Part one: The Great Welsh Auntie Novel by John Geraint
Election Night, February 1974. On a Rhondda bus stop, surrounded by ghosts of the Tonypandy Riots, a painfully thin 17-year-old makes a vow that will change the course of history. Well, of his story, anyway…
With delusions of grandeur and a romantic obsession with the Rhondda’s past, Jac has a Secret, a Big Secret, which gets him into – and out of – trouble, and sets him off on a roller coaster ride up and down the Valley, while the fate of the nation is decided.
Richly comic and keenly intelligent, heartfelt and ironic, fizzing with wit and allusion, documentary maker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s seriously playful approach to the past succeeds in questioning – and arguing with – all our assumptions about the place and the period it conjures up.
Nation.Cymru is delighted to publish the first in an exclusive series of extracts from Great Welsh Auntie Novel along with readings by the author.
Tonypandy Square is the best place to begin. Pandy Square. The Hub of the Universe. The Still Point in the Turning World. Because everybody knows this is where Winston Churchill personally commandeered an army sub-machine gun and sprayed metal death into a crowd of defenceless Rhondda miners.
That’s how Jac’s Auntie always told him the story anyway.
Blue murder. Bodies in the street. Plebiscite.
Plebicide, she meant. Massacring the masses. Putting down the People’s Uprising of 1910. Or Riots, as the Tories insisted on calling them. Tonypandemonium it was, according to them.
But it was them who caused it. The Tories. And Winston bloody Churchill.
Churchill. There was blood on his hands alright.
Even if, when Jac looked into it properly for that History essay he’d done, it turned out it wasn’t Churchill who’d done the actual shooting. That there may not have been much shooting. Or any at all.
But Churchill did send the troops here, that’s a dead cert. There are photos that prove it. Actual photographic evidence. In black-and-white.
It was true. Ranks of soldiers, bayonets fixed. The Lancashire Fusiliers and the 18th Hussars. They’d stayed all winter long. Broken the strike.
Butchered the dreams of 12,000 mid-Rhondda miners.
Starved them back to work, their families Hungry as L, as their banners proclaimed.
Killing the kids to force their fathers back to the coalface. You couldn’t deny that.
Though of course the Tories did. And were still denying it, all these years later.
Dispute the past
Well, it all comes down to what you believe in the end, if you want to ask me, Jac reckoned. Arguing about the past – that wasn’t something he’d picked up from a term-and-a-half in the Sixth Form with History’s Most Eccentric History Teacher (he was actually a Dictator. A Great Dictator, as we’ll see, but a Dictator nonetheless).
The impulse, the necessity, the fact that you had to argue about history was something Jac had learned through seventeen years of being brought up in this Valley.
Rhondda people had a duty to dispute the past.
And it went without saying that if conventional wisdom was pro any given historical interpretation, then his Auntie, being his Auntie, would be anti.
Yes, thought Jac proudly, he’d always known this.
And always known that Tonypandy Square was the nub of it all.
In the gloom of the evening, his eyes were fixed on the corner by the chemist’s. A façade that looked just the same now, in 1974, as it had in 1910.
Nothing lasts except permanence, as his Auntie would say.
Beyond it, silhouetted by the lights of the Pandy Inn, stood a gang of Greasers. A modern-day riotous assembly.
One of them, Jac thought, looked like James Taylor. James Taylor from Penmaesglas. Not the peace-loving American folk-rocker, famous for Sweet Baby James.
No, this was the James Taylor who’d taunted and bullied Jac ever since they’d been in Hendrecafn Junior School together.
Though come to think of it, Jac’s classmate, with his shoulder-length black hair parted in the centre, bore a highly misleading resemblance by now to his transatlantic namesake.
The Rhondda version was no hippie, though, no peacenik, no Cowboy Jesus – more Penygraig Pinochet. Or Tonypandy Torquemada.
No, that wasn’t quite right, either. Jac would have to find the phrase, the apposite phrase. And store it up to share with Martyn.
Now that he really looked at them, Jac recognised some of the others on the threshold of the Pandy Inn, by reputation and nickname, if not personal acquaintance.
MauMau, Parrot, Rat, Dodo…
A couple of years older than him and James Taylor; proper men – drops-outs or labourers. More like Hell’s Angels than Greasers, thought Jac. Though he wasn’t totally sure of the difference. Was it just the motorbikes?
