When renowned cartoonist Grenfell ‘Gren’ Jones MBE passed away on Thursday 4 January 2007, Wales lost one of its most talented sons but for Gren’s boys Chris and Darryl it was to leave a void that has taken many years to come to terms with.
Gren, Max Boyce & Arwen Owen
Valleys Life is proud and privileged to have an exclusive interview with Gren’s son Darryl Jones. As well as dealing with the emotional loss of his father, Darryl has had a tough time over recent years coming close to losing his own life in a motorcycle accident within a year of his dad’s death. It effectively ended his career as a policeman and almost ended his life and he’s not yet fully recovered. We caught up with Darryl in, where else, the local pub – we think Gren would have approved.
Please tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
In Caerphilly – my dad bought our first family home in Brynau Road on Castle Park – it was number 78. I have great memories of our time there as we were very friendly with lots of people in the street. I remember having a huge street party for the Queen. My father spent a lot of time talking to friends and he encouraged me to always be part of the conversation.
What’s your earliest memory of your dad?
My earliest memory is of him teaching me to ride my first bike without stabilisers. I had him running up and down holding my back and every so often he would let me go and I’d hear him saying, “You’re riding on your own!” He spent a lot of time with my brother and I. We were a close unit. He taught us how to play rugby, sail and also how to play golf – really badly.
Describe his early life?
He was the son of a coal miner, Harry Jones, and was born in Hengoed in the Rhymney Valley. He really started drawing cartoons when he was eight years of age. He used to see the Daily Mail and admired the work of Ronald ‘Neb’ Niebour so he started drawing cartoons of neighbours and found he was quite good at it.
When he was old enough, he started sending his work to agents. I think he really believed he could make a living from drawing. His first published drawing was a joke cartoon for Spick & Span, and later on he sold his first news-related cartoon to the Birmingham Mail. He was inspired and encouraged to draw what he knew by John Philpin Jones (‘Jon’) of the News Chronicle. He basically told dad to draw what he knew and knew the valleys, and Wales, so that was the beginning of the Gren style that everyone knows today.
So he was inspired by his local community…
Yes. He was part of the community. Dad was a member of the Caerphilly Round Table and we had lots of fun as a family going to car rallies and camping. Dad also used to spend time with other members helping local families and taking their kids out on adventure days. The Round Table had great family values. Around Christmas time I recall my dad dressing as Father Christmas to go on the sledge that was towed around Caerphilly and surrounding areas this was a role that every ‘Tabler’ would do from time to time.
We also used to go to cartoonist conventions with the Cartoonists Of Great Britain Club. We would go to Butlins where every cartoonist would draw a cartoon on a huge board that would then be put on display at the reception at each camp. I grew up with the cartoonists kids at these annual events: Bill Tidy, Mac, Cookson, Kirkbride, Collins, George Radcliffe, O’landinine and Les Lilly just to name a few. They organised knobbly-knee contests where they drew faces on their knees and had to make them talk! There were football matches and beer races – everyone had great fun.
One year, I remember them organising a mock-up marriage of Jack Kirkbride’s daughter Ann Kirkbride (Valleys Life readers will remember her as Deirdre of Coronation Street) and George Radcliffe the oldest cartoonist in the group. George was a lovely guy he was very poor and the cartoonists would pay George’s expenses. Every year George would proudly show off a new tie. He would sport this tie at the functions. We often noticed George’s tie was exactly the same material as the Butlins chalet curtains! Each year George had his matching tie – funny that.
When did you understand and appreciate that your dad actually made a living as a cartoonist?
I understood my father made a living as a cartoonist from a very early age. It wasn’t unusual to me because I had grown up around cartoonists so the idea that it could be a job was perfectly acceptable. I had my own chair beside him at his desk in the house and one at the Echo building when I used to spend time with him there. He used to encourage me to shade in and cut out the Letraset dot shading for the cartoons. Over time he taught me how to draw his characters and understand perspective. He was trained as a draughtsman so he was very good at showing distance in the cartoons.
Was he always a cartoonist?
He was in the RAF doing his national service in Penang in Malaysia and played the guitar and tea chest in a skiffle band with his friend Anthony Osmond. In 1960 he became one of the founder members of the Knights Of The Round Table, a pop group. That band later evolved into the Barron Knights – they were quite famous in the 70s. Dad left as he married my mum, Sarah Ann. The first house they rented was on railway terrace in Caerphilly. My father sold his beloved Gibson guitar to put a deposit down.
Wow, that must have been love…
Yes indeed. At the time he was working as a salesman for Black & Decker and went on to be a draughtsman at a local company called Welsh Metals. But that’s the kind of man he was. Ruled by his heart, his passion – whatever it was.
How would you describe your childhood?
My childhood was full of love and adventure. Dad always encouraged us to try everything and brought us up to believe there’s nothing we couldn’t do if we really wanted to do it.
What made Gren special?
I think his love of Wales and the people. He didn’t like fame or snobbery and always made a point of getting to know everyone. He taught us that no-one is superior in life to anyone, they may be senior in rank or age but they still had to earn respect. He believed in being respectful but only to those who deserved it or had earned it.
I remember he kept a pack of biscuits for the doorman and cleaners in the Echo so he could give them a cup of tea – they would dunk their chocolate digestives in the cup.
