chronology of my early life, 1927 to 1946

I was born on 7th October, at Hafren, Caergog, Aberystwyth, to Jennie Jones (formerly Humphreys) (1896-1979) and Christopher John Jones (1880-1969). My sister Mary Margaret Jennifer was born there two-and-a-half years later.

(photographs of my parents, my new-born sister and myself at Hafren)

1933 - 1935?
My parents let Hafren (a small terrace house in sight of the National Library) to someone else so that we could move to Hafod-y-Bryn, a much grander house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the whole town and nearer to the golf course where both my parents played. Perhaps they met at the golf course. Half of the house was sublet to the Town Clerk, Ricky Horsefall-Turner and his young wife, Val. The Horsefall-Turners were modern young people with new habits. She wore lipstick and nail varnish, he drew caricatures of the councillors at council meetings and they called each other darling. 'Ricky darling' she would call in a loud voice audible throughout the house. For a dare he once drove a golf ball from a tee she held in her teeth as she lay down on the grass. And he taught me how to draw ships in a three-quarter perspective with the prow waves curling out on either side.

(photographs of John and Jennifer as infants at Hafod-y-Bryn)

1934 (or was it 1935?)
I was seriously ill with pneumonia (feverish sweats and shivering - there were no antibiotics) and I missed some of the first year in kindergarten.

We returned to Hafren. I never heard why but guessed it was lack of money. Or perhaps my father didn't like the big house or having to share it with other people?

(photo of John Chris and John Rees at Hafren)

I attended a private kindergarten for a few months and then went to Alexandra Road Infants and Elementary Schools, Aberystwyth. The majority of boys left at fourteen to do a job - I'd passed the scholarship exam to the grammar school at 11 (or was it 10?) but my father (who had played football until he was 45) made me stay an extra year to toughen me up and learn to play football. I think he saw me as immature for my age. He was right - even in my late twenties strangers would call me 'sonny' and all my life people have said I look young. At last it's become an advantage.

I much enjoyed that last year in the top class at Alexander Road with the fourteen-year olds which was taught by Mr. Davies, the head master, who must have been an exceptional teacher. I remember him demonstrating atmospheric pressure by cooling a sealed can full of steam until it condensed into water - at which the can collapsed under the pressure of fifteen pounds per square inch. And I remember him tolerating my sometimes cheeky answers to his questions.

That year I won a League of Nations prize for an essay on world peace or some such topic. And I don't remember much football - just enjoyment.

On my way home from school I would call on Nain, my grandmother, and she would send me with a penny-ha'penny to buy a cream horn to eat with her before Taid, my grandfather, returned from his carpentry and building business. To a small boy he was a fearful presence, though kindly enough. But Nain was wonderful - I preferred her to my mother whom I felt was too dominant, though she could be very amusing - a terrific personality.

(photographs of Nain and Taid)

Of those happy years of my pre-war childhood I remember most what I'd now call my construction projects. With the help of my good friend John Watkin, and one or two others, and with scrap materials, I made a shed (in which we used to smoke cigarettes made of dried dock petals rolled in newspaper), a canoe of sorts (which sank at its first trial in the sea) and an improvised cinema in the attic (by passing toy animals and toy soldiers before an electric light in a shoe box with a magnifier to make a beam of light). Also we made gun powder (was it with potassium nitrate and sulphur and carbon from the chemist's?) but we only caused tiny explosions. And we used to carve wooden models of the boats on the sea front. One was called 'Belle Isle'. On another excursion boat, 'The Pride of the Midlands', we could get a free ride on the last sailing of the day - 'the harbour trip'.

The father of one of my friends used to go out in the lifeboat - and we were let out of school to help drag it from the lifeboat house to the sea if the gun calling the crew went off during shooltime.

(sketches of the hut, the canoe, the 'Attic Picture House' and a model of the Belle Isle.)

Perhaps the best thing my father did for me was to give me two construction books. One, the name of which I forget, showed you how to make electrical devices (a compass, a battery, an electric motor, a telegraph, etc.) with household materials like corks, needles, tinfoil, copper wire and a bar magnet. The other, 'Flight without Formulae' by A C Kermode (a later edition of which is still in print) teaches how an aeroplane flies by getting you to make models with folded paper. From these I learnt something I greatly value and still delight in - the way that accurate knowledge of the invisible forces of aerodynamics and electricity enable people to achieve apparent magic. Like the electric train or the aeroplane - without visible means of propulsion, or of support. Perception of the invisible is still my way of doing things, I think. The real virtue of engineering - and now of all kinds of software and of virtual reality.