Either way, two years ago – six months, if he was honest – they’d have terrified him.
He’d have been cowed by their leather jackets and tattoos, by the fug of woodbines (and reefers?) that hung around them, the crackle of untapped violence. And by his own history of humiliation in the face of physical aggression.
Now, though, he knew better: he understood them as products of the counter-culture. Their anger just needed to be focused on a more organised way of breaking the straitjacket of The System. They were his Brothers.
Even so, Jac was relieved that, thirty yards away, they were safely beyond the range of eye contact.
To the left of them, on a far corner of the Square, diagonally opposite the Picturedrome, a side road curved upwards, squeezing past the ramparts of the Naval Club.
From there, hemmed in on both sides by terraced houses, it began its implausible ascent to the plateau of Blaenclydach, before somehow hauling itself up, at angles challenging the perpendicular again, to Clydach Vale beyond.
Jac couldn’t actually see any of this from where he stood at the bus stop on the main Valley thoroughfare. But his inward eye pictured the precise degree of every slope and scarp. Like everyone here, he had a natural aptitude for Geometry. History was just a bonus.
Sixes and sevens
Up that hill, up Court Street hill, lived honey-haired Lydia Peake.
Any moment now, she and Petra Griffiths would come sashaying round the corner by the chemist’s, just in time to catch the bus to Treorchy with him.
They’d have tottered down Court Street, winter-coated against the wind, all dolled up underneath in their party frocks.
This might be Election Day, but nothing – not the ghost of Winston Churchill, not the Three-Day Week, not even a revolutionary watershed in history – nothing could stop a Rhondda eighteenth birthday party.
Lydia and Petra. An odd pairing.
Lydia, a whole school year ahead of Petra and Jac, measured, even-tempered, a serious student who’d read a lot; and Petra, one of the self-styled Bad Girls of the B Form, who’d only got her act together through acting.
But they’d have spent the day with each other, talking. Talking, talking, talking. What did girls talk about? It was a mystery. The need to talk. As though nothing had ever really happened unless it was talked about afterwards.
Then, prompted by Petra, they’d have spent the last hour picking out exactly what to wear. Nothing too showy, outfits that were just right, of the moment.
Both of them, nevertheless, dressed to impress. Done up to the nines. They’d have the boys at sixes and sevens. Especially by the time they’d had one over the eight…
Twpsyn, Jac scolded himself. Stop it.
This word play, this child’s play, had to be … not extirpated, but reined in. Jac could hear his father’s voice admonishing him: When I was a child, I spake as a child…
No wonder he’d got called names, from his earliest years in grammar school. The Catchphrase Kid (he had an endless stock of them).
The WordMadWelshMadManiac (unlike Martyn, unlike almost everyone, he’d dropped French and chosen Cymraeg in Form Three).
The Prince of Repetition (the same ‘joke’ or inane pun, recycled over and over, just occasionally given a slight, new twist). The Prince of Repetition (the same ‘joke’… no, no, you’ve just done that one).
Weight of history
But it was 1974 now and he was in the Sixth Form. O levels to A levels – the biggest jump of all, Dad had warned him. Comparatively, moving on to university was pappish.
Not that Dad had actually gone to university (Caerleon was a college, a Teacher Training College back then, just after the War, the one that Churchill got his glory from.
Dad had avoided National Service too – he was a conchie, a conscientious objector, but on religious, not political grounds).
From what Jac had experienced so far, his father was right: for the first time, schoolwork was a stretch. A struggle. But struggle was good. It would help him attain the higher plane of seriousness, the gravitas he associated with Martyn.
Help him, even if he couldn’t accept his father’s faith, to abide by the wisdom of the Biblical exhortation his father was always impressing on him: when I became a man, I put away childish things.
And Tonypandy Square was the best place to begin. Here. Now, on this last day of February. Polling Day, Election Day.
With the weight of history pressing all around. And the prospect of a new chapter in the long march of progress starting before another day dawned.
Jac didn’t want to miss the frisson of Petra and Lydia’s arrival, that first glimpse of them rounding the corner (and Catherine – Catherine might be with them too, despite… Forget that, she won’t be).
But he sensed the larger weight of the moment. He knew he ought to fix it, this time, this place, this whole scene in his mind. Its historic significance.
