Black Parade – Jack Jones

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.

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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.

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Book of the Week – The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas

Bleak yet bursting with wit, this trilogy of novellas explores the dark underbelly of a Welsh mining community but don’t let the dark subject matter deter you! These three stories are fine examples of the dark humour that Gwyn Thomas weaves through the lives of his characters.

The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas, Parthian.

The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas, Parthian.

Bordering on Magic Realism, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Just as Carter explores the sinister side to well-known fairy-tales, Thomas depicts a mining community tarnished and exploited by the industry that has overwhelmed the less-than-green valleys. In the first novella the eponymous ‘Oscar’ takes on an allegorical role, an exploitative ‘hog’ who owns a mountain with a colliery tip. Thomas describes him as having a voice that has a ‘slow greasy feel’ and a ‘mind like another man’s rear’. The stories consider violence, death and revenge in an austere landscape, yet the characterisation of the inhabitants of these villages provides the humour.

As Elaine Morgan notes in her introduction to the Library of Wales edition of the book it is surprising that Gwyn Thomas ‘found anything to laugh about’ at all. He was born the last of twelve children in 1913 in the Rhondda Valley and lost his mother at a young age. Yet emerging from a childhood plagued by illness his work is brilliant at defining the absurdity felt by those living in a vibrant community disturbed by industrialisation. In his autobiography Thomas describes the Rhondda where ‘streets shoot upwards at angles that suggest a neurotic impulse to be getting away from something.’  Despite the cramped conditions the community was full of song, laughter and gossip – drama that the community thrived on.

As a local Gwyn Thomas shows the world the paradoxical experience of living in the twisted, neurotic and absurd environment that was the valleys in the 1940s. Thomas’ love affair with his stomping ground continued throughout his life – only happy when he was back in the Welsh valleys. The Dark Philosophers demonstrates the prowess of a true wordsmith. Verbal wit abounds in these richly idiomatic and colourful short stories.

Check out YouTube to witness first hand a witty writer who has quite a way with words.