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Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector

Jonah Jones
Peter Jones
ISBN-13: 
9781781724798
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
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In Dear Mona artist Jonah Jones records in his own words not just the story of his early life and his relationship with Mona Lovell, but also that of the Second World War, of being on the Home Front, on the European battlefield and in the nascent Israel. 

These letters are a remarkable first-hand account of how Jones’ character evolved. Like a number of conscientious objectors he eventually took a more active role in the fight against fascism by becoming a non-arms bearing medic. In this role he was parachuted into northern Europe and took part in the Ardennes and German campaigns, and in the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp.

After the war he was posted to Palestine, where he observed the issues surrounding the establishment of Israel, but was also able to hone his artistic skills for the benefit of his regiment. It was in Haifa that, much to Mona Lovell’s dismay, he met and married another woman – Judith Grossman – with whom he returned to Britain to set up as an artist, now known as Jonah Jones.

Dear Mona gives detailed insight into the evolution of Jones’ character, as he changed from gauche Len Jones to artist Jonah Jones. It also tells in intimate detail the story of the Home Front, of conscientious objection, of the European campaign following D Day and of the tensions in Palestine, which resonate still today. It is a remarkable, immediate account: personal, intimate and yet also history, played out before his eyes.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Steve Whitaker, The Yorkshire Times

Friday, March 8, 2019

There is, as his son Peter notes in an insightful introduction to Dear Mona, something of D.H. Lawrence’s Paul Morel in Jonah Jones: working class boyhood, son of a Durham miner, auto-didact craving for education. 

Len, as he was then known, enjoyed an unlikely trajectory from coalfield to library, to Conscientious Objector who saw military service in the Parachute Field Ambulance brigade, to artist and writer. 

As unlikely, in fact, as this soul-searching sequence of letters, written over seven years to his Quaker mentor, friend and library employer Mona Lovell, which manifest an acute emotional intelligence and a penchant for self-effacing introspection.

Mona is, in no small degree, Len’s muse, and was a major catalyst for his artistic transformation, the handmaiden to an unexpected career. 

Mona Lovell, born in 1904, was fifteen years Len’s senior, and although there is little evidence of her written responses to his own letters, her interest in Len became more than philanthropic.

But Mona clearly saw something beyond the ordinary in Len Jones. Her Quaker instinct for education, for encouraging the bounty of learning in others, precipitates a lifelong, necessarily Platonic, bond, marked, at very many points, by the proffering of books to the corners of the UK in which Len finds himself. 

At any moment, the inventory might include Flaubert, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Baudelaire, Yeats or a treatise on the efficacy of free love. The selection is eclectic, and perhaps surprising, given the chronology of the correspondence, which covers the turbulent period between 1940 and 1947.
 

And there is no doubt that the interchange – at different times tetchy, pragmatic, visceral, and economical with emotional truth – shapes an already highly intelligent and enquiring mind. Jones is learning as he proceeds, and the eloquence of his responses palpably matures as time progresses. 

The correspondence unfolds at distance: Jones’ CO status condemns him to lengthy periods of state servitude as a lumberjack and logger, first in an Exmoor valley, thence to the Scottish Borders, and onwards to the Tyne Valley and Yorkshire Dales. 

If not as brutal as the Russian Gulags, Len’s letters describe a life of hardship and endurance against a backdrop of cold, damp, extreme physical exertion and tawdry diet. And throughout, an ongoing suggestion of a stifled artistic sensibility paradoxically emergent in the letters he is compelled to write. 

The hardship, in fact, enables a flexing of intellectual muscles: the descriptions at this time are at once detached, intelligent and lyrical in their rendering of landscape and colleagues. But most, the reader takes away a search for self amongst the details of Len’s past, the undirected nature of his artistic aspiration, and the relentless appraisal and re-appraisal of his relationship with Mona. 

A fragile temperament is made friable by uncertainty; unable to square his behaviour with his own mandate to ‘do the right thing’, he distances Mona as, in the next breath, he embraces her. 

The early letters show a mind riven by inconsistency, if not inconstancy: their frequency circumscribes fidelity to purpose, if not to state of mind.

That relationship is tangential to his affiliation with the Quakers, from whose philosophy he derives his initial impulse for conscientious objection, but to whose religious tenets he cannot remain faithful. 

The distance he imposes between himself and the Society of Friends is indicative of an impulse for independence, and it echoes his reluctance to commit to Mona, who occupies a shared psychological space.

