The Welsh Great Aunt Novel by John Geraint
Nation.Cymru is delighted to publish Part Seven of documentary filmmaker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s “Great Welsh Auntie Novel”, complete with a reading by the author.
Jac, 17, has sworn to grow up and ask Catherine out. As he bussed up the Rhondda on election night, February 1974, we heard about his chapel upbringing and his romantic obsessions with Welsh history and radical coalfield politics. But now there is another change in time and tone…
So that was the Rhondda in the 1970s, right? Full of lefties, evangelicals and teenagers who reveled in their industrial history and knew their Pwyll Pendefig Dyfeds from their Ifor Haels?
I hear howls of protest from almost everyone I grew up with.
Their Valley has never been so political, never so dominated by chapels, never so obsessed with its own past.
never if Welshcome to this.
How can I disagree?
I’ve already admitted to being what my editor calls an unreliable narrator.
Clearly, I am making up some of this. That’s what novelists do.
(Confession: In Chapter 3, explaining where ‘Jac’ got the word ‘mole’ for a dyke from, I made up this piece on The Onedin line script; even if the series has been on, and it figures, incidentally, later in this story. For the avoidance of doubt, Rhondda Sea Cadets do exist and are headquartered on Llwynypia Road).
Many of my classmates, far from loving the Rhondda to the point of wanting their “stories” to continue to take root here, were eager to leave.
Those who remained were hardly as sentimental about their birthplace as ‘Jac’.
Why would they?
Heaps of black rubble on all horizons. A black river of coal dust, still, despite the intricate seams of the Black Diamond. Rotten housing stock. Empty and rotten places of worship. Abandonment throughout the store. Everywhere in stores. Unemployment. Delinquency. Drugs.
As for working-class solidarity, many “tidy” people – those who saved and saved to make ends meet; the chapel people too – tended to blame those worse more than themselves, rather than those who had more.
“Scroungers” and “wasters” were singled out far more often than fat cats and absentee owners.
When things got a little easier, we became as rapaciously consumerist as any other part of Britain.
The people of Rhondda loved treats, style, and the finer things in life when they could afford them (and even if they couldn’t). And who will blame them?
Nothing is too good for the working class, as Nye Bevan would have said. But the working-class culture that had created the miners’ social centers and libraries, the co-operatives, the non-conformist self-governing chapels – that culture had faltered, if not completely collapsed.
My friends’ parents watched Dick Emery and did Football Pools. Nothing distinctly Welsh or ‘woke’ about it.
The radical struggle of the Depression was the struggle of a bygone era: there is an unimaginable eternity where the world was incredibly different.
1910 and The next step of the miners was further away again.
A few of us had the privilege of doing an A level with a teacher who recognized that history is more than a list of kings and queens (English). But, even then, our own history was an option taught for a term or two, not fundamental to our education.
So how could we have formulated a coherent analysis, a fortiori anarcho-syndicalist?
Rhondda’s “red” past cast its shadow in the 1970s, that’s true.
When I first voted as an 18-year-old idealist, it was for communist veteran Annie Powell – and she topped the poll in Penygraig, becoming mayor of Rhondda.
(The first draft of this novel had a lovely section on ‘Jac’ and his friendship with Mrs. Powell, with stories of his teaching Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau to Nikita Khrushchev during a visit to Moscow. My editor insisted that I cut it: it was to researchapparently not narrative. ‘To research’! As if I had to to research something i would do lived.)
Evolution not revolution
But in 1974 Rhondda voters overwhelmingly supported Labor, not the Communists; their socialism, to quote one of Rhondda’s most prominent – and today most discredited – parliamentarians, owed more to Methodism than to Marx.
Instinctively, like George Thomas, Viscount Tonypandy, former Speaker of the House of Commons, they sought change through parliamentary democracy, however leftist their beliefs.
Evolution not revolution.
So, I have to admit that ‘Jac’ is far from representative.
His experience of evangelism is extreme (more of that later).
His interest in the Welsh language and Welsh history made him an eccentric at that time and place.
And as for his flirtations with revolutionary politics – his aunt would have told him not to be so twp, then di-doreth.
She was one of those (or rather, as we will see, fifty-two of those) who sided with Rhondda’s preference for constitutional reform, as opposed to activism aimed at overthrowing the system.
She would have explained it to him with a gnomic juxtaposition, one of her nonsensical sayings of Rhondda which is perhaps deeper than it seems.
“In a collision… well, there you are”, she reportedly declaimed, pausing dramatically with a resigned, open flourish. “In an explosion… where are you?” »
The weight of the world
But if, in addition to being hopelessly naive, ‘Jac’ seems far too learned for his age (and my editor says he does), there are several reasons for that.
The first concerns this aunt, who gives him access to a vast reservoir of experiences. Trust me (no, really): there’s more to come.
The second is mine. I don’t want to separate “Jac” and his understanding – even though I was a good enough writer to do so – from the lessons I learned long after my school years.
Things about belief, about doubt, about history.
Things I’m still learning, about myself, about life.
Things, mostly, I’m just hitting rock bottom as I write this now.
Defining, developing, embracing this learning is the subject of this novel.
Pinning it all on a teenager might be clumsy, absurd, cruel even, unrealistic, I grant you – but I can’t paint a useful picture of what the Rhondda was like at the time, what it meant to me, of what it might mean to us again, unless I load ‘Jac’ with at least a little of what I know now.
Stuck on a bus, carrying the weight of the world and eager for all this learning to begin.
And for Catherine too.
You can find previous excerpts here. We’ll have another exclusive clip next week.
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