Nan knew

“I want you to read this,” said my grandmother Evelyn Munn (1899-1978), handing me a dauntingly thick, well-thumbed hardback book.  I was 13, a shy, sly, lazy boy mainly preoccupied with John Toshack, Tamla Motown and the Scouts.   “It’s important you read it dear,” Nanny Munn continued, noticing my pained expression, “it will tell you what you need to know.”  So it was that I began reading the book that would spawn my interest in Cardiff: River out of Eden by Jack Jones (1884-1970).

I loved it.  It introduced me to a Cardiff far removed from the dull, conventional suburbia I was beginning to rebel against.  Here was an exciting, exotic place of passion, of big ideas, of danger; a coal-blackened urban labyrinth of grimy alleys and hardship; a salt-sprayed port umbilically connected to the beckoning seas; a vivid, urgent town that mattered.  The plot passed me by; it was Jones’s grandstanding, discursive descriptions of Victorian Cardiff’s rumbling underbelly that kept me going right to the end of the 700-page door-stop.  A seed was sown, I raised my gaze from the cracks in the pavement and began looking at my home town straight between the eyes – a process that continues to this day.  Jack Jones, an unapologetic pre-modernist, would deplore the cut of my jib and recoil from my, cough, writing; but he might be gratified that, in the 21st century, there’s at least one person still surfing the far ripples of his work.   And, in my tendency to go on and on for far too long, he might also recognise his stylistic influence!

Jones in 1951 by the banks of the Taff, his ‘River out of Eden’

In his ultimately thwarted life Merthyr-born Jones made an amazing journey from boy coalminer to first president of Yr Academi Gymreig’s English-language section (now called Literature Wales), taking in army service in South Africa, India and the Western Front trenches of WW1, political activism, acting work and years of unemployment along the way.  His political allegiances shifted inexorably rightwards, going from Communist, via Labour, Liberal, Mosley’s Black Shirts and Tory to end up as an old man spouting the reductive religious fundamentalism of the Moral Rearmament movement, the midwife of the far-right evangelical Christianity that today controls the US Republican party.  His writing career was equally erratic and disenchanting.  Peaking in 1938 with his gripping magnum opus Bidden to the Feast, his later works steadily declined in quality, authenticity and relevance.

Jones had moved to Rhiwbina in 1928, then Cardiff’s progressive, radical enclave, but by the time he wrote River out of Eden, published in 1951, he was in his Tory phase and his writing was suffering as a consequence – creativity and conservatism being incompatible by definition.   In the book (the title, used again in 1995 by über-atheist Richard Dawkins for a pop-science bestseller about evolution, was lifted from the well-known passage in Genesis: “…and a river went out of Eden to water the garden…”) he ambitiously aimed for nothing less than the ultimate Cardiff historical novel, following the rags-to-riches saga of the Irish/Welsh Regan clan across four generations through Cardiff’s coal epoch.  Nobody before had tried to synthesise the city through fiction (and few have attempted it since – hmm, I feel another book coming on) so Jones at the time had the field all to himself.  Cardiffians of my grandmother’s era snapped it up and, for a generation or so, it was essential reading on every Cardiff bookshelf.  But the novel’s manifold failings meant it couldn’t stand the test of time.  The soapy melodrama, the corny sentimentality, the wise-after-the-event fatalism, the meretricious portrayal of the 2nd Marquis as bountiful benefactor driven to an early grave by sheer saintliness, the stilted prose, the tangled, expository wedges of wooden dialogue and the inordinate length all added up to a difficult and unsatisfying read.  It was deemed to have no credibility as history and little worth as literature; its reputation nosedived along with Jones’s.  After his death there was one last reprint, when it was humiliatingly abridged and reclassified as a children’s book, before it slipped from memory as the target readership followed Jack Jones to the great remainder bin in the sky.   I mislaid my grandmother’s copy during some house-move years ago.

But over the last decade or so post-devolution Wales has started to develop a body of literary criticism assured and autonomous enough to reappraise and celebrate Wales’ many neglected and forgotten authors.  Jack Jones’ reputation is on the rise again, and deservedly so because, making allowances for the dodgy politics and archaic syntax of his time, his best early works are brilliant and evocative, crammed with nuanced characterisations and never hidebound by the Welsh stereotypes prevalent in his day yet always shot through with unequivocal Welshness, while his abiding themes of class conflict and environmental destruction make him highly topical again and his stylistic quirks, far from being clunky and didactic, can now be enjoyed as dense, absorbing and even Dickensian.  It turns out my Nan’s critical antennae were right all along.

In 2009 the Rhys Davies Trust and Literature Wales unveiled a plaque* honouring Jack Jones in Rhiwbina library (Pen-y-Dre), where he toiled for years researching his works, and in the same year his first novel Black Parade (1935) was reprinted by Parthian. I’d love to see his entire, unexpurgated back catalogue reissued and even get the e-book treatment.  It would be worth buying a Kindle just to read Off to Philadelphia in the Morning (1947) on the bendy bus down to the Bay.

Obtainable second-hand online or, with some difficulty, on loan from Cardiff libraries (they’ve only got a couple of copies of the 1951 original, and one of them is frequently in my custody these days), River out of Eden remains a second-rate Jones effort – but I still love it.  It reads just as Jones intended in 1951: a comforting pot-boiler of Good Old Days nostalgia to reassure Cardiffians in shock and denial at the city’s drastic early-20th century decline.  A few years later Wales would come to Cardiff’s rescue by making it the capital; the long process of demythologising the past and creating a future could begin.  Cardiff didn’t need stranded Victoriana in the Space Age; but the wheels have turned full circle and now his sweeping, lip-smacking saga can be relished on its own terms.  It’s on my bedside table again for these winter nights, cocooning me through the long wait for dawn.

In his disillusioned dotage Jack Jones came to believe that we’re all going to hell in a handcart.  But he was a patriotic Welshman, the one constant in his turbulent life, and if he were alive today I think he’d be on the side of the angels, supporting the Welsh struggle for actualisation, for a path out of his hell and on to some other Eden.

* One of nearly 30 Writers’ Plaques erected around Wales so far, and the 5th in Cardiff – the other four being: Roald Dahl (1916-1990), Roald Dahl Plass; Glyn Jones (1905-1995), Manor Way; John Ormond (1923-1990), Conway Road; John Tripp (1927-1986), Whitchurch library.
Picture: Geoff Charles/National Library of Wales