Sergey Andreievich?” Sergey nods slowly, waiting for the stranger’s smile to fade, and for him to say there’s been a mistake, that Sergey should never have been released, that his rehabilitation is incomplete and that he will be placed on the very first train back to Komi, by orders of the MGB.
“Do I know you?” he asks.
The stranger laughs. “Know me? Sergey! Of course you know me! It’s me! Vasily Nikolayevich. Sidorov! Vasya!”
Vasily Sidorov. A name he’s neither said nor spoken nor even thought about in years. When did they last see one another? Perhaps the night of the premiere, or in the days that followed. No, his memory of that time is too clouded to picture the exact scene. When he first laid eyes on him, however… this he remembers clearly.
A rehearsal room, backstage at the Kirov. Secretary Remizov taking Sergey on a tour of the theatre, introducing him as “our latest genius”. Echoing against a polished floor, the sound of a piano playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes. In the studio, holding the bar, a young man, eighteen or nineteen, with dark, lightly curled hair, performing a series of degage, and stopping only when he noticed the presence of a stranger.
Now, in the café, Sergey’s innards clench. He hardly recognises him.
Vasya?”
The man draws out the facing chair and sits.
I knew it was you!” he says. “I work nights at the children’s hospital, and every day I come here for lunch, which is really supper, I suppose. But every day I come here, and I know everyone who comes in, if not by name then by face. I see them every day. But you, as soon as you walked in, I thought, ‘Hold on, he’s new.’ And then I looked at you again, and I realised it was you.”
Yes,” says Sergey, smiling almost painfully. “It’s me.”
How long has it been? Ten years? Fifteen?”
Twelve.”
Twelve years. Well. Can you imagine? Twelve years. Incredible. I heard you were up in Archangel, writing music for a theatre company. That’s what everyone was saying. Is it true?”
Sergey shakes his head.
Oh,” says Vasily. “They must have got it wrong. But you’re here now.”
Sergey nods.
And it’s so good to see you! I hardly see anyone these days. We were, well, you know… One oughtn’t say such things in public, but people like us, the artists, we weren’t exactly front of the queue when the rations were being handed out. Were you here at all, during the blockade?”
Sergey shakes his head.
Of course not. Silly question. But you were lucky. Say, are you going to eat all of that bread?” “Yes.” “Only, if you weren’t, I have some wood in my flat that I could swap. It’s good, too. It’s not damp and it won’t burn too quickly, not like some of the cheap shit that’s going around.”
No, I’m quite hungry, so-”
Do you have a place to stay?” Sergey tells him that yes, he has a place to stay, in Kirovskiy, near the Kirov plant.
Nice, nice,” says Vasily.
Is it?”
Oh, yes. And prestigious, too. You’re lucky. Have you moved in yet?”
Not yet, no,” says Sergey. “I only got here an hour ago.”
Oh, well,” says Vasily. “If you’ve not moved in yet, they might not have wood. In your rooms, I mean. They don’t always give you fuel, when you move in. Some places, it takes weeks. So, you know, if you don’t have any…”
Sergey draws his plate closer and dunks what’s left of his bread into the rassolnik.
You must be hungry,” says Vasily. “I know they don’t always have much bread on the trains. I’ve heard, a friend once told me, if you want a bigger ration of bread…” His voice drops to a whisper. “If you want a bigger ration of bread, you have to give the ticket inspector a blowjob. Is that true?”
Sergey smiles. “I wouldn’t know.”
Oh, then you must be hungry,” says Vasily, laughing and coughing at the same time.“Say, listen. I live near here. When you’re finished, let’s go to mine. I’m on the third floor, so it’s not too cold,and I have some vodka.”
A loaded invitation, but Sergey has nowhere else to go and two hours till he can report to his tenement. When the bill is settled he and Vasily walk the short distance to Vasily’s building, just off Sennaya Square.
Twelve years ago Vasily Sidorov lived not so far from here, in an apartment complex on Sadovaya Street, and Sergey remembers summer parties when they would congregate on a small terrace overlooking the square ,and they would drink champagne; Soviet champagne, of course, but ice cold, and sparkling and as crisp as a fresh apple.
Vasily’s new building has no terrace. One of its two entrances is sealed shut by a frozen snowdrift, and the other opens only when Vasily barges into it with such force that Sergey worries he – and not the door – might break.
Once inside, they are taken up to Vasily’s floor by a gloomy hallway and a flight of stairs that smells strongly of piss, while Vasily’s room smells mustily of tobacco smoke, mildew and dust. Sergey recalls Vasily having a small collection of illicit Persian rugs and a mantelpiece crammed with ornaments, but this new place – if it can be called new – is sparse, decorated only with a few pieces of old furniture. The floor and the walls are bare.
Please, sit,” says Vasily. “I’ll get us some vodka. I only have one glass. Do you mind having yours in a teacup?”
Not at all.”
What am I saying? You have the glass, I’ll have the teacup. As you may be able to tell, I don’t do much entertaining these days…” Vasily opens a cupboard and takes out the vodka, a chipped teacup and a cloudy tumbler. He crosses the room with an awkward, scuttling motion; bug-like, a spider creeping along a skirting board. He was once the most graceful man Sergey had ever met. Small in build, but not feminine. Women and men alike considered him beautiful. Now he reminds Sergey of a gargoyle or some grinning demon, a didko, from an old folktale. He takes to the sagging armchair opposite, and for a moment they sit in silence; Vasily still smiling at him, scrutinising him.
It’s incredible,” he says, at last. “That you came here. To Leningrad. It isn’t often men come back. Usually, well, usually they’re sent to some other place. Remember Remizov?”
As if the room has grown a degree or two colder, Sergey flinches. “Yes,” he says. “I remember him.”

