John Geraint on writing ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’
If they’re lucky, TV producers like me get to work in exotic locations the world over.
In India and lsrael, Fiji and France, Tanzania, Korea and Brazil, I’ve documented other people’s stories. It was an immense privilege.
And in The Story Of Wales with Huw Edwards, I had the thrill of directing the first comprehensive TV history of our nation for a generation.
But, when I wound up my production company, Green Bay, in 2018, there was another story I needed to tell – a story even closer to home, so story so real to me that it could only be told… in fiction.
The Great Welsh Auntie Novel is about belonging and being different in the Rhondda of 1974.
A painfully thin 17-year-old is trying to grow up. His life-story bears lots of similarities to my own.
But it’s a work of fiction, not an autobiography.
Much that happens to Jac – my fictional (anti-)hero – never happened to me.
Jac has a Secret, a Big Secret which gets him into – and out of – trouble. And leads him into fantastic adventures. He gets to go on a date!
More significantly (and controversially), he invents rap music. Improbably, he sets in train events which, two decades later, swing the result of the 1997 Devolution Referendum.
He meets a roll-call of heroes from two millennia of Celtic history – everyone from King Arthur and Boudica to Charlotte Guest, Tommy Farr and Aneurin Bevan.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough ‘Magical Rhondda-ism’, he impresses Geoffrey Chaucer in class, and writes a rock-opera with Don McLean.
My title – The Great Welsh Auntie Novel – is a joke, a pun on the word ‘Auntie’. ‘Anti-novel’ was a fashionable 1970s term for going against the conventions you expect in a novel and telling the story in your own weird way instead.
And an Auntie – well, we all know what they are in the Valleys, because if you were brought up like me (and Jac), you probably had at least fifty of them, even if very few were actually blood relatives.
Jac is knowing enough to recognise that he’s a hopeless romantic, obsessed with history and place – the place being the Rhondda, the history alive with mythical, true-life episodes like Churchill sending the troops to Tonypandy.
It’s the Valley that gives Jac his education, but school plays its part.
The novel is explicit that it isn’t a prospectus for a return to the ‘good old days of Grammar Schools’. But there was something special about Porth County, a 1970s Valleys Grammar that could deliver high-class performances – on stage and the rugby field – and send more pupils to a top Oxford college than Eton, Charterhouse or any elite fee-paying English forcing-house.
It was – literally – an education better than money could buy.
And when the Boys’ School joined the Girls’ in the run-up to going Comprehensive, as it did for Jac’s Sixth Form years – and mine – it became an even more interesting, more fully human place to learn.
So Jac’s story is bound up with an intense circle of talented schoolfriends. They love each other to bits… and are desperate for ways to put themselves back together again.
In the terraces and gwlis, cafés and clubs of their once-mighty coal metropolis, they catch a glimpse of something beyond themselves that they can live by.
But – in its unconventional way – this playful anti-novel is also about ‘The Novelist’: the old Rhondda boy, now in his sixties, who figures in his own story, struggling to get it down on paper in 2022, questioning what he experienced and believed 50 years ago.
As a first-time writer, it was a lot to grapple with.
A sub-plot of bullying – something I experienced myself – was excruciating to write about, even half-a-century on.
Another delicate real-life parallel was the father-son relationship.
Jac loves his Dad wholeheartedly, but the central Christian Truth of his father’s life is something Jac simply can’t bring himself to accept.
I started with the naïve, arrogant notion that, like James Joyce and the Dublin he portrays in Ulysses, I could fashion a picture so complete that if the Rhondda suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.
I’d written 150,000 words before a wonderfully clarifying conversation with a friend – a brilliant historian and novelist, and the sharpest editorial mind (he went to Porth County, too!) – brought me to my senses.
Joyce was a genius.
There was much editing to do!
But I couldn’t stop myself entirely.
There’s still a great deal about my Linear City – a dozen miles end-to-end, one Rhondda township flowing seamlessly into another, every available square foot built on, colonised by industrious, voracious, swaggering humanity.
In 1974, it’s a Valley on the cusp of change. Rhondda was still cutting coal, its Union tradition still muscular enough to challenge – and topple – a Tory Government, even one willing to bring in the troops again to try to defeat a lawful Strike.
Looking back on his Valley upbringing, my ‘Novelist’ puts it like this:
“there was something handed down to us, gifted to us, something that was still vital and tangible, a glimpse…for one brief season when we were in the right place at the right time, if not of a way of living, nor a set of values that humanity has always been searching for, then at least of the ghost of an idea that it wasn’t futile to hope for such a thing, and that the pattern for it had been laid down in the very place where our young lives were being played out.”
The Great Welsh Auntie Novel is my love-letter to the Rhondda – Rhondda as it was, as it sometimes is, Rhondda as it always and forever could yet be.
Dr John Geraint is one of Wales’ most experienced documentary film-makers. The Great Welsh Auntie Novel is his literary debut.
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