Friday, 27 January 2012

Ken Jones, runner, winger, gentleman

I was never a sporty lad. I had two left feet and my co-ordination was terrible. Rather a disadvantage if you were growing up in South Wales during 'The Decade of the Dragon', when Welsh Rugby carried all before it.

Sure, I used to watch the games, I enjoyed the Internationals. But after a few seconds on the rugby field I was squashed flat. I wasn't built for it nor could I run very fast.

Imagine my surprise at Christmas when my twin brother presented me with Ken Jones, Boots and Spikes, a book by Steve Lewis published by Sports Books.

Ken (1921 - 2006) taught us English at Llantarnam Comprehensive in the mid-1970s. We didn't know he was one of the greatest sportsmen Wales had ever produced, until our fathers and uncles started to express their astonishment. Ken Jones? You've got Ken Jones?

It was typical of the modesty of the man that he never even mentioned his fame until we asked him about it directly. Even then he would only allude to it when it was necessary to do so. He used to write the match reports for The Sunday Express. My Dad used to read them avidly and we still took the paper even after our parents were divorced. I remember reading them to compare Ken's account with what we'd seen on the telly the day before. It was one of the first times, I think, that I began to appreciate the level of skill involved. He didn't just tell you what had happened, he captured the spirit of the game.

Ken had a very resonate and distinctive voice and we used to take turns to imitate it during break. My brother could do a very good impersonation. We meant no harm and we respected him. I was quite a bookish boy and so enjoyed his English lessons but even those who weren't that way inclined appreciated them. I remember some of them saying so. Now you don't often get that from 14 year old boys!

It was through Ken that I first became aware of contemporary Welsh poetry, the 'second flowering', works by writers like Leslie Norris (also 1921 2006). Ken used to read us The Ballad of Billy Rose. It's stuck with me to this day. Through that I also encountered Norris's moving Elegy for David Beynon (scroll down for the poem) which remains one of the most moving poems I know. Both of these have sporting themes and helped me realise that the sporty and arty sides of things needn't be mutually exclusive.

I've written a tribute to Ken. It's going to appear on the Sports Books website.

I'll share it here too.

i.m. Ken Jones (1921 – 2006)

We never saw you run,
were too young to cheer
you sprint or watch you dash
across the grass to score another try.
We felt the wind of it alright,
our fathers and our uncles told us,
until the boldest – or the cheekiest –
came out and asked you straight:
‘Sir, are you famous?’

You would speak of it then,
never to boast but only to underline
a point, conjure an image in our minds
pertinent to the passage in hand.
Ken Jones, runner, winger, Olympian,
medallist, columnist, all-round athlete -
now ‘Third-Year English’ on a wet afternoon.

You took us in your stride, stood no nonsense,
stopped us in our tracks whenever
we went too far. You must have known
how we found your voice, rich and resonant,
ripe for mimicry, that we’d take turns
each break to ‘do Ken Jones’, echo
your rising cadence, deep Blaenavon tones.

Could you have known
how the quietest among us read
your sports reports each Sunday
after match-day, admiring felt them catch
the spirit and the rhythm of each game?
How we heard hidden treasures in the verse
you read us and realised its value?

We broke no records,
never breasted tape, scored no tries
to speak of – but we ran, Ken,
ran although you never saw us run.
I expect you barely even felt us
take the baton from your hand.
We’re running with it yet, Ken,
and will keep on running
until it’s time for us to pass it on.

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