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Hywel and James: taking stock of sharing

Piers Plowright enjoys James Roose-Evans’ intimate memoir of a life shared with Hywel Jones

02 August, 2018 — By Piers Plowright

Hywel Jones, left, and James Roose-Evans

THIS is both a love story and the story of a marriage – not always the same thing. Between two men. And beginning when such a relationship had to be kept quiet. It’s the latest book from priest, teacher, and theatre director James Roose-Evans, and probably the one that goes deepest and means the most to him.

James is now over 90 and still firing on all cylinders. This, in spite of many challenges, and the loss, five years ago, of his partner, Hywel Jones. At a literary festival in 2009 he was asked which of his many achievements he rated highest and replied without hesitation: “My 51-year relationship with my partner, Hywel Jones.” There were to be three more years. And those 54 years are what this book’s about.

They met in that splendid Hampstead institution – gay-friendly even in those days – the High Street’s William IV, one evening in 1958. It was, as they often say – but this time it was true – love at first sight:

Short, his shoulders slightly rounded as though from carrying a yoke, with shaggy black hair and glowing black eyes, his was a gypsy face with the bone structure of Rudolf Nureyev. He came from North Wales.

That was James’s view of Hywel. Hywel would have seen a very good-looking young man, slightly flamboyantly dressed and probably flaunting a loose cravat.

And so began a journey from London to Wales to Ireland and back again, James, among many other things, founding the Hampstead Theatre Club, and the Bleddfa Centre for the Creative Spirit, Hywel at his side, conquering his stammer to become an actor and later a teacher of the Alexander Technique.

They travelled to America and Europe to teach together, encounter­ing difficulties, extra­ordinary people, bursts of luck, and disappointments in equal measure.

They made friends and supporters like the memoirist, poet, and children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, the Irish writer Molly Keane, Rowan Williams, who when Archbishop of Canterbury championed Bleddfa as a place that “represents all that is most hopeful for our anxious and fragmented culture”, and the poet Kathleen Raine.

But at the centre is the honest and sometimes painful account of two men staying together in spite of small betrayals, the challenges of illness, and “the whips and scorns of time” that all true marriages experience.

Some readers might find there’s almost too much intimacy in James Roose-Evans’ account, but that’s part of its honesty.

“The growth of love is not a straight line but a series of hills and valleys,” writes Madeleine L’Engle in one of the book’s epigraphs, and that’s abundantly what you get here. And lots of comedy.

I particularly like Molly Keane’s story about an old lady who, when asked by the visiting Church of Ireland parson whether her companion would like Holy Communion, replies: “Oh, she’ll eat anything!”

It’s an engrossing ride and at the end you may feel with Hywel when he says, after another leap in the two men’s trust for each other: “Mae wedi bod yn bore dda – it’s been a good day!”

A Shared Life. By James Roose-Evans, Port Meadow Press, £10. Available at Daunt Books, Belsize Park and Marylebone High Street or on Amazon.

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