John Geraint on Writing “The Great Welsh Auntie Novel”

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Jean Geraint

Jean Geraint

If they’re lucky, TV producers like me work in exotic locations around the world.

In India and Israel, Fiji and France, Tanzania, Korea and Brazil, I have documented other people’s stories. It was a huge privilege.

And in The history of Wales along with Huw Edwards, I had the pleasure of directing the first comprehensive television history of our nation in a generation.

But, when I liquidated my production company, Green Bay, in 2018, there was another story I had to tell – a story even closer to home, a story so real to me that it couldn’t be told that… in fiction.

The Welsh Great Aunt Novel is to belong and be different in the 1974 Rhondda.

Extremely skinny 17 year old tries to grow taller. His life story has many similarities to mine.

But it is a work of fiction, not an autobiography.

Lots of things happen to Jac – my fictional (anti-)hero – never that happened to me.

Jac has a secret, a big secret that gets him in – and out of – trouble. And takes him on fantastic adventures. He’s going on a date!

More significant (and controversial), he invented rap. Improbably, he set in motion events that, two decades later, swung the outcome of the 1997 decentralization referendum.

He encounters a list of heroes from two millennia of Celtic history – everyone from King Arthur and Boudica to Charlotte Guest, Tommy Farr and Aneurin Bevan.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t “Magical Rhondda-ism” enough, he impresses Geoffrey Chaucer in class and writes a rock opera with Don McLean.

Tata

My title – The Welsh Great Aunt Novel – is a joke, a pun on the word ‘Auntie’. “Anti-novel” was a 1970s buzzword for going against the conventions you’d expect in a novel and telling the story in your weird way instead.

And an aunt – 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, although very few were actually parents of blood.

Jac knows enough to recognize that he is a hopeless romantic, obsessed with history and place – the place being the Rhondda, living history with mythical and real episodes like Churchill sending the troops to Tonypandy.

It is the Valley that gives Jac his education, but the school plays its part.

The novel is explicit that it is not a flyer for a return to the “good old high school days”. But there was something special about County Porth, a grammar dales of the 1970s that could deliver top class performances – on stage and on the rugby pitch – and send more pupils to a major Oxford university than Eton, Charterhouse or any of the elite fee-paying English forcing centres.

It was – quite literally – a better education than money could buy.

And when the boys’ school joined the girls’ school with a view to becoming comprehensive, as was the case for Jac’s sixth grade – and mine – it became an even more interesting place to learn. and more human.

Coal metropolis

Jac’s story is therefore linked to an intense circle of talented classmates. They love each other to pieces…and are desperately looking for ways to get back together.

In the terraces and gwlisthe cafes and clubs of their once mighty coal metropolis, they glimpse something beyond themselves that they can experience.

But – in its own unconventional way – this playful anti-novel is also about “The Novelist”: old boy Rhondda, now in her 60s, who features in her own story, struggling to put it on paper in 2022, questioning what he experienced and believed 50 years ago.

As a first-time writer, there was a lot to do.

A bullying subplot – something I experienced myself – was excruciating to write, even half a century later.

Another tricky real-life parallel was the father-son relationship.

Jac loves his dad dearly, but the central Christian truth of his dad’s life is something Jac just can’t bring himself to accept.

I started with the naïve and arrogant idea that, like James Joyce and the Dublin he depicts in UlyssesI could fashion an image so complete that if the Rhondda suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed from my book.

I had written 150,000 words before a wonderfully enlightening conversation with a friend – a brilliant historian and novelist, and the keenest editorial mind (he’s been to County Porth too!) – brought me to my senses. .

Joyce was a genius.

I’m not.

There was a lot editing to do!

swaggering humanity

But I couldn’t stop completely.

There’s still a lot about my linear city – a dozen miles from end to end, one Rhondda township flowing seamlessly into another, every available square foot built, colonized by an industrious, voracious, boastful humanity.

In 1974, it is a valley at the dawn of change. Rhondda was still cutting coal, her Union tradition still strong enough to challenge – and overthrow – a Conservative government, even willing to bring in the troops again to try and defeat a legal strike.

Thinking back to his upbringing in the valley, my “novelist” sums it up like this:

there was something passed on to us, offered to us, something that was still vital and tangible, a glimpse… during a brief season where we were in the right place at the right time, if not of a way of life, nor of a set of values ​​that humanity has always sought, at least of the phantom of an idea that it was not vain to hope for such a thing, and that the model had been traced in the very place where our young people live were playing.

The Welsh Great Aunt Novel is my love letter to Rhondda – Rhondda as she was, as she sometimes is, Rhondda as she always could and forever be.

Dr John Geraint is one of Wales’ most experienced documentary makers. The Welsh Great Aunt Novel is his literary debut.

Nation.Cymru will serialize exclusive excerpts from the book published by Cambria Books, starting next week and you can purchase a copy here or in good bookstores.


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