Another great quality of his was his insight. He was amazing! When my daughters Sophie and Emily were born he said your girls will remember the time you spent with them not what you buy them. How true that has been.
He made many predictions and they always came true. His vision of life was very different to everyone else. He always saw a funny side of things but if there was a serious message to convey he would include it in a subtle way. For example. He did a cartoon of Dai the Dap, a Welsh streaker. He drew Dai naked in a telephone box (yes one of those lovely old red boxes), he was calling the Rape Advice Centre saying, “Right, I’ve done that, what do I do next?” It caused outrage – he had many threatening phone calls but the truth of the matter was he was telling them it was a stupid name to call such an important organisation. Subsequently it was renamed the Rape Crisis Centre. There are many other examples of his genius reflecting top tier management’s stupid ideas. I suppose that’s why people loved him, he was the people’s cartoonist.
Who were Gren’s heroes?
Ah, that’s a huge list: Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, JPR, Barry John, Merve ‘The Swerve’ Davies. He loved his Rugby. He admired cartoonist Giles, he admired our armed forces and public sector workers: the police, the ambulance drivers, the fire service. He appreciated that they made sacrifices. He loved the working man. He loved the characters.
What was his proudest moment?
I think when he received his MBE from the Queen, he was delighted. I think he joked with her and said, “Can I be called Sir Gren of Hengoed?”
He also lived in his imaginary world of his cartoon strip Ponty ‘n’ Pop, and the fictitious village of Aberflyarff. I remember going into his home office and he proudly showed me a certificate from the Mayor of Aberflyarff that gave him the key to the village. He had drawn the certificate and presented it to himself – that’s dad, that’s Gren!
Where did he get his inspiration for the characters?
From people he knew and from daily life. We would be sat in a pub and he’d say to me, “Wow look at him, or her!” and quickly sketch a doodle on the back of a beer mat or make notes to remind him later when he was in his studio.
Did your dad have celebrity friends or fans?
Yes many have written to him asking for cartoons – Even Callaghan, the Prime Minister at the time. Neil Kinnock was a friend and you’d see him depicted in some cartoons. He was great friends with half the Welsh rugby players. Robert Powell, the actor who played Jesus in the film and TV series sent him a nice letter signed in brackets (JC). Tommy Cooper, Harry Secombe – even the great Richard Burton asked for a Gren. There were many famous individuals that were touched by his humour and got in touch with him – he took it all in his stride but he was very proud.
How did you feel when he passed away?
We were absolutely devastated. My brother Chris and I had lost our world. He was an amazing father. I think of him every day. I continue drawing his cartoons for the annual rugby calendar. It’s a very demanding vocation. I have continued the tradition for the past seven years and doing it has taught me a lot about him both as my father, and as Gren. I understand him a little more because I’ve had to think like he thought. Before he passed away he told me that when I draw his cartoons, never to insult people and to always run with reality – he thought real life was funny enough.
Who’s your favourite Gren character?
I like too many, but my favourites are Bromide Lil the bar maid of the Golden Dap pub and Royal Aberflyarff RFC. She’s also a part time model for oven gloves. Then there’s Ponty ‘n’ Pop, the first cartoon strip based on the Welsh valleys and the special way we communicate.
Was language a thing that inspired him?
Definitely. Phrases like ‘down by ere’ and ‘over by there’. The valleys has a language all of its own. He loved ‘round by there’ or ‘I’m coming now in a minute’. Classic. Whenever he heard ‘your dinner’s in the dog’ he would chuckle.
What would you like to be Gren’s legacy?
My dad told me I was the heir to his overdraft! No, in reality he wanted me to continue with the Gren name and take it beyond Wales. He loved the Welsh valleys, Welsh people and the great way the Welsh can joke about themselves, and things, even in their very darkest moments. He loved the beauty of the terraced houses and he always said more talent comes out of Wales than anywhere else in the world, you just have to look for it.
We’ve got plans to set up a trust where we’d have an old terraced house and a pub attached so that it could be turned into a centre for the arts and promote Welsh talent and offer facilities and mentors for young artists and creative people. I’d like to think that Gren’s legacy will be enduring happiness. That’s what he did, he made people smile and I’d like to think, because of him, more people smile in the future – wherever they are in the world.
Can people buy Gren products?
I have continued drawing his cartoons and have developed it into a brand of clothing and cakes (on sale in Tesco stores in Wales from 7th June 2013). I have a website www.grencartoons.com which is currently being updated so it includes many new products that can be personalised by the website visitor. You’ll be able to go on there and choose a cartoon and enter your own text onto a variety of products. We’ve got big-ish plans for the future – I think it’s going to be fun.
There are a range of Gren Products available:
Rugby shirts (you can choose any colour and any design), towels, tea towels, door mats, door plaques, kitchen chopping boards and aprons.
Everything is made in Wales in Welsh factories in the valleys and the people Darryl has spoken to are encouraging other factories to expand growth in manufacturing.
“When I started out I enjoyed the same things as I’m drawing now. Wales, rugby, local politicians, anything we in this part of the world are able to relate to – I aim to reflect our life and it goes down well with the readers. I’m not trying to prove any points. I try not to get into the political area as that isn’t my audience.”
Grenfell ‘Gren’ Jones MBE
13 June 1934 – 4 January 2007