Tidy: introducing the fiction of John Sam Jones & his selected stories Kiss & Tell
I first encountered the stories of John Sam Jones in my first few months of living in Cardiff. I’d been out and proud while studying at Dartington College, a leftfield art school in rural Devon, but moving to the city was my first real experience of a ‘gay scene’.
Before then, my interaction with queer culture was limited to films and books. I read William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as a precocious, wide-eyed 14-year-old, and at sixteen watched Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane in my bedroom on a black and white portable TV. Channel 4’s adaptation of Tales of the City sent me to Armistead Maupin’s charming page turners, while Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet and the documentary based on it changed the way I would watch Ben Hur forever.
Many of the books were by American writers, the novels telling stories set on the other side of the world or in the recent past. What I was missing was a sense of myself on the page. I was a working-class kid from the valleys, and I fancied boys; there wasn’t anyone like me in anything I read.
Over those first few months in the city, I went to bars and clubs and met lots of new friends, some of whom were involved in the arts. While working on a film script that never became a film the producer gave me a copy of the recently published Welsh Boys Too; the cover a sepia image of a man’s bare chest and shoulder in close-up, the tip of a Roman-type sword pressed against his flesh.
Here were stories of the gay boys of Wales, the index of titles accompanied by character names like Dyfan, Rhodri and Gethin. For someone who had gone to art school pronouncing ‘year’, ‘here’, ‘hear’ and ‘ear’ exactly the same, it was refreshing, and though some of those stories were about the difficulties of coming out in the era of AIDS and Section 28 there were also gleeful tales of sex, romance and acceptance.
Re-reading them after twenty years I felt an almost Proustian rush seeing a mention of the gay travel guide Spartacus, which once graced the coffee tables of more affluent friends and the shelves of Waterstones’ ‘Lesbian & Gay’ section, becoming a digital-only publication in 2017. Other stories are a reminder of how far we’ve come. If we were to set them in the present day, some of the characters living with their ‘special friends’ might now be living with husbands or long-term partners or boyfriends, without the need for euphemisms.
I first read them around the time I came out to my immediate family, which I can only describe as a beautiful anti-climax. I’d been prepared for them to cut me off, to banish me from ever darkening their doorstep again. To my pleasant surprise my parents said they already knew, and my then-teenage brother said, ‘Tidy.’
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I grew up in a place where gay men were ridiculed and despised in everyday speech, even by the occasional schoolteacher. When I was outed in my last year it began months of insults, culminating in one changing room fight and a later punch in the face from a complete stranger. In reading these stories from our recent past we can only hope things in Wales have changed – and continue to change – for the better.
In that sense, these stories are unavoidably of their time, but read with all this hindsight what struck me is how fresh they feel. In Sharks on the Bedroom Floor we’re reminded of the slate industry’s historic ties to slave plantations in the Caribbean, a point that resonates in the age of Black Lives Matter and the downing of statues. The theme of family recurs throughout, and the domestic scenes are beautifully observed, even when things are almost unbearable, as in The Wedding Invitation, its protagonist Seth experiencing the opposite of Hiraeth. I am fairly confident that whatever your age, you will recognise relatives, friends and maybe even lovers in these pages.
In many stories Welsh identity is as important a theme as sexuality. Characters to-and-fro between north Wales and the cities of northwest England, each hinting at something more than simply ‘home’, ‘freedom’ or ‘escape’. Others return from further afield, like California’s Bodega Bay, or are bound for the continent, to Etienne and the Ligurian coast.
Another motif I noticed while rereading these stories was that of myths, legends and storytelling. A gay uncle’s reading of Prince Caspian turns a bedroom carpet into shark infested waters. Elsewhere there are references to the Mabinogion, while Fishboys of Vernazza adds a strange and sexy slice of magic realism to the mix.
Language and landscape run through this collection like an interwoven thread. Language – English, Cymraeg, and even Castellano – can be a means to keep secrets, or the way in which a secret is discovered, and Jones has fun throwing mono- and bilingual characters into a room, with all the tender intimacies and interpersonal conflicts that ensue.
Though many of the stories are rooted in north Wales, these are also tales of arrival and departure and the journey in between. For every small-town boy there is a proud gay man striding across the world stage, but it’s when describing the Welsh landscape that the writing truly soars. The descriptions of Ynys Enlli and the Llŷn Peninsula in particular make many of these stories a precursor to the more recent phenomenon of queer nature and travel writing, as embodied in books by Mike Parker, Luke Turner and Philip Hoare.
Historically much of gay life happened behind closed doors or in the shadows. It wasn’t until the second half of the last century that queer pubs and clubs became a common enough sight in larger towns and cities, and meetings between gay men were, by necessity, often furtive and illicit. In making their presence felt, the characters you’ll meet here are often outdoors, swimming and hiking and travelling along country lanes, or simply basking and frolicking in the sunshine.
For John Sam Jones, the fictional journeys embarked upon by his characters have often been a reflection of his own peripatetic life. In the 1980s he lived in California, and more recently, in Brexit’s aftermath, he left Wales for Germany with his German husband. It’s therefore appropriate and timely that this collection of his short stories accompanies an autobiography, and that its title is The Journey is Home.
David Llewellyn is a novelist and script writer based in Cardiff. His most recent novel, A Simple Scale (Seren) was shortlisted for the Polari Prize.
John Sam Jones was born in Barmouth on the north-west coast of Wales in 1956. After secondary school at Ysgol Ardudwy in Harlech he went on to study biology at Aberystwyth University, and then theology as a World Council of Churches Scholar in Berkeley, California. He realised he was gay as a teenager at the beginning of the 1970s and began his life-long coming out at the age of eighteen.
His collection of short stories – Welsh Boys Too – was an Honor Book winner in the American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards. His second collection was the acclaimed Fishboys of Vernazza, which was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year. He has also published two novels With Angels and Furies and Crawling Through Thorns. He published a memoir The Journey is Home, Notes from a Life on the Edge in 2021 which also appeared in Welsh, translated by Sian Northey, as Y Daith Ydi Adra, Stori Gŵr ar y Ffin.
After working in ministry, education and public health for more than thirty years, John lives with his husband in a small German village a stone’s throw from the Dutch border.
Kiss and Tell by John Sam Jones is in bookshops now and is available direct from Parthian here
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