Bearing witness to the times

Dylan Moore meets playwright Patrick Jones to talk about his new play ‘Before I Leave’

‘I was a young, inexperienced writer. I didn’t know how to write a play,’ says Patrick Jones of his 1999 debut Everything Must Go. Jones’ humility sets the tone for a conversation which concludes with the writer’s hope to ‘play my little part in raising awareness’ of issues around dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – conditions suffered by the members of the Cwm Taf Choir, with whom Jones has worked on his latest play, Before I Leave (NTW).

But Jones disagrees with any suggestion that he has mellowed. ‘If anything, I think I’ve become more radical as I’ve got older. At least, I’d like to think so,’ he says. It is a bold claim from a man who once burned a Welsh flag on stage at Clwb Ifor Bach – a protest against the complacencies of the so-called Cool Cymru era. ‘I didn’t think it was very cool, living here,’ he says by way of explanation. ‘I saw a lot of poverty and injustice. Labour had just got in [on the 1997 Blair landslide] and there was a sense of a rebirth of Britain. But it seemed like we’d rather wave our flags at Stereophonics gigs than actually have a good look at what was going on.’

In the seventeen years since Everything Must Go and a clutch of late nineties poetry collections including The Guerilla Tapestry and Mute Communion, Jones has ‘learned to temper [his anger at injustice] a little bit’ and is, he feels, a more mature writer.

Given our mutual reminiscences of where we were in 1999 – Jones writing Everything Must Go and me in the audience watching – I take the opportunity to gesture across the hundred metres that separate us from the Senedd and ask for Jones’ assessment of devolution thus far. His response his perhaps typical. ‘It’s a bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it?’ he says, offering a positive comment about ‘taking ownership’ before faltering and asking, ‘What do we run?’

The playwright expresses frustration that ‘the blame is always pointed somewhere else’ and that ‘nothing seems to get done; [Assembly debates] are all a bit bland and safe.’ This is compounded for Jones by the dearth of alternatives: ‘there are no real role models fighting or speaking the spirit of the times.’

This is perhaps where writers come in. Jones quotes Albert Camus – ‘Writers should bear witness to their time’ – before name-checking Ken Loach and Jimmy McGovern among who have inspired his journey as a writer. As such, an integral part of his writing process, rather than indulging his poetic inclination toward metaphorical abstraction, is to talk to ‘real people.’

It was Jones’ own moving experience working with the Cwm Taf dementia choir on a writing exercise that inspired Before I Leave. ‘It brought me to tears watching everyone sing and hold hands… I felt very alive there,’ he recalls. ‘I thought: there’s a story here. They get together, they sing, they talk about their problems, their carers don’t feel so isolated.’ Encountering this remarkable choir against a backdrop of buzzwords – the Big Society, We’re All In It Together – the playwright felt compelled to tell this story that, far from the Westminster soundbites, felt very real.

Despite his insistence that the play is very down-to-earth – ‘real people talking to real people’ – there is a metaphorical structure holding it together. The choir itself is a metaphor for society: a group of isolated individuals ‘just seem to work better’ when they come together. And then Jones’ research took the idea further: Alzheimer’s is caused by abnormal deposits of protein that prevent brain cells communicating with each other and, gradually, the whole brain to atrophy. For Jones, the ravages of the disease are ‘symbolic of how we live our lives in the West.’

Before I Leave is ‘a play about people living with dementia and their carers, and how they make a concerted effort to not give up.’ Jones is talking about the real Cwm Taf choir and his own six lead characters when he says: ‘coming together to sing every week solidifies their humanity.’ There is Marge, a mezzo-soprano and librarian, who has lost her voice, and Isabelle, who thinks her care home doesn’t care. Jones is particularly keen to talk about Joe, who has early onset Alzheimer’s – at only 55, his friends have deserted him and he only has his wife to rely on. Finally, there are Evan and Rocky, former foes from 1984 – one a miner, the other a policeman; both have mental scars and fading memories of the miner’s strike that defined their generation

Our conversation takes place against a current affairs backdrop that suggests everything – and yet nothing – has changed: elections for the fifth Welsh Assembly would have been inconceivable in 1984, but the uncertainty surrounding the steel industry and the class war at the heart of the Hillsborough families’ 27-year-long struggle for justice would be instantly recognisable.

With Before I Leave, Patrick Jones hopes to bear witness to his times – but also to affect individuals. ‘Maybe after seeing the play,’ he says, ‘people might think, I’d better phone my nan or maybe I’ll talk to my dad differently. And, of course,’ he adds, in one final sell, ‘there are some great songs in there.’ Perhaps the most poignant of which is the Johnny Cash song ‘Hurt’. Its final line – ‘I remember everything’ – says Jones, ‘is so poignant to hear the cast sing, because, of course, they don’t’.

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