He turned away from the Greasers (or Hell’s Angels?) to look back down De Winton Street, down the Valley, beyond the Public Library, down the main road’s gently sloping tarmac.
Li-bury and Tar-mark were the sounds in his head. An ‘r’ missing from one, added to the other. That was how he’d always said them, like most people here: it wasn’t long since he’d realised that not everyone in the world did.
In the distance, opposite the derelict Theatre Royal, framed by the corroded black railway bridge that crossed high above the street much closer to him, a young woman was hurrying up the hill. That bridge, perched on stone pillars at a crazy slant, carried the disused Cambrian Colliery branch-line up from the Valley floor and onto the Pwll-yr-Hebog Incline.
13 in 1 it was, the Pwll-yr-Hebog, according to his Auntie, who habitually got such ratios the wrong way round. Though sometimes, climbing up it, you suspected she might be right.
The woman emerged from under the bridge. Early twenties, red-haired, tall. No-one Jac knew. Smart-looking, though, a Burberry wrapped tightly around her.
A photographer might make a striking image of it, another piece of black-and-white evidence: a cross-hatch of tilted lines running across the frame and away from the lens. The woman’s figure picked out in shadow and streetlight, a cold sheen on the tarmac of the carriageway.
Tar-mark. Click, click, click.
Give the print a name, and it would sell in one of those trendy galleries down Cardiff: ‘Election Night’; or ‘After the Coal Rush’, perhaps, but that was already such a cliché.
Jac turned back towards the Square. For all his sense of destiny unfolding, Jac had to admit some disappointment. He’d expected more. More than the red posters on show in windows everywhere. He wanted noisy crowds occupying public spaces. Torches aflame. Revolution in the air.
He could quote – that History essay again – a London newspaper account from 1910: the ‘oppressive atmosphere’ up and down these mid-Rhondda streets was ‘like something experienced in Odessa and Sevastopol during the unrest in Russia.’
Jac was primed for the anger of the people to be revealed, for a manifestation like that (decent pun, he thought, bilingual – Martyn, on track for a stellar result in A level French, would approve). But perhaps it was just too cold tonight.
Cold? Bitter. I don’t mind if I do.
Grow up, Jac, you silly boy.
Shivering, he leant forward, fingering the icy metal stanchions. Bus-stop barriers, buckled with age, erected decades ago by Rhondda Transport to corral its impatient passengers.
Unruly lot, Valleys people, left to their own devices.
Given to Uprisings.
But there was no queue on this wintry evening. He was waiting alone. At least until Lydia and Petra got there. Yet he couldn’t help feeling agitated.
Now was the hour. The Party. The Girls. The Vote. All of it coming together. And tomorrow, March 1st, St. David’s Day. The start of a Glorious Welsh Spring.
But the world was slow to turn. Still no bus, no girls.
Though, now, directly across the road, out of Melardi’s café, came half-a-dozen men who could only be miners.
They spilled onto the pavement just as the Redhead in the Burberry reached the same spot. She veered into the roadway to avoid them.
“Take care, lovely girl!”
That was one of the miners, his hair parted roughly to one side, trying his luck.
“Fancy a coffee, cariad?”
The woman didn’t break her stride.
“Next time, then!” shrugged the collier.
Jac thought he saw the ghost of a smile play across her lips.
Was it as easy as that? Could you ask someone out, as casually, as crudely as that? With no special coaching? And no worries about the outcome, no shame in being rebuffed?
Jac studied the colliers in wonder.
They stood there, having a whiff before heading on – where?
If they hadn’t been on strike, they’d have been waiting there outside the Bracchi’s, the Italian café, with their tommy-boxes, for the night-shift bus down to Coedely or Lewis Merthyr. Survivors of the Cambrian. Or transferees from a dozen other Rhondda pits, all shut now.
But tonight: tonight, they were free to go and drink wherever they pleased. At least as far and as much as their pockets would stretch to.
No… tonight, they’d be heading off to the Strike Committee Meeting. The Lodge Chairman would stir them up with a little speech.
About making sacrifices and making history. About the iniquity of the army being used against them once more – to shift coal stocks, to man the power stations.
Yes, they’d called in the troops again, just like November 1910.
Something had moved back then, something had shifted.
At precisely that moment. Human nature had changed, here, on Tonypandy Square. And something was moving now. That struggle was coming to its culmination, sixty-four years later, on these same Rhondda streets.