The letters of Len Jones bear an integrity borne out of that fidelity; he does not lose focus respecting commitment to self-imposed principles, and to this extent his decision to pursue active wartime service in an ambulance field brigade is a compromise between a powerful sense of duty and a moral rejection of the bearing of arms: he can help to save lives without terminating others in the process. 

But most, his military experience is a deliberate means of distancing Mona, whose tacit acceptance of his position ironically describes a counter-intuitive sense of durability: though frequently fraught – Len’s responses are a measure of his controlled exasperation – his compulsion to commit thoughts to print remains always more powerful than the desire to cast himself adrift.

And there is a growing manifestation of Art in maturity and experience, maturity through experience. His descriptions of parachute drops in heavy flak are both stoical and terrifying; his visceral depiction of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and the carnage of its aftermath is, at once, uncompromising and empathic. 

This last, about which few witnesses vouchsafe any beyond cursory responses, bears the mark of skilled, very necessary, reportage. We are compelled to admire Jones’ ability to stand back, for getting to the heart of the horror by remaining in control of his literary powers. Here, in a wrecked hospital full of the dead and dying, the writer yields a glimmer amongst the gangrenous detritus:
 

‘At first they seemed resigned to death in many cases and I know one young boy who could move neither to eat of defecate and sullied his bed. Now he is struggling to the lavatory himself, & he is one less to spoon feed.’

Such observation would be profoundly unusual in letters home. Len’s even-handedness is characteristic of an ability to sense the bigger picture. His earlier, in context, shocking fellow-feeling towards the enemy, amongst the general nationalist hysteria of the homefront, acts to sharpen his intellect, to temper hubris with the emollient of insight.

The war over, the 6th Airborne Division departed for the potential tinderbox of Palestine, where the influx of displaced European Jewry threatened to overwhelm an Arab region. 

The writer’s acute deconstruction of the salient political pointers is remarkably non-partisan and demonstrates a startling grasp of the ‘delicacy’ of the situation. 

His understanding of history is both extensive and enlightened and he is not above ascribing retrospective blame to ‘British Imperial perfidy...at its worst’.

But, often, you sense a yearning for home against a monotony of heat and flies. The tender lyricism of his homesickness is sharpened on the whetstone of the harsh, unforgiving landscapes of the Middle East; his skill at rendering it, weaned on experience and hard-earned artistic maturity:
 

‘...the sight of Penn Hill (Wensleydale) in a warm haze, the black mass of trees over by Aysgarth, the falls themselves with the church over the shoulder of the hill.’

The increasingly ‘poisonous’ atmosphere in Palestine, the political isolation of the Jews and the nascent steps towards the development of the state of Israel, conspire to entrench Jones’ desire to return to Britain; his letters of late summer, 1946, begin to bear the mark of desperation.

The denouement, the moment at which the relationship between Len and Mona begins to wind down, is the former’s admission of having married a Jewish girl, Judith Grossman, whilst in Palestine. 

The anger with which the news is initially received is no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Mona had heard it first through a third party, and if the bonds of their union were strong enough to endure, they were ineffably weakened by distance and the new circumstances.

But the correspondence, in fact, continued for many more years subsequent to Len’s demobilisation and return, with his new wife, to Britain. Taking up a career as an artist, sculptor and writer, in a new home in north west Wales, Len, now Jonah Jones, settled into family life, becoming the father of three children, whilst Mona married a former German POW in Oxford.

Though the letters become very infrequent, the testimony of Jonah’s sense of artistic purpose, his professional success, is one measure of the productive intensity of the period of correspondence in which this comprehensive collection is framed. 

That the book opens a wide window on a cataclysmically-changing wartime world is a tribute, not least, to Seren’s insightful editorial approach: the clear and well-organised chronology includes short, and very illuminating, italicised selections of commentary, which act to embolden inferences yielded up by the letters themselves. 

The picture of Mona we construct in our mind’s eye might not substitute for the substance of documented words, but we feel her presence at the table’s empty seat.

 

 

Review by John Barnie, New Welsh Review

Friday, February 1, 2019

 

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.

 

Reproduced with the permission of New Welsh Review. See the full article here.

 

Review by DW, Buzz Magazine

Friday, February 1, 2019

 

Dear Mona is a collection of letters sent, circa World War II, to Jonah Jones’ boss and on-mostly-off lover, Mona. These are letters from the heart and the mind, as Jonah (born Leonard) battles his demons with the backdrop of war in Europe ever-present. He’s good company: it’s an inspiring read with the bathos, humour and shared experiences. Here’s Len on language: “All Esperanto etc might start with swear words, because they appear to be the easiest to learn and most popular words.” He became familiar with other languages as a medic for some of the first soldiers to meet their Russian counterparts approaching from the East. Not so much a coming of age novel as a coming of age through real life letters.