(illustration from 'Flight without Formulae')

Ardwyn Grammar School, Aberystwyth. My father retired from the post of senior physics master in 1940 - I saw him being presented with a gold watch at his sixtieth birthday when he was obliged to retire. Then he went away to teach at public schools whose younger teachers had gone to fight in the war (Oundle School from 1940-1942 and to Saint Bee's School, Cumberland, from 1942-1945) . My best memory of Ardwyn is of the school debates - I found that one can speak audaciously in public, even about those in authority, without retribution. A public presence is beyond the power of individuals, and even of officials, so it seemed to me then - and I liked it.

During those war-time years my sister Jennifer and I held children's concerts in the attic (to collect money for the Red Cross) and I dug an air-raid shelter in the garden (though there were no air raids on Aberystwyth). I remember too that in the year when my father was alone in Oundle I challenged and upset my mother by accusing her of not helping with the war effort. When my father returned he punished me for that, telling me that she had risked her life for me to be born and that I should never attack her. (I gather that I was born a month late, had a big head for a baby and weighed nine-and-a-half pounds). I never challenged her again but I wish now that I had for I was always afraid of her, as was the whole family, my father included. She was too strong for us.

(sketch of the air raid shelter)

When my parents told Jennifer and I that we were leaving Aberystwyth and going to live inland, away from the sea, I was shocked. It seemed to not much better than going to live down a coal mine. To go away from the coast, and from Aber, seemed unthinkable, but we had to go, apparently. I know now that one reason for going was to get me into a boarding school at no fee because my father would be one of the teachers. And knowing what I now know of public schools I wish to goodness he'd not had that terrible idea. Terrible for me, at least, and I doubt if it was good for my sister either. She was sent to girl's boarding schools in England while our friends stayed in that paradise childhood by the sea in the Aberystwyth that we loved.

Laxton Grammar School, Oundle. During this year my father moved to Saint Bee's School, Cumberland, because Oundle School would not admit, without fee, the son of its temporary physics teacher (who'd taken the job believing it would).

I published a fifth form magazine with Derek and Tony Lodge, who had been evacuated to Oundle to escape the bombing of London. And I began to make model aeroplanes and I enjoyed the lessons at the grammar school, medieval as it seemed under its head teacher 'Quack' Leach whom my father once described as 'the greatest pedagogue in East Anglia'.

One of my prized books at that time was Le Pou de Ciel (The Flying Flea - a self-build aeroplane) by Henry Mignet. I'd hoped to build a full size one but didn't manage it. So I planned a scale model version which I hoped would fly but in the end I never made it. Lack of resources I guess. You needed more than scrap materials to make an aeroplane, even one designed to be built and flown by amateurs. Most of my model aeroplanes, made from commercial kits, crashed because I never learnt how to adjust their balance properly to get aerodynamic stability. I preferred the designing and the imagining to the making and flying.

(illustration of 'the Flying Flea')

When I wasn't doing this I was acting as a uniformed messenger boy in Home Guard. And I remember going fire-watching at night in a disused bakery where the walls reeked of a nauseous fat from cooking. And I also remember having to work at making ammunition boxes in the school workshops in the holidays. That was the only time that I got into the Oundle School proper. Laxton Grammar school was an an adjunct for day pupils who did not have rich parents - but it had some of the same teachers.

(photograph of jcj as a uniformed cyclist for the Home Guard)

The good thing about Oundle was that it was the only boarding school (or perhaps the only school at all?) to teach engineering as a practical activity. Sanderson, its famous headmaster, had insisted that every boy spent time in the school workshops, even those studying classics, in which you could not only learn theories of engineering but do it yourself. I think now that I would have been happy had I been admitted to Oundle. From what I remember it seemed a good place, with sensitive people and a modern ethos. Yes, it might have improved my life a lot. And so might staying at Aberystwyth. But then I'd have become another person and I'd have had to have had different parents. We only live one life.

Three years at Saint Bee's School, Cumberland, as a boarder, though my parents were living in the village. In my father's physics lessons the other boys sometimes tried to get me to do wrong so that he would have to punish me. But I don't think they succeeded - I liked what I was being taught by all the teachers and had no wish to rebel. I hated being at boarding school with its bullying, the ritual beatings by prefects, and compulsory games every afternoon. And you were despised if you were clever.

I continued to make model aeroplanes on my own, helped to organise an aircraft spotter's club, and started an informal band with instruments from junk shops (though in classical music lessons I was totally unmusical, no sense of rhythm and unable to sing in tune).

I wasn't respected at this tough and unscholarly school until I found I could do well at cross-country running, even winning a race that no one expected me to. I'd taken a large dose of pure glucose before the race and remember overtaking a boy called Priestly who before had always beaten me. But after the race my pulse did not slow down for hours, even a day or two, and I felt that I'd strained it. I found (in a book by Harold Abrams of the Achilles Club at Cambridge - the hero of the film 'Chariots of Fire') how to quell pre-race jitters by relaxation. Eventually I could get so relaxed that I felt I was in a near-death state, as if everything, even the surface I was lying on, had fallen away and I was suspended or sinking on nothingness. Quite frightening but somewhat addictive - I can still do it but not to that extent. Much later I realised that Harold Abrams' technique resembles Raja Yoga.

