Obituary: Mervyn Jones, 1922-2010

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: March 5, 2010 Last modified: March 3, 2010

Mervyn Jones, who died on February 23 at the age of 87, was a widely respected journalist, novelist and socialist who wrote an acclaimed and authorised biography of Michael Foot, a man Mervyn first met when Michael hired him as a reporter for Tribune in 1955. Mervyn became one of Michael’s closest friends. In his authorised biography, published in 1994, he described Michael as “the man who saved the Labour Party”.

Mervyn Jones was born in London on February 27 1922. His father, Ernest Jones, was a psychoanalyst and disciple of Sigmund Freud who launched the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Ernest and his wife Katerina helped Freud get out of Nazi-controlled Vienna in 1938. Mervyn joined the Young Communist League and read voraciously, especially the titles supplied each month by the Left Book Club. He turned down a place at Queen’s College, Oxford, and left with his mother for the United States in August 1939. He enrolled at New York University, where he sat enraptured and inspired by the lectures of his hero, WH Auden, before returning to Britain in 1942. He joined the Communist Party and then the British Army, serving as a second lieutenant in an anti-tank artillery regiment. He took part in the D-Day landings but was captured by the Germans in Holland and sent to a prisoner of war camp in the Rhineland.

Mervyn married Jeanne Urquhart, who was also a communist, in 1948, but became disenchanted with the party. He left the CP in 1951 and, although he continued to write for the Daily Worker, stood as a Labour Party candidate in the safe Conservative seat of Chichester in 1955.

His first novel, No Time To Be Young, was published in 1952. Three years later, after being vetoed by the security services for a job with the Central Office of Information, he joined Tribune, reporting on everything from party conferences to rock ’n’ roll. He became assistant editor, helping Michael Foot write Guilty Men in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, and also wrote articles for the New Reasoner, the anti-Soviet leftist journal founded by EP Thompson, and short stories for Homes & Gardens. From 1966 to 1968, he was assistant editor of the New Statesman.

He published 22 well-regarded novels – including John and Mary (1966), which was turned into a film with a script by John Mortimer; Holding On (1973), which was turned into a television serial; and Strangers (1974), his personal favourite, about a pacifist whose refusal to fight in the Second World War alienates him from his family – but he was, as his friend Geoffrey Goodman says, “far better known as a fine journalist, and the biographer of Michael Foot, than the talented novelist he always craved to be”.

He turned down jobs at The Observer and Daily Express, preferring to work as a freelance reporter which left him time to write prose fiction. His non-fiction work includes Big Two (1962), a comparative study of America and Russia; Two Ears of Corn (1965), about the work of Oxfam; A Radical Life: The Biography of Megan Lloyd George (1991) and The Amazing Victorian: A Life of George Meredith (1999).

“When I was young, I was certain that the world would be socialist by 1950 at the latest,” he wrote in Chances: An Autobiography. “Now it’s 1987, I am no longer young and I’m left wondering what went wrong.”

Jeanne died in 1990. Mervyn is survived by their son and two daughters.

Chris McLaughlin