Review by Lesley Glaister, BookOxygen

Monday, January 21, 2019

 

The cover of this attractive volume shows an illustration by Len Jones – Jonah Jones’ original name.  The illustration is an amusing cartoon montage of the activities of the 224 Field Ambulance Parachutists and gives a flavour of the mischievous, quirky and non-conformist side of Jones’ personality.  The letters within were written between, roughly, 1940 and 1946, and are addressed by Len to Mona Lovell, detailing his occupations during his time as a conscientious objector, and later as a non-combatant serviceman: forester, medic, parachutist, writer, magazine editor, illustrator, librarian and teacher. During these years he was posted to several locations in Britain including Exmoor, Yorkshire and Scotland and subsequently overseas, ending his war in Palestine.

Fifteen years Len’s senior, Mona was a close friend and mentor, whom he met when he became an assistant at her library. The dynamic between them started out romantic – there was even talk of marriage – but Len found himself unable to commit and Mona’s unrequited passion was frustrated by his long equivocation and eventual decision that his feelings could only ever be platonic. Mona was an extraordinarily generous soul; many of the letters mention the thoughtful and helpful gifts she sent him: warm clothes, tobacco, newspapers, food and anything else she thought he might need or want. She was also a selfless mentor, keeping him abreast of her reading and supplied with books, and above all she was a faithful and prolific correspondent. Sadly none of her letters survive, but we get something of the flavour of her voice when Len quotes her back to herself, particularly at moments of exasperation.

Len emerges as a complex personality. He’s funny, sociable – and yet desperate for space and quiet – kind and sensitive, yet horribly judgemental. As often as he is exasperated with Mona’s demands and expectations he castigates himself for his own ambivalence, not just towards her but towards almost all his friends. As we read the fluctuations of his attitudes, emotions and his own self-dramatizing commentary on himself (he seems to identify quite strongly with D.H. Lawrence), the letters sometimes become tedious in their level of introspection. After all, a painstaking self-examination of personality of someone we don’t know is never going to be all that riveting.  Even loyal Mona begs him to: ‘Stop that awful soul-searching.’ He quotes this line back to her – and I imagine many readers, like me, will find themselves heartily agreeing with her, particularly since, over the approximate five-year period of the correspondence, the same cycle of elation, excitement, despair and self-castigation recurs many times.

However, outweighing this emotional material there is a treasure trove of concrete information, a particular, nuanced and very human account of the war from the viewpoint of a C.O. Len’s a man who enjoyed food and physical comfort and the physical detail of what it was actually like to live through this time, is fascinating. Towards the end of his service, when he is stationed in Palestine, the letters provide an intriguing insight into the early days of the State of Israel and the fluctuating feelings, both personal and general, towards Jews and Arabs.

As well as the historical interest, the greatest fascination for me in this volume, is the way that we can trace the growth of Len not only from a rather callow boy into a complex and beguiling man, but also into an artist. Having become friends with the poet James Kirkup (whose homosexuality at first repels and later attracts him), he makes attempts at poetry. Len is frustrated by the results of his poetry writing as well as his attempts at fiction, as he finds himself unable to live up to his own vision – something any artist will recognize.  He turns to drawing, painting and lino-cutting (materials faithfully supplied by Mona), often excited by his achievement – some of his sketches are included along with the letters – and sometimes in despair, railing against his lack of talent, threatening to give up for ever.  Towards the end of the correspondence, he describes a small nude that he carves from a four inch piece of wood and for the first time pronounces himself satisfied, almost in awe of the perfection of this tiny piece of work, a moment of real significance in his development: perhaps the moment when he truly becomes an artist.

In his immaculately written introduction, Peter Jones, son of Jonah, addresses the question of whether he had any right to publish these personal letters in one of which Len has written: ‘I feel letters are between friends only and I want the lovely personal sacredness of those letters to remain unspoiled by others’ reading …’ Peter admits that this presented him with a dilemma, but explains that he decided to publish because ‘… the quality of the letters just seems too good, and their content too important, to leave them languishing in some archive. The story of Len and Mona should be read; let it be a tribute to two extraordinary people.’

I agree with him entirely here and feel privileged to have had access to this collection, which provides both a fascinating and revealing piece of history and a moving human story.

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