The Simpleton

Thomas Owen Jones (1875-1941), also known as Gwynfor, was a playwright, actor, producer and broadcaster, and the author of a volume of short stories which reflect the nautical heritage of his native town, Pwllheli, and neighbouring Caernarfon. ‘Y Simpil Idiot’ was published in Straeon (1931), and the translation is my own.

Like the of T. Gwynn Jones, whose criticisms and suggestions Gwynfor acknowledges, the story reflects the impact of English tourists and settlers on Welsh-language communities, as the protagonist is forced from his home to make way for holiday cottages. But Gwynn Jones, who describes English visitors bathing near a sewage outlet, shows greater sharpness of language and more ill feeling than Gwynfor, whose narrative focus is on the complicity of Welsh officials in the misappropriation of land.

The story also explores the contrast between community and individuality, as the protagonist is worshipped by the children of the town for his courage, and despised by the adults for his intransigence. Yet as in the stories of , the protagonist is depicted from the viewpoint of a homodiegetic narrator, so that we are denied access to the interior life of the central character.

There is a novel by E. Tegla Davies, Gŵr Pen y Bryn (1923), set at the time of the Tithe Wars, when Welsh farmers were evicted from their farms for refusing to give money to the Church of England. It concerns a tenant farmer who tells his neighbours that he will refuse to pay his tithe, yet pays it in secret when he is threatened with eviction. The novel becomes a richly written, quietly contemplative exploration of community and identity, individuality and integrity, as the protagonist struggles to reconcile his inner and outer selves, and as the lesser characters seek to nurture their inner lives despite the watchfulness of their neighbours. The novel moves beyond mere anecdote in its thoughtful, searching exploration of thought, feeling and experience, using its omniscient narrator both to portray its characters in depth and to transcend their limits, while Gwynfor’s story remains an anecdote that attempts to transcend itself in myth.

I sat by the hearth in The Forge and looked at the crew of idlers there pacing back and forth on the earth floor. These were some of the ‘characters’ of the town, and each one had his own individual characteristics. One was notorious for two-week drinking binges, which happened four times a year. Another loved to devise stories of adventures in the American West, although he had never been further from home than the smoke from his own chimney. I was often amazed that Wil the Smith could put with such a crew, but he rarely looked up from his work. He worked incessantly, and neither curse nor quarrel could disturb him. But in truth, one man present had a history behind him. Everyone knew that Ifan Owen, Australia, had seen strange and terrible things abroad, and often he would interrupt the others in their chatter with the story of some foreign adventure or other. No one ever attempted to cross him, and since he was known for his hot temper, and as a strong man and ready with his fists, everyone swallowed whatever he said without question. Only Twm ever tried to contradict him, and he would do so out of mischief, for the sake of drawing from Ifan’s lips some oath or obscenity never previously heard in the Forge, but common enough at sea or in the ‘diggings.’

That afternoon, Ifan Owen was holding forth with some tale of his time in Australia. Suddenly, when he paused in his narrative, Twm saw his chance, and winking at the others, he drawled:

Ifan stood stock still, and glaring furiously at Twm replied:

‘You simpleton!’

If Twm had answered him back, Ifan Owen would have had a ready response with his fist. But Twm turned away, a rakish smile playing over his features, content to have hit his mark. Ifan merely growled, a scowl on his face, and Twm was careful not to catch his eye until the storm had passed. Suddenly the company’s attention was drawn to the door, for John Jones, the town Constable, had entered. Even the smith looked up from his work, putting his hammer down by the anvil, as the Constable advanced on Ifan Owen. He produced a blue paper, which he offered with an official flourish.

‘Ifan Owen,’ he said, ‘I went to look for you on your boat, but you weren’t there.’

‘What do you want with me?’ asked Ifan.

‘I have a summons for you to appear before the justice next Monday.’

‘A summons? What for?’

‘For using your boat as a place of residence after two warnings from the town clerk.’

‘Let me see that,’ said Ifan, and the Constable gave it to him.

‘I’m to leave my boat, am I? I’m not leaving, ever! You can bring me a summons every day, if you want, and this is what I’ll do with it!’ And as he said so, he tore the document in pieces and hurled them into the fire.

‘Ifan Owen! The town council–’

‘The town council! They can go hang themselves. Now get out of my sight. I’ll break their legs, every one of them from the Mayor down to the bum bailey, if they come anywhere near me.’ And Ifan Owen left the Forge, growling like a mad dog.

‘You’ll never turn him out of that boat of his, John Jones,’ said one of the company.

‘I don’t see why you can’t just leave him alone,’ said another. ‘He’s not hurting anybody.’

‘Mind your own business,’ retorted the Constable, and out he went with his tail between his legs.

Ifan Jones had returned from his final voyage three years before. He had spent the first night staying with his sister, an elderly spinster, and since Ifan too was unmarried, it had been widely assumed that he would remain there. But he had made a decision on his journey home not to look for lodgings, but to buy a boat and set up home there, keep house for himself and live as he pleased. After a day of looking about him, he found an old fishing boat suitable for his needs, with a cabin spacious enough to live in. For us boys there was a fascination in Ifan Owen’s boat. We knew his bed lay between two sea chests, and believed that they were filled with Australian gold, and that he slept between them for fear of burglars. Many times we saw him in the diggings in our dreams, finding lumps of gold as big as a man’s fists. We saw him carrying them across desert and jungle, fighting his way through man and beast. Indeed, Ifan Owen, Australia was a hero to the boys of the town. Hadn’t he, and he alone, overcome Bully Pen Ffridd, the champion boxer at the local fair? Hadn’t he then thrown one of the Hoylacks over the wall for reciting that jeering rhyme, ‘Taffy was a thief?’

