Review: The Journey is Home is elegantly woven together, enormously readable and engaging
“We were both moved very deeply by the warmth and sincerity of the joy expressed by those who gathered to be with us. For me, the evidence of their love and acceptance on that day healed so many of the wounds inflicted by decades of scorn and rejection.”
John Sam Jones recalls his partnership celebration in early 2006, soon after it became possible in the UK. He evokes the sense of solidarity and commitment so strongly, much as I remember it from my own ceremony just a month earlier. My partnership, unlike his long marriage, has not survived, but I am still sustained by the joy so many people showed that a gay or lesbian couple could at last openly commit to their relationship. It was indeed a long-awaited moment of healing after the epidemic, the strains of section 28 and, for so many of us, profound family severance.
Jones’ memory of that day is characteristic of this memoir. His glasses are tinted with both the brown of humility and an understated, determined rainbow-pride. The title commits him to joy in the moment, to a continuous becoming. Yet he conveys a robust ability to establish an ‘angle of repose’ – the steepest slope at which a material or soil is stable – to hold firm while complexities swirl about him.
His mother’s confusion, the deep betrayals of Brexit with the concomitant rise of both homophobia and xenophobia, their departure for Germany and another slow familial loss: all these transitions are lovingly portrayed. His capacity to stay firm in the midst of upheaval is explicitly underpinned by the earlier experiences of assault and loathing – along with skills burnished in ministering and administering public health through the AIDS crisis.
The stories he tells, from the 1970s right up to 2020, are elegantly woven together and show such grace to be hard-won. The chapel-boy of Barmouth, struggling to read yet fluent in two languages, cannot conceive of a happy life sexually bound up with other men. An ill-chosen book scares (but does not stop) him over ‘self-abuse’. Worse, after fumblings in the toilets on the prom, he is foully raped by an older tourist. Throw in family disgust and Biblical predictions, and it is little wonder that at 18 he voluntarily underwent shock-based aversion therapy. It is more surprising to read that he took himself off to Berkeley, that hotbed of sin, for a post-graduate degree in theology. There, he finds for the first time, a place where he can be open and even happy in his homosexuality, a golden land where the churches themselves welcome him in.
But this is the early 1980s. Rumours float of a nasty new disease. Nobody understands how it is spread, but it disfigures and destroys. It loves men who have sex with men (some of whom call themselves gay) and others who exchange blood or semen.
Jones becomes an expert in this epidemic. Beyond the buddying and the funerals so many of us recall, he is a man who thinks carefully and with evidence about public health. The book closes in April 2020. I wonder how far he has watched our failures in the following months and thought about communication and trust. How can we all learn to influence, to change, our own most intimate behaviours to protect ourselves and those around us? If the AIDS epidemic taught us anything, it was that persuasion works better than fear, and that you must never stop spreading the word.
One of the delights of the book, especially given Christianity features so large, is Jones’ moral honesty alongside his refusal to judge other people. He castigates himself for not speaking out when he re-encounters the man who abused him in the name of therapy, when surely even breathing the same air was hard work. And he has nothing but love for the hedonistic, pre-epidemic life which was dying even as he found it.
In order to reach a new place of rest, another angle of repose there must be a journey, some change which shifts the inner material and generates turbid currents within the soul. This is very much a book of journeys. Some, criss-crossing the Atlantic, the European jaunts or even the upheaval of establishing a B&B in Barmouth, are glossed over. Jones is obviously not a man bothered by practicalities. Or perhaps he is, but has not chosen to delay us with such pettiness here.
Instead, we follow his inner progress and peregrinations, particularly in his spiritual life. Prayer itself, in language and in faith, is a passage of its own, moving from the formulas of childhood to a faith he describes as mature as his grey hair. The role of liturgy and chant, owned and made by the worshippers themselves yet creating a form of praise greater than the sum of the parts is important to him: I have rarely seen their consolations and limitations so clearly described.
For anyone living in Wales, whether they speak Cymraeg or not, language is a central fact. Jones is no exception and his struggles with German highlight the jump he has made to maintain both his Welshness and his European freedoms. Almost in passing we learn how precise about language he is in his everyday life; to his own surprise he speaks of Christ in the faces of sex workers when challenged by a particularly bombastic priest. And his defence of his mother, poorly treated by her care-home staff, is precise and demanding. His care with words is shown on every page of a book which, despite some harrowing content, is enormously readable and engaging.
You will have gathered that I am only a few years younger than Jones and, as a lesbian I have lived through some of the same experiences. It is always both strange and pleasurable to see elements of your own life caught up and reflected in a broader history and to discover some of its lessons teased out in new ways. But even if you are decades younger, and not lesbian or gay, there is great value in this book. I found much tranquillity, amusement and love in its pages.
The Journey is Home is published by Parthian and can be purchased here.