How extraordinary that they’d foreseen all this – those perfectly ordinary men who’d written that pamphlet in the sour aftermath of 1910.
The Miners’ Next Step. Jac had looked it up. In the Li-bury. It predicted precisely the nature of the confrontation that had rocked Britain in these last few months.
Well, Jac made a prediction of his own: in fifty years’ time again, the WJEC would be setting exam questions about it.
“Compare and contrast 7th November 1910 and 28th February 1974 as moments of pivotal change in the creation of a socialist Wales and explain what links these dates.” The WJEC. The Welsh Joint Education Committee.
Soon, much sooner than half-a-century, its exams would determine the futures of Jac and all his friends. Mind you, his Auntie had always been under the impression that it was a Cannabis Awareness Programme.
Jac looked around. At the missing crowds. He stamped his feet against the cold. And the slowness of waiting.
If Catherine had been coming too, he wouldn’t have minded. Catherine, Catherine, Catherine…
He tried to distract himself by picturing the scene from above, the way he dreamt about it sometimes.
A camera swooping over the pavements and the Picturedrome, the roofs of the shops and the cafés and the pubs… and there he would be, Jac himself, in the middle of it all, a painfully thin and restless seventeen-year-old standing alone, closer to the Colliers than the Greasers, yet knowing that he was part of neither gang, and never would be.
But now – Praise Ye the Lord! as his Father would say – he did have something to belong to, a group who’d come together so quickly, with such intensity, that they’d already formed a bond that would never be broken.
Never. Never ever. Never ever, Trevor Evans…
Clang. Another of his catchphrases.
Jac made a conscious effort to stop the burble of words that kept springing unbidden to his mind. To look out, not in.
Even at this last gasp of winter, the early evening hour was dark.
Their faces were in shadow, those colliers across the road: half-turned away, talking intently. Snatches of argument drifted across the gloom, difficult to catch, easy to reconstruct all the same.
Something about winning the strike? Dominating the battle, getting on top? In the way they stood together, Jac saw the determination that would bring down Heath’s Government.
He could picture them as the leaders of those earlier, epic campaigns. 1910. 1921. 1926. Yes, there they were, with him now today, born again in 1974!
Jac suddenly recognised them as the heroes his Auntie had told him about. William Mainwaring, Arthur Horner, A. J. Cook and… Vernon Hartshorn, was it? Stalwarts of the South Wales Miners’ Federation from decades past.
The very leaders who’d argued that you couldn’t trust leaders, who’d written that ‘no man was ever good enough, brave enough, or strong enough, to have such power at his disposal, as real leadership implies.’
And the collier facing him, Jac realised, the one who’d accosted the Redhead, a questioning scowl on his face now, he must be Noah Ablett, the true Prophet-Author of The Miners’ Next Step.
Well, Noah, boy, this time your prophecy will come to pass.
The Hard Rain will fall.
The Flood will rise.
Tonight, this February night – Jac felt it in his bones, shivering there on the bus stop – the Mighty would fall.
It would be through the ballot box, fair enough: the Tories ousted, Wilson in. But it would be a Revolution all the same.
And it would be those miners across the road who’d done it, those miners trying to decide on their next step.
By tomorrow, they’d have brought down the British Government, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Eat your heart out, Winston Churchill.
So there and then, on that cold bus stop – why not? why not here? why not now? – he resolved to make a commitment, one fitting of the moment.
A solemn vow, a promise to himself, to Jac Morgan, but sworn before a great cloud of witnesses, before all those who’d passed this way, all those who’d traversed Pandy Square, who’d been part of the struggle here, from 1910 on.
He all but raised his right hand and spoke the words out loud.
In the end, he settled for laying his palm against the bus-stop barrier-rail – the arctic chill reassured him that this was for real.
Then, silently, he took his vow.
To grow up.
And to ask Catherine out.
Just then, Noah Ablett stepped away from the lights of the Bracchi’s to shoot a rhetorical flourish over his shoulder towards the rest of the Unofficial Reform Committee: “Call himself a left-winger?”
Ablett hawked noisily from the depths of his chest, and spat, before barking out a final damning judgement: “The bugger couldn’t side-step a pit prop!”
He marched away, leaving a thick gobbet of yellow phlegm sitting proud in the shining gutter.
We’ll have another exclusive extract next week.
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