The boat had been anchored tucked away in a corner on the seaward side of the harbour. Since then a row of houses for summer visitors had been built opposite the cob, and that summer, the tenants had complained to the council that Ifan Owen’s unpolished manners were inconsistent with the tastes of those cultured visitors. The authorities had resolved to rid themselves of Ifan and his boat, and since he treated their regular notices to leave with contempt, the time had come for him to appear before the court that Monday. Although there were no cases of patrimony or trespass that day, there were more residents than usual in the court. Three times the clerk called Ifan Owen’s name, but there was no reply. The Constable was called forward, and repeated, dryly and formally, Ifan Owen’s words in the forge, while describing what he had done with the writ. The result was a court order for Ifan to vacate his boat by the end of the month, or be removed by force. The news spread through the town, and the townspeople looked forward with relish to the altercation ahead. On the first day of the following month, the Constable presented himself at Ifan Owen’s boat, and Ifan Owen glanced up from his pipe.

‘Ifan Owen,’ said the Constable, ‘I’m obliged to turn you off this boat, since you won’t leave quietly.’

‘Come and try it, lad,’ replied Ifan imperturbably.

‘Come now, Ifan Owen, come now! You knew you’d have to leave sooner or later. All the force of the law of Great Britain is behind me.’

‘It might as well be, lad, for as long as I’m here. Fetch the British Fleet if you want to blow me up. I’m not going anywhere, and neither is this boat, just to please the popinjays who sent you.’

‘You’ll find you have to leave in the end,’ said the Constable, and turned home. Later the tide rose, and the sea and the darkness closed about the boat, and before long Ifan Owen was sleeping peacefully in his cabin between his two sea chests. After this he stayed away from town, for fear that the Constable would mount a secret assault on the boat and throw his furniture overboard, but he regularly sailed out to the bay to fish. The authorities reached the conclusion that it was best to leave him alone, and that eventually hunger would force him to leave. But as usual, the authorities showed a want of imagination, for on his fishing trips, Ifan would call at a nearby port and buy supplies. Within a month, the Constable and six corporation officials advanced towards him along the cob. The tide was low, and about the boat a crust of mud had formed in the warmth of the sun. Ifan guessed their intention. They had two short ladders between them, and he prepared himself for assault. Some days before, he had secured the cabin as a last defence. It was widely rumoured in town that he would shoot the first man who set foot in the cabin. A crowd gathered on the cob, looking forward to a spectacle. The constable and his followers gazed at the boat, but Ifan was nowhere to be seen.

‘He’s ready to give in, I’m sure,’ said the Constable. ‘I’ll go myself.’ But the minute he stepped on deck, Ifan came in view with a dangerous look on his face. The Constable stood his ground for a moment, and a few words passed between them. But the next moment, Ifan rushed him, grabbing him like a child and hurling him overboard, where he fell sprawling in the mud. A roar of laughter broke through the crowd, but the officials advanced towards the ladder. But they were too late, for even as they moved forward, Ifan pulled it dextrously on deck.

‘Come on, you dogs,’ he cried, ‘and I’ll do the same to you!’

By this time someone had brought two more ladders, and seeing what they planned, Ifan stood ready in the prow with his oar, and a furious scowl on his face. ‘Come on, you rabble,’ he cried, ‘You’ll set foot on this boat over my dead body.’ At this there was a more daring assault, and ladders were planted at the prow and stern of the boat. Ifan darted here and there, aiming at every head that raised itself above the bulwark, but in the end, three officers managed to gain the deck. Ifan retreated to the cabin, and the remaining officers boarded the boat. The tide rose, unnoticed by the attackers. Presently one of the officers ventured near the cabin, and standing within a yard of the door, called out, ‘Ifan Owen! Enough of this! Come out quietly, and everything will be all right.’

They gazed keenly at the cabin door as they waited for Ifan to appear. They did not have to wait long, for presently Ifan came in view, holding two pistols in front of him. Immediately the officers took to their heels, jumping over the bulwark, and the rising tide received them.

Ifan stood on the edge of the boat, and still with his pistols pointed at them, shouted, ‘To the shore with you, or you’ll hear my dogs bark,’ and they swam for their lives. Ifan went to his seat in the prow, and lit his pipe. A few of the bystanders stayed where they were, expecting something else to take place. By this time the boat was afloat. Ifan rose. He raised the mast, pulled up the anchor, and waving farewell to the shore, he turned the prow of the boat to sea, and into the rising storm.

For weeks, Ifan Owen’s last stand and disappearance were at the end of every story told in the Forge. To us children, he was more of a hero than ever, and we often dreamed of him on his boat, sleeping between his treasure chests in the bottom of the bay, even though Twm would mutter, every time he heard his name, ‘That stupid simpleton.’

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