At this time some of the boys would cycle to get to crashed bombers before the rescue services arrived and would take pieces of them. One rather mild boy whom I liked took a machine gun from an American bomber and said that he used it afterwards to shoot pigeons. He had parts of the gun in his tuck box. To us the war was not a tragedy but a great excitement. I remember the son of my mother's friend in the village coming to tell us what it was like being a pathfinder in the bombing raids over German cities. At that time I intended to become a pilot in the air force when my time came for call-up. Or else in the Fleet Air Arm. I was in love with aeroplanes - girls didn't come into it. I see now that I was lucky that the war ended before I got into the forces. I wouldn't have fitted at all as a pilot. Physically I'm too nervous.

1945-1946 University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. How wonderful it was to get back to Aber after our experience of living in borrowed rooms or houses and travelling in blacked-out Britain in slow trains crowded with soldiers. I remember crying with joy at the sight of Pen Dinas, the tall column and the Ancient British hill fort you can see from all over the town. It was only then that I realised how much we'd missed our seaside paradise and the mild friendly Welsh culture. It had been such a shock to me, at Saint Bee's, to experience the harshness of English class distinction, though, being Welsh, I did not myself get labelled working class - I was I think seen as different and unclassifiable, as for instance was a boy with a foreign accent who came as a refugee from Central Europe. I think his father owned a factory.

I was attending college at Aberystwyth for one year only before going to Cambridge University. I had managed to get a scholarship to go there but I hadn't passed the entrance exam in Latin which was compulsory even for those who would study engineering (or mechanical sciences as they called it in the days before engineering became academically respectable - if it ever has?). So at Aber I was attending first year courses in pure maths, applied maths, and physics but I was not interested in any of them, except for three-dimensional algebraic geometry. I two dimensions I could not do it well but in three dimensions I could. Was that because it called one to visualise solid forms and hollow ones, like a sculptor?

I was also taking private lessons in Latin from Miss Davies, the Latin teacher at Ardwyn, but I still failed the entrance exam. Luckily I heard that though the war was over you could get into Cambridge without Latin if you had done National Service before a certain date. I wrote to the War Ministry asking to be called up before going to Cambridge instead of after and they let me do it.

During that year, living in Borth and attending lectures at the University College in Aberystwyth, I became more interested in the design of everyday things than in engineering. I entered a competition to design 'the car of the future' and I made a balsawood model of it that I had to complete in a barrack room after call-up to the army. I'd designed it by experiencing or imagining the roles driver, passenger and car mechanic in existing cars and changing anything that seemed less than well-fitted to the persons concerned. This led me to a streamlined 'double bubble' shape consisting of simple curved surfaces, metal below elbow level and all transparent above, resembling an aeroplane. There were three seats abreast (so as to use road space more efficiently) small wheels and a longer body (to allow more leg room), and a detachable rear engine plus driving wheels (which could be removed for easy servicing in a comfortable posture while the owner drove away with a replacement power unit). The design won a secondary prize and through all the years since then I have had the satisfaction of watching the cars of the day becoming closer and closer to my prediction. Evidently it's not difficult to predict the future of a single artifact - the difficulty comes if you try to envisage what will arise from the interactions of between artifacts, people, and the environment. My car design involved no conception of pollution, seat belts, crash resistance, parking problems, traffic congestion or the invisible traffic automation scheme that, in a competition a decade later, became the perhaps the best thing I ever designed but also the most resisted.

(sketch of the car of the future)

My main memories of that year at Aber are of life in the Green Dolphin, the seaside cafe in Borth which my mother had started to keep us going now that my father had stopped teaching full time (he was by then over 65). And of the difficulty of meeting girl friends in a village composed of a single street where everyone knew everyone. I was almost completely deterred from sexual contact but I was imagining it.

I have vague memories of being quite depressed and of getting interested in Anglo-Welsh poetry, mainly that of Alun Lewis, the first writer I greatly liked. I never thought then that I'd be writing books myself, even technical and poetic ones, and certainly not this - if it is one - it was meant only as a chronology, a message to friends and relatives to accompany my will - but now I've got this far I might put it out on my website. Yes indeed, far better to write for the present, while I'm alive, and not for a future that I won't experience.... or are there things I'd say posthumously that I could not say now? Possibly there are but now that I've begun to put fairly intimate thoughts onto the net it's more attractive to me put this there directly. So I will. (1999)

Later I showed this to Ursula Huws and told her that I could not continue the story any further as I could not write frankly about living people. 'I think that's why people turn to writing fiction', she said, but she urged me to publish this just as it is - and now I am doing so.

I hope to add the illustrations later - and perhaps break these long paragraphs into more surfable pieces?

my website and digital diary, or blog, is at (click on 'what's new')