Jon Gower reviews Black Parade, the 1935 novel by Merthyr writer Jack Jones, jam-packed with action and intriguing characters.
If one of the basic compulsions, and indeed propulsions of narrative is setting and answering the basic question ‘What next?’ then the Merthyr novelist Jack Jones lines up his what nexts like so many dominoes. His 1935 novel Black Parade is, like his other works, simply jam-packed with incident and event, from strikes to the explosions at Senghenydd, from violent boxing bouts to the darkening shadows of war. There is, quite literally, never a dull moment and that forward propulsion is like being sucked into a jet stream. Buckle up, strap in and enjoy the ride!
It would be tempting to describe the novel’s central character as a towering figure, except that the formidable matriarch, Saran – short for Sarah Ann – may have great strength and the sort of iron resolve so befitting a pulsating foundry town like Merthyr, but she goes about her business without the least puff of fuss. It was originally Jones’s intention to call the novel Saran, not least because she is named for the writer’s mother, and shares with her a capacity for seemingly endless matriarchal love.
We first encounter her when she is working in the brickyards that were so much a part of the Victorian industrial infrastructure, and her hands, even at an early age, show plentiful evidence of wear and tear.
She lives on the wrong side of the (tram) tracks, in a slum set on the edge of the suppurating Morlais Brook, in a town that could surpass most others when it came to cramming people into unsanitary and dangerous living spaces. There are places so desperate even the desperate try their best to avoid going there. Marriage to the collier Glyn allows Saran to leave her job, but he’s a drunken sot at the beginning of their marriage and nothing changes in that regard during the decades of their marital life together. But there is an escape route for the illiterate woman, and that is escape into the world of theatre, or ‘threeatre’ as she persists in calling it. Art comforts her, even as it tastes of forbidden fruit:
She had once paid eighteenpence to have the pleasure of being present at the Temperance Hall when Hermann Vezin played Hamlet. How she loved the play she could tell nobody, neither could she tell anyone how she hated the chilly atmosphere of the ‘front of house’, where she alone wore a shawl and was unable to read. Vezin’s voice she long remembered, as she did the looks directed her way from different parts of the house. Yet after the freezing she had on that occasion, she stood up to the same supercilious crowd when she went to hear an opera performed by the first of the opera companies to visit the town.
Throughout her life Saran enjoys the visiting plays and players, right up the time when the new-fangled pictures come to supplant them, even if around her life is itself an opera, a veritable soap opera shot through with tests and tragedy, tribulations and pretty much quotidian trials. Saran has children and then grandchildren and has to face the torments of being the mother of soldiers, and coal miners, always in dread of news of death or maiming accident.
While Saran’s husband Glyn works hard and drinks hard, her brother Harry does the same but without the work. Harry is a fighting man, who loses his leg when he’s run over. He then finds God and then becomes a right pain when visiting the drinking clinics he used to frequent, touting his home-spun evangelism whilst spurning the grog.
Black Parade is the historical novel cast as gripping saga, a page turner and a half. There are the real life events, such as the election of Keir Hardie as the local MP, and the artillery noises-off of faraway battles. But the true sense of history is there in the telling detail, the sort of stuff that a novelist who first went to work underground at the age of twelve would know. There is a vital and vibrant authenticity to the descriptions of events underground, the knowledge of what one needs to do if a man is trapped under a fall, or what hearing that five o’clock hooter in the morning does to a shift-weary man. But it is also in tune to the domestic, familial rhythms of Saran’s life, as she tends to the complicated needs of her extended and constantly extending family, as new children are born and need to be clothed and fed.
The novel isn’t just fuelled by a supercharged plot, but also populated by a briskly drawn cast of characters, such as the pub entertainer and balladeer Twm Steppwr, always ready to conjure up a party for the price of a few pints.
And there is one character who is present throughout but claims much less attention than Saran, namely the town of Merthyr itself, with its social mobilities, taking people down as well as up, even as the rival attractions of house of God versus public house slug it out. It is a place with a huge working class, but also a choleric underclass.
Jack Jones brings it all, and I mean all, to pulsing, chaotic and ambitious life, with its new institutions such as the Town Hall and its many theatres, its hospital and public parks, all helping to shore up an evolving sense of civic pride. Its townspeople can still feel exceedingly proud of the writings of one of the town’s, and indeed Wales’s, most compelling writers, able to show life in all its toughness and tenderness and all the myriad shades in between.
Jon Gower is an author and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.