The Welsh Great Aunt Novel by John Geraint

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Pithead Cloud, Photos by Rob Summerhill Photography

Nation.Cymru is thrilled to release the fourth part of documentary filmmaker-turned-novelist John Geraint’s seriously playful work.”Great Welsh Aunt Novel” accompanied by a reading by the author.

Jean Geraint

So far we have followed Jac, 17, on a bus trip down the Rhondda on election night in February 1974; and hear about the lives, loves, and scruples of his classmates, “The Society Of Friends.” Now there is a sudden change in weather and tone…

The problem with what I’ve written so far is that it reads too much like a novel.

It’s a novel, I know it, and you know it.

But for the next two hundred pages – if I ever get that far – we have to pretend it’s not.

That it’s not a tale of characters invented in a fictionalized version of the Valleys in the 1970s; not that, but rather a window into the real world, a direct and truthful rendering of the lives and struggles of some real people – what they really thought, what they really did, how they really felt.

It’s the strange pact we made with this novel, as we do with all novels; me as a writer, you as a reader.

We know it’s a constructed narrative: contrived, fabricated, a well-crafted escape from the world we live in.

But we have to pretend to forget that, so that it feels natural, flowing in random, unresolved directions like our daily experience.

I mean, when was the last time you noticed ground from real life?

And the problem is, if this reads like a standard work of fiction – which, if I may be honest, is entirely how my editor is trying to push it – then it’s just Wrong.

Fleeting days

Look, it’s an autobiographical initiation novel: the story of a band of intense and brilliant teenagers, burning with idealism, learning to deal with realism.

How they lose a whole world and gain their own soul (or will it be the other way around?).

How for a brief season they found themselves in the right place at the right time, and felt those fleeting days… well, if not a way of life, not quite a set of values ​​close to what humanity has always had sought, then at least the phantom of an idea that it was not vain to hope for such a thing, or that the model of it might not have once been traced here, in the very place where their stories were beginning.

But if this fiction succeeds even slightly in persuading you that it really happened that way; if, through my effort to trace events from a dark and distant past, to find and shape a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying narrative structure; if by any part thereof it becomes convincing… so it’s just peddling a lie, tricking you into thinking it was as neat, as contained, as clear as that.

Because the truth is, coming of age takes a lifetime.

The change, the growth, the character development that is necessary for any story (at least my editor insists) has never happened so quickly, so unambiguously, or in the way I am asked to write it here.

It didn’t really happen even now, as I write all of this, half a century later.


This story of a sensitive young boy growing up is actually written by a hypersensitive boy who never grew up, who still needs to be reminded that it’s not all about him, who clings stubbornly in defiance of all evidence to a view of the hopelessly starry-eyed Rhondda, a close-up of his small world as it has never been, and certainly is not now, Oes Aur a fu, na fu erioed, a golden age that never really happened.

So the better it is in writing, the more it reads like one of those perfectly banal, perfectly structured romances where everything is resolved just before the end of the penultimate chapter, the less useful it will have to say about reality. the story it purports to tell, and deeper will be its failure as an act of telling the truth.

That’s the big picture.

Getting the writing to work at a granular level also involves disappointments.

Compromise. Omissions.

Making it readable involves throwing so much into what these characters have been through, a myriad of seemingly unimportant details that yet color their way of thinking.

Take these sentences from the chapter you just read, where ‘Jac’ imagines ‘moving with the tide of history, ready and willing to break upon the mole of this police line…’.

It’s a bit squished anyway, but that maritime metaphor that comes to mind from a coalfield boy might have struck you a little odd.

Would he have actually known and used the word “mole” to designate a dyke?

What if I told you that a hundred yards from the old Scotch colliery on Llwynypia Road is Rhondda Sea Cadet Headquarters? Sea Cadets? In the Rhondda?

Improbable, but true (we will come back to the principle of improbability later; probably).

And what about The Onedin lineseries 3, episode 13, which “Jac” would have seen on BBC1 just a month before, “mole” is used in this precise sense no less than seven times.

More goes into writing a novel than you might think, and a lot more gets left out.

There are no great writers, just great editors (or so my editor says).

Foresight against nature

There is another pitfall inherent in writing about the past.

Less important, but perhaps more annoying: the temptation to credit my protagonist with unnatural foresight, the gift of prophecy.

Consider again how the last chapter ended… “Why should fame be the domain of the naturally gifted? One day, maybe soon, music will become more democratic and virtuosity will matter less.

Such a precise and prescient description of punk and how it turned the world upside down.

Oh good? Did anyone in the Rhondda in 1974 see Johnny Rotten and his Pistols coming?

Not me. Nor any of my friends.

So it’s a pretty cheap trick to suggest that ‘Jac’ did it.


Now that you’ve been warned, you’ll now be on the lookout for such tricks: don’t trust me any more than you would trust an ad that appears on your Facebook News Feed.

It may be worth remembering, however, before you get upset, that when it comes to ‘Jac’ and his friends, you are blessed – or cursed – with an astonishing degree of unnatural foresight.

You know precisely how their world will evolve.

Not in the small details of their lives, but certainly in what really matters: in the kind of politics and society that will emerge in the decades they have yet to see unfold, in what will become of the hopes and dreams they cherish in their youthful idealism.

You know Thatcherism and AIDS, the miners’ strike of 1984-5, the fall of the wall and the Gulf wars, personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, climate change, Covid, Putin.

So please give them – and me – a little slack: in their naive eyes, you are possessed of divine foreknowledge.

Photos by Rob Summerhill Photography


And, if my publisher will allow me to clarify for a moment before continuing, I will mention one last difficulty I have in writing this novel: it is so wet.

Buckets and stair rods, dogs and cats, showers, torrents, downpours: Rhondda’s rain is biblical.

It’s a miracle there isn’t After people here baptized Noah.

Rocking, swarming, bombing, pissing – you could write a book about it.

If you could stay dry long enough.

And that’s what this book is, I suppose: the wettest novel ever recorded.

Makes The Wuthering Heights read like one of those Mediterranean beach romances that “Jac” imagined his “aunt” must be absorbed in, all those times she kept quiet about him.

Now, in everything but her reading habits, this “auntie” – whom you have not really met yet – was a remarkable woman (or rather, as we shall see, fifty-one remarkable women. and a man).

But her role in this coming-of-age story, insofar as it’s a coming-of-age story, never has anything to do with what I’ll suggest shortly.

I don’t mess with precipitation…

The Welsh Great Aunt Novel by John Geraint is published by Cambria Books and you can buy a copy here or in good bookstores.

You can find previous excerpts here. We’ll have another exclusive clip next week.

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