REVIEW by John Barnie

NWR Issue r29

Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector

by Jonah Jones (author) Peter Jones (ed)

Sometime after he completed the biography of his father, the artist Jonah Jones, Peter Jones was approached by a nephew of Mona Lovell, the woman who had given the young Jonah his first job as an assistant librarian in Felling, Gateshead. The nephew had a cache of letters written during the war by Jonah to his aunt. Would Peter Jones like to see them? He would, and did, and found himself deep in his father’s life as a conscientious objector in World War II, for Len Jones (as he was known then) was a very expressive letter writer, maintaining a regular, at times daily, correspondence with his former mentor, who continued to guide the young man in his reading, sending books and food parcels while he toiled away at forestry work. (She sent him, for example, Eliot’s East Coker, as soon as it was published in 1941.)

When the correspondence begins, in 1940, Len was twenty-one and Mona, thirty-six. Len was working with other conscientious objectors, away from home and in many ways out of his depth, and Mona functions as a substitute mother figure to the young man, but for her there is more to the relationship and it soon becomes clear that she is deeply in love with Len. Her love is not reciprocated, however, and this is a source of increasing tension. (Mona’s letters have not been preserved, but much of this can be inferred from Len’s replies.)

At the same time, Len Jones is discovering a vocation as an artist. In 1942, he meets the painter, George Jackson, and is introduced to the Castle Bolton group, who encourage him in his first experiments in watercolours and linocuts. He even finds congenial company among his fellow COs on the forestry, notably the poet James Kirkup. The somewhat fastidious and straight-laced Jones, however, is unnerved by Kirkup’s homosexuality, especially when he makes advances. The young man is equally disturbed by Mona’s revelation that she wants something more than friendship. These are professions of love which Len cannot deal with, and letters at this time show him struggling to find ways out of this double bind.

Letters, of course, can rarely be taken at face value. Len twice tries to free himself from Mona’s would-be embrace, suggesting she should break off the correspondence for her own good (rather than his). Serious rifts ensue and the relationship faulters. Yet, surprisingly, the correspondence soon flows once more, with Mona hoping against hope that her love will be returned, while Len, whether he was aware of it or not, needs Mona’s sympathy – and no doubt her frequent care packages.

Things come to a head in 1943 (with both Mona and Kirkup), and Len does what he has done before, putting physical distance between himself and his problems, this time by joining the Army as a non-combatant.

After months of mind-numbing training, he is assigned to the 224 Parachute Field Ambulance. He is present at the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine. Assigned to a Canadian division, he is at Bergen-Belsen shortly after it is relieved. Later, at Wismar, on the Baltic coast, his unit mans an abandoned German hospital under appalling conditions. There is no doubt that these experiences matured Len Jones. He is no longer the self-absorbed youth of the early correspondence.

At the end of the war, Len is posted to Palestine where, from 1945-46, he is a witness to the chaos of the British mandate. At first sympathetic to the Arabs, he gradually favours the Jews, in part, perhaps, because he is shocked by the vicious anti-Semitism of ordinary English soldiers: ‘The general feeling,’ he writes, ‘is that it is time to finish Hitler’s task and exterminate the remnants of this unhappy race.’ While leaning towards the Jewish position, he nonetheless foresees that the incompatible demands of Jews and Arabs will be a source of endless conflict in the region. These Palestine letters are intensely political and very different in tone from those written during his years on the forestry. They are indicative of the ways in which Len was profoundly changed by his experience of war.

In one of the last letters, Len breaks the news that he is to be married to a Jewish woman, Judith Grossman (later, of course, Judith Maro). Mona is stunned and writes (we can infer from Len’s reply) a furious response which effectively ends the correspondence and the relationship.

The twentieth century was the last great age of letter writing, replaced in our time by ephemeral Tweets, Facebook postings and endless mobile phone conversations. This fascinating correspondence reminds us of what we have lost in the process.

John Barnie’s latest publications are two collections of poems, Departure Lounge (Cinnamon), and Sherpas (Rack Press).

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previous review: Fade to Grey
next review: Just Help Yourself: Tom Jones, The Squires and the Road to Stardom


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