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The Coward’s Tale
What’s the story?
A boy, Laddy Merridew, is sent to live with his grandmother in a Welsh mining community, where he befriends the old town beggar, Ianto Jenkins, also known as the local coward. For the price of a toffee or two, Ianto will stand before the cinema steps and tell the stories of the local townsfolk, whose families live in the shadow of the Kindly Light pit disaster that, a generation before, robbed the town of men. Just as their history shapes his stories, so Ianto’s words inspire descendants of the lost colliers to listen and to finish the journeys started by their fathers.
It’s a story of community, and speaks to the part of us that knows when a neighbour is engulfed by birth or death, or when a wife wants more than warm bread. We’re taken beneath the surface, to the unrelenting loneliness of those who lost loved ones, or who are ostracised for reasons that are never substantiated. Only when all the stories have been told does anyone ask, why is Ianto Jenkins a coward?
THE COWARD’S TALE reminds me of other things I have read and loved. I don’t usually compare books, but the story’s told in a Welsh accent, is recounted by a narrator, and its chapters depict different townsfolk in turn; the parallels with Under Milk Wood are hard to ignore. The poetry hides deeper in the prose, though — so the accents, the nitty gritty of daily life, and the lyrical misery (lost babies, and marbles up a dead granny’s nose) call to mind Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.
Anyone brought up in Wales will hear the voice:
‘Yes Nance, look, Euclid says here that a line is a straight curve, and straight lines are infinite, unless they stop, of course…’
‘Good for Euclid. Jelly and condensed for afters?’
‘Did you know Marco Polo used condensed milk?’
‘On his jelly?’
And for those who have ever stared at Welsh skies, there’s the moment when Meggie Jones cleans the chapel window with tears and leaves:
And little Meggie Jones found not only her man under candlewax and dust, and not only flowers, oh no. Her leaves set free the birds from the Beacons… a merlin and its mate, tumbling in the grey sky. Crows catching the wind. A buzzard, heavy as her child, floating on the up-draught.’
It speaks for itself.
A chat with Vanessa Gebbie.
Vanessa, congratulations on writing such a beautiful book and thank you for sparing the time to talk.
Your book encompasses a whole town; there are enough characters to warrant a series of family trees, and the details are layered – the characters must have been growing for years. How does it feel to be published — do you miss them?
Yes, I do miss them, although I have the sense that they haven’t gone – they’ve just wandered off somewhere for a while. They are all very real – and are getting on with life somewhere, I’m sure of that. The town grew as I wrote, it appeared organically like a plant, very little if anything was planned in advance – and that was lovely. I love all my people – which is a good thing, as some of them will be wandering back in my direction for the next book.
I love the earthiness of the story, the communion between man and mountain shared by Ianto and the colliers; it’s something I really relate to (I grew up on the Welsh borders). Have you spent a lot of time in the mountains? Have you been down a mine?
Thank you, thank you! It’s lovely when someone really gets what I was doing. I’ve always wondered if everything is part of the same system – men and mountains all having their place, their role to play. The mountain is a real character in the novel – at least, it felt like that by the end. It had gone through a transformation itself – acted as setting, as catalyst, as provider, and when the disaster happens it is as dreadful for the earth as it is for the men.
Merthyr mountain gave me the mountain for the novel, I guess… although we used to call it Black Mountain in the family (to be confused with the other Black Mountains nearby… we do muddle things, don’t we!). Plenty of barefoot walking and playing as a kid, but with no conscious reason… Later, I was educated at the foot of Cader Idris in north Wales, used to gaze out of the window in lessons at its massive hunched shape looming over the Mawddach valley and the town of Dolgellau. Anam Cara writers’ retreat, where I go to write in Ireland, has at its back the Mishkish mountain range. Further along the peninsular is Allihies, with the bare mountains rising above it – and the mine buildings still there. Copper, in that case.
I met a wonderful lady at the retreat a few years back, a nun from near Oxford. I took her to the mines – both of us fascinated by the history of the place. She was off the following week to do a pilgrimage in bare feet. So we both took off our shoes and walked over the mountain, shoeless and giggling – but then the sensations took over. There was a real sense of walking on history, walking on something that was full of echoes as well as tunnels…
As part of an integrated whole, separate chapters focus on different families, almost as a series of short stories. Did you have to edit out any parts that you really loved?
Yes, I had built the whole novel, the rhythm of the structure, round the movement of a piece of Victorian machinery, a beam engine. I was far too attached to that machine – and had written it into Kindly Light pit – effectively transported a miners’ lift device called a man-engine, all the way from Cornwall to the Welsh valleys. It was one of the last radical cuts I did. I had been playing with the wording of an explanatory note – to say there were no man-engines in Wales, as far as I know – but this is fiction – blah blah. But in the end it was a fiction too far, if you like. It had served its purpose – guiding me structurally. Taking it out necessitated quite a bit of rewriting – and also I needed to know what a journey underground in a miners’ cage was like – so pottered up to Big Pit coal mining museum in Blaenavon, to find out. Good place – go!
Someone (sorry, can’t remember who) talks about a novel needing scaffolding as it is being built, much as a building does. We get attached to the scaffolding, and don’t necessarily recognise it as such. But scaffolding does need to be taken away when the time is right, or it spoils the completed building. End of sermon.
‘Kit’ (working title) – a sequel to The Coward’s Tale, and a sort of prequel, in one. Don’t hold your breath, it will take years!
Vanessa, thank you for dropping by and talking to us.
The blog tour is here,
Vanessa tweets as @VanessaGebbie, and
the book is here (Amazon).
[Images provided by interviewee.]