Nationality: British. Born: London in 1938. Family: Married; two children. Career: English teacher at British grammar and secondary schools. Awards: Cholmondeley award, 1967; Eric Gregory award, 1968. Address: c/o Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.
Poems. London, Alan Ross, 1966.
A Family Album. London, Alan Ross, 1968.
Interior. London, Alan Ross, 1969.
The Mantis Hand and Other Poems. Gillingham, Kent, Arc, 1970.
For Mad Mary. London, London Magazine Editions, 1974.
The Spitfire on the Northern Line (for children). London, Chatto and Windus, 1975.
The Island Normal. Manchester. Carcanet. 1980.
The Children of Separation. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.
Freeborn John. Manchester, Carcanet, 1990.
Radio Play: The Lady with a Little Dog, from a story by Chekhov, 1962.* * *
Brian Jones's poetry explores a world of remembered landscapes and family routines, of household tasks and passing seasons. History is traced directly through the writer's own ancestors and the drama of their humdrum lives or culled from headstones in country villages and anonymous rustic plays. The colloquial style he adopts is a conscious achievement, veiling as it does a mastery of structure and an astute deployment of half rhyme. Jones's early work recalls that of Edward Thomas in such poems as "The Unlikely Stubborn Patch" and "Stripping Walls," with their self-deprecating humor. He shares with Thomas a clear, unsentimental knowledge of country life and a pleasure in simple manual tasks. His account of cutting grass in "The Garden of a London House" shares similarities with the older poet's "Digging."
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jones is convinced of the narrative possibilities of poetry that he feels have yet to be developed. Some of his most ambitious efforts in this form, like "The Courtenay Play," fail to satisfy completely. While one concedes the validity of his intentions, the result in this case seems fragmented and diverse, its images overemphasized. Similarly, the unity of The Island Normal, his most dense and concentrated collection, is not immediately apparent to the reader. This said, Jones's insistence on the extended foray justifies itself in A Family Album, an impressive sequence of individual portraits, each of which casts fresh light on the others. Here his narrative skill blends with an acute insight into the characters of his relatives, the mass of frailties and contradictions that render a person unique. Aunt Emily is especially memorable, not only dominating A Family Album but also pervading several other works, among them the long title poem of For Mad Mary. The same power to compel striking portrayals from domestic life is evident in The Spitfire on the Northern Line, an excellent volume aimed at the younger reader. But it is in A Family Album and a number of shorter poems that home in on a single central incident or image that Jones is at his best. Examples of the latter include "Chopping Wood," where the passing years are seen as leading to a momentarily focused act, and the later "Church," with its contemplation of a country graveyard: "Here is the cliff-face of arrest /where good and mild and profligate /founder to a name and date /The chill comes off the stone like breath and not the cross /or altar spread /white, or words declaimed and sung /engender awe like those who once /were human, and are simply dead."
Aware of the false glamour of the countryside, which often screens an inner desolation, Jones nevertheless deplores the advance of the urban wasteland. Poems like "End of Pier" and "Return to Wasteground" note bleakly a world where piers and fairgrounds have given way to Volvo showrooms and office blocks, while "Summer Slides" depicts a Britain reduced by tourism to something between a museum and a zoo. Commercialization, it seems, is universal, encountered equally in the French town of Arles: "Angling a quick kill, mayfly tourist shops /stock sunflower prints and Gauguin-labelled beers /and endless shelves of bonsai chaises Van Gogh. /We half-search for a stall of plastic ears."
Art, Jones informs us, has always been under threat, whether from the power of the purse or the sword. In previous ages Virgil and Andrew Marvell faced the same dilemma and survived. Salvation is found in the continued struggle of the poet with his craft and in the perfecting of individual relationships, given that none of us may fully know the other. Thus, in "Andrew Marvell Awaits His Charge" the poet is shown as seeing future hope in the child he educates. Similarly, Jones himself finds time to wonder at the vulnerability of his sleeping daughter, the trust embodied in her undefended bedroom: "You scatter /dreams through the world and let them take their chance. /You sleep now, with the bedside lamp still glaring, /knowing your dolls still read, your gold shoes dance."
With his collection Freeborn John, Jones questions the "cold vision" that took over Britain during the 1980s, the crushing of dissent, the cultural barbarism, and the essential denial of basic humanity by the brutal "monologue" of the country's rulers. Freeborn John depicts modern Britain as a latter-day mirror image of Caesar's Gaul, its inhabitants cowed and coarsened by the callous worship of "market forces" as the Gauls were subjugated and depersonalized by their Roman conquerors. His own resistance takes a variety of forms in poems ranging from the subversive "leaking" of information by a rebellious civil servant to the counterimage of the Jones clan, whose close-knit tribal kinship is in itself a rejection of the cold values imposed from above. The image of Lilburne's rebellion that opens the book is a fitting one, but Jones's response is more positive and does not confine itself to confrontation alone. His examination of his relationship with father and son in "A View from the Boundary" and with his wife in "Snowstorm Viewed from Love" present a calmer and ultimately more lasting vision. In his clarity of utterance, his evocation of the ordinary, Jones draws continually from the past while speaking directly—and often bluntly—to the reader of today. His poems lend eloquence to a common speech as he explores the familiar and makes it memorable.