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘Swan’, Ross Cogan

Friday Poem Ross Cogan Swan

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Swan’, from Ross Cogan’s new collection, Bragr.

Ross Cogan BragrWhether it’s myth intended to explain the constellations, the secret of eternal life, or the bloodthirsty tale of the mead of poetry, Ross Cogan’s collection Bragr (meaning ‘poetry’ in Old Norse) is a reimagining of Norse mythology for our times. The collection also focuses on environmental concerns: the earth’s incredible beauty seems all the more fragile in the face of habitat loss and global warming.
In ‘Swan’ the poet recalls an archaeological excavation of a neolithic settlement in Denmark that unearthed a remarkable grave. The excavation was detailed in Simon Mithen’s book, After the Ice.

 

Swan Ross Cogan Bragr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘This Is Not A Rescue’, Emily Blewitt

Friday Poem Emily Blewitt This Is Not A Rescue

Last night we squeezed into packed Waterstones Cardiff to hear Emily Blewitt read from her brand new collection, This Is Not A Rescue. Today we are thrilled to feature the title poem here on the blog as this week’s Friday Poem.

Emily Blewitt This Is Not A Rescue Waterstones

 

This Is Not A Rescue Emily BlewittIn This Is Not A Rescue Emily Blewitt writes both forcefully and tenderly about refusing to be rescued, rescuing oneself, and rescuing others. This book is about finding love and keeping it, negotiating difficult family and personal struggles, and looking at the world with a lively, sardonic eye.
The title poem reconfigures the hurt and healing relationships can offer in terms of fire and water. Swimming grants a strange, beautiful freedom, shot through with hidden dangers, such as ‘the pebbles that in secret you have sewn into your skirts’. An exploration of human connection, this poem gently stirs up feelings of adventurousness, daring, love.

 

 

Friday Poem This Is Not A Rescue Emily Blewitt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘Roadkill Season’, Polly Atkin

Friday Poem Roadkill Season Polly Atkin

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Roadkill Season’, from Polly Atkin’s recently released debut, Basic Nest Architecture.

Basic Nest Architecture Polly AtkinA meshing-together of beauty and gore, ‘Roadkill Season’ is almost ritualistic in its depiction of food preparation and feasting. Sweet and savage images clash: the brutal origin of the meal is not placed at a distance but embraced, an essential element in the pleasure gained.
Basic Nest Architecture is Polly Atkin’s first collection of poetry, and follows her Mslexia Prize-winning pamphlet, Shadow Dispatches, and her Michael Marks nominated Bone Song. The complex, intelligent, densely metaphorical lyrics for which she is known are often inspired by the beauties of the Lake District, her home for the last decade.

Join Polly Atkin at the Lancaster Literature Festival for the Basic Nest Architecture launch tomorrow, Saturday 25 March.

 

Roadkill Season

In Eighteenth-Century House it was roadkill
season. Pheasant, hooked out from under
the dented bumper, last breath condensed
in a plastic bag, matured for a week
in the stainless steel back sink, to build up
flavour. Beautiful dead! I never
saw a thing alive so lovely.
The basin, silvered like the lake in winter,
swirled with colour, like dead trees and diesel.
You stank like the kill itself, like the mulchy
scrub you stumbled out of, stupid
and gorgeous, in love with the tarmac. Poorman’s
Peacock. Dumb bundle of plumage and flesh.
Laura popped your cooling heart
in her gob like a sweet; burst it between
her sharpening teeth. Kate and Anna
carved your breast to split together.
Your meat was purple as the sky at dusk.
We each hooked a finger to halve your wish-bone,
squeezed our eyes closed, and heaved.
We gathered scraps. Kate buried the shell
to dig up and sculpt into artefact later.
We dried out your feet on radiators.
You clutched hot air as they hardened to stars
we bent into brooches, gifts for each other,
then salvaged the best of your wings and fine tail
and stitched new faces of your feathers.

