The Library of Wales collection published by Parthian has played an essential part in revitalising and recovering lesser known Welsh Writing in English authors. Originally published in 1935, Jack Jones’s Black Parade is a book in the collection that belongs to a time when Anglophone Welsh Writers really came into their own. Jack Jones’s novel about the acute industrialisation of the south Wales valleys is particularly refreshing due to his lack of literary background or training. Born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1884, he left school at the age of twelve to become a miner. He served in the First World War and was politically active in the Communist, Labour and Liberal parties.
Black Parade by Jack Jones
Jack Jones may have been politically active, however Black Parade is not as polemical as Lewis Jones’s Cwmardy – two books which make an interesting comparison. Jack Jones’s novel portrays the effects of capitalism, industrialisation and the shifting politics of Wales at turn of the century by conveying the human cost of these radical times. The novel revolves around family, but it is the matriarch Saran who Jones makes the centre of his novel. Black Parade documents the arrival of modernity in the form of industrialisation and capitalism and the registers the effects it has on Saran and her family. Saran’s is a large family and Jones’s depicts the Welsh Mam with her brood of sons, each of them sent down to the coal mines as soon as they are old enough: ‘As soon as they were twelve she’d have them out of the old school and down the pit with their father, have them where they would do something to help to keep the others.’ Education is forfeited in order to bring money into the home.
The novel tackles the issue of the complex relationship between husband and wife and the strict gender stereotypes in turn of the century Merthyr. Saran is a bold character who, when her husband Glyn stands her up one evening when they are courting, enters a male-only taproom where she throws a bag of oranges and nuts in his face. It is the character of Saran that that reader really gets to know throughout the story. She changes from a young girl to grandmother during a novel that spans over thirty years.
The nonconformist religion of the valleys is another theme which also encompasses the novel. Jones documents the terror instilled in the Welsh people through parades and sermons. Jones uses the character of Saran’s brother Harry to comment on nonconformist religion. Harry is a notorious fighter and a raging alcoholic who is ‘saved’ after losing his leg. His sudden and dramatic adoption of Christian values brings to life the revivals that took place during South Wales at this time.
Many novels have been written about the South Wales valley, particularly during this era of complete domestic, social, economic and political change. What makes Black Parade quite unique is Jack Jones’s own experience of life in Merthyr Tydfil – he is a writer who has lived through and experienced much of what he writes about in this novel.
Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise
The Reading Wales book group met on Wednesday evening to discuss Rachel Trezise’s award-winning collection of short stories Fresh Apples. After discussing Margiad Evans’s Country Dance in April, Palas Print owner Eirian James suggested a modern text. Eirian had read and loved the collection of stories when they were first published in 2005 and admitted that although she could not remember all of the stories there were certain images created by Tresize that had stuck in her mind over the past eight years. This was a quality of the stories that a lot of the group could identify with. Those of us who read short stories regularly agreed that it is usually imagery (in this case chickens, bubble-gum and train tracks) rather than plot lines we remember when it comes to short stories.
Some group members found Trezise’s subject matter of drug and child abuse challenging and would have preferred the stories to explore a wider range of issues. Some found the dark humour laugh out loud funny whilst others would have liked more hopeful outcomes for some of the characters. I suggested it would be interesting to read one of Rachel’s novels where the character development and the length of the text might provide more humour and further insight into character’s lives.
It was Rachel’s setting of the valleys that provoked the most conversation in the group. As a North Walian with no experience of the South Wales Valleys it is interesting to see how the place can divide opinion. One reader suggested the main character of Rachel’s stories are the valleys themselves – in the same way that the border country characterised Margiad Evans’s novella. However, we also agreed that the stories are not limited to South Wales – they could represent any post-industrial landscape. For me, the most interesting thing about the stories is how they represent a community that has changed very little in a post-industrial era. The dark humour and marginal characters reminded me of Gwyn Thomas’s depictions of the valleys – proving the issues at the heart of people’s lives have not changed over the twentieth century. This does not mean that life is always bleak but it does highlight the importance of community in these parts of South Wales. This was best summed up in my favourite story ‘Chickens’ which beautifully depicts the unique relationship between a young girl Chelle and her Grandad. It is these carefully drawn relationships between family and friends that we particularly appreciated as a group.
We all felt that the best is still yet to come from this young Welsh writer. One member wondered what Trezise’s future work might explore now that she has documented her experiences of the valleys. We also agreed that it would be interesting to read her latest collection of short stories Cosmic Latte, in order to see how her work has progressed over the last few years.
For many, Caradoc Evans’ infamous collection of short stories My People (published in 1915) is considered the first example of Welsh Writing in English. It was this controversial work that led the Welsh press to name him ‘the best hated man in Wales’.
However, there are a variety of writers, many of them women, who were writing from and about Wales in the nineteenth century. I came across the novelists and short story writers Anne Beale and Allen Raine in Jane Aaron’s collection of Short Stories A View Across the Valley. Anne Beale (1815-1900) was born in Somerset but settled in Llandeilo in 1841. She published at least five novels and a collection of short stories titled ‘Stories and Traits of the Welsh Peasantry’, published in 1849 – nearly 30 years before Caradoc Evans was born! She had a successful career and is seen as the predecessor to the more well-known Allen Raine.
Anne Adaliza Evans (1836-1908) adopted the masculine pseudonym Allen Raine when she embarked upon an extremely successful career as a novelist, selling over 2 millions books in her lifetime. She was brought up in Newcastle Emlyn but it was her holidays in Cardiganshire that inspired most of her work.
Both Beale’s and Raine’s work has not been well regarded in the past as many critics have denounced their images of Wild Wales and their romantic love story plots. However, more recently their work has been taken more seriously and even considered as the first instances of Welsh Writing in English. Thanks to Welsh publisher Honno Allen Raine’s work is now becoming more accessible. Raine’s novel The Welsh Witch has recently been republished by the press that specialize in Welsh women’s fiction- I thoroughly recommend it!