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘The shame of our island’, Siobhán Campbell

Friday Poem The shame of our island Siobhan Campbell

This week our Friday Poem is ‘The shame of our island’ from Siobhán Campbell’s brand new collection, Heat Signature.

Heat Signature Siobhan CampbellIn ‘The shame of our island’ we are confronted with a sense of contested history, in which the hunter’s tongue-in-cheek aim is to ‘see the steaming innards’ of his almost-extinct prey. The ‘shame’ of the title permeates the poem, with the speaker’s questions demanding justification, yet receiving no answer.
Heat Signature is Siobhán Campbell’s fourth full collection, and is composed in her characteristically spikey voice: infused with an intelligence that resists easy answers to the conundrums that have faced her Irish homeland, but also suffused with a grudging admiration for the citizens who have survived their tumultuous history. The blend of dark comedy, tragedy and politics is entirely typical of Campbell’s complex, thoughtful and profoundly entertaining poetry.

 

The shame of our island

is that we killed the wolf.
Not just the last
but the two before that.

I knew a man who met a man
who was the cousin removed
of the great-grandson of the man
who killed the third-last wolf
on the island.

Slit it he did,
to see the steaming innards –
how long they were, how tightly wound.

Had it a white paw to the fore?
That gene would have been recessive.
Was there a black bar across the yellow eye?
No time to notice its différence.

Is this a wolf with its bared teeth
and its lairy smell
and its fetlock tipped with white?

Is this wolfish?

 
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Attend the Heat Signature book launch in London

Join us at The Flying Horse on Wednesday 15 March, 7:30pm, where we will be celebrating the launch of Heat Signature with a poetry reading by the author and book signing opportunity. Refreshments will be provided and entry is free, so bring your friends for an evening of poetry and merriment.
Find out more

 

 

 

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January Giveaway: win a copy of The Other City by Rhiannon Hooson

Giveaway The Other City Rhiannon Hooson

This month we are giving away a copy of Rhiannon Hooson’s ‘beguiling’ debut poetry collection, The Other City.

To enter, simply sign up to the Seren newsletter before 1st February:
https://www.serenbooks.com/newsletter/signup

other-city-jan-giveaway


About The Other City:
The Other City Rhiannon Hooson
Rhiannon Hooson is a gifted young poet born in mid-Wales and currently living in the Welsh Marches. The Other City is her debut collection of poems.
Sharply focused, beautifully resonant, deeply felt, these poems tend to travel in distinct streams: some reference and re-make narratives from classical Greek myth; others explore the idea of otherness and the uncanny, where actions are done and undone, and the familiar made unfamiliar.
‘This is a beguiling debut from a poet who already has a recognizable voice and emotional register. Sensuous, musical, darkly involved, the poems make and confound their own realities.’ – Graham Mort

 

The winner of this giveaway will be chosen at random from all our email subscribers on 1st February 2017, so if you haven’t already, hurry and sign up for our newsletter before the end of the month!

 

 

Friday Poem – ‘Without Narcissus’, Rhiannon Hooson

without narcissus rhiannon hooson

Last night, we welcomed a chilly December in Chapter Arts, with Rhiannon Hooson reading poems from her debut collection, The Other CityIt seemed appropriate to have Friday’s Poem from this beguiling new release, for those who missed out.

screenshot-2016-12-02-12-02-07
Rhiannon reading to a full house at December’s First Thursday event

the-other-city_quicksand-cover-copyWith a sharp focus and beautiful resonance, the deeply felt poems from The Other City  tend to travel in distinct streams: some reference and re-make narratives from classical Greek myth; some rework elements of Welsh history, both ancient, and modern. There are also a number of poems exploring the idea of otherness and the uncanny, where actions are done and undone, and the familiar made unfamiliar.

 

Without Narcissus

The lack of his blindness shocks the silver water black.
Your palm’s slap against its surface is looped silence:
bare shoulders with their heron stoop,
the wet ropes of your black hair, the empty water
and the stiff-leafed lilies which break for sharp fingers,
their pink throats silent and smiling. Speak.

Over the water the red rock leans and watches.
Your nails like fish-scales break against
the cool shadow of its noon, and the silence. Speak.
Even the fish have voices, even the rough
hush of the trees, even the birds.You press your body
to the dark-loomed sediment and learn its silence, touch the red
heat of your mouth to the rock and learn the syllables
of its unspeech. Speak.

Birds watch you writing the mangled sign of your name
wet hair strung across the tangled mats of cress,
white fingers and their fish-belly pallor, your white lips
kissed against the petals of the lilies.You can speak
their silence back to them so well, so well.

 

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