Morning fog muffles the chimes of a country church bell as I reach the door of Vanessa Gebbie’s cosy, Sussex home. It’s just the kind of timeless, mystery-hugging weather found in her lyrical first novel The Coward's Tale. Set in a fictional Welsh town, it’s a book that sees days “cold as a sneer”, on which the breeze might flick idly through a newspaper before wrapping it carefully round the granite statue of a miner.
“Been there as long as anyone can remember, that statue,” she writes, “standing and dreaming in all weathers, eyes downcast as though he is deep in thought. When it rains, like today, water drips off his hair and off his chin in memory of colliers lost one September day down the pit called Kindly Light, although it was neither. Colliers whose names once lived for evermore until their plaque was unscrewed by the town lads and thrown in the lake up Cyfartha.” But when curious townfolk want to hear the history of the disaster, and how it echoes through generations of local families, they turn to the beggar Ianto Jenkins, who lives in the porch of Ebenezer Chapel, and will tell his tales in exchange for a bag of toffees.
Astute readers will find the 12 apostles in the characters he describes. “The issues they have are all based on images and ideas we have attached to these blokes,” Gebbie says. “Although there’s nothing religious about it – it’s all mythology, legend and stained glass windows.”
Gebbie – who began writing fiction seriously in her early 50s – had received critical acclaim for her short stories before beginning this book. But it was The Daily Telegraph’s 2007 “Novel in a Year” competition that gave her the confidence to try something longer. She already had a thousand words of a story about two little boys trying to crush a penny beneath the wheels of a train when “a friend rang to tell me about the competition. It was the last day for entries and I thought ‘what the hell’.”
Selected as one of the five winners, she was pleased by the validation. “Looking back,” she says, “the voice was odd. It was the first time I had let myself go with rhythms and sounds. I think ‘opaque’ was a word the judging panel used. But they were intrigued and that’s all you need.” Her "Novel in a Year" ended up taking five to complete.
Although a “snobby school” drummed the accent from her speech, Gebbie was raised in Wales and her prose has retained a hypnotic lilt, swaying with phrases like “there’s lovely”. “My parents both came from Merthyr Tydfil, from families involved in generations of coal mining, ironworking and the railways. It was in the blood, if you like, although I was adopted. I absorbed the family history like a sponge. When I started work on this book, my mother had already died and I knew my father was dying – that was an impetus. There are snippets of stories he used to tell me about when he was a boy. About how, during the depression, he went out with his dad to steal coal from the drift mines on the other side of the valley and wheeled it back through the streets in his younger brother’s pram, covered in blankets.”
“I wrote the whole thing for my dad,” she says, “but that went out the window with his dementia because he wasn’t going to understand or hear anything. He died earlier this year.” I say it’s a shame he was unable to read the finished book. “Yeah,” she nods. “I can’t really look that one in the eye. But he was a good age.”
Many of the book’s characters don’t reach such good ages. “I’m very good at killing children in my short stories too,” admits Gebbie. “Maybe that’s something to do with being adopted. But taking my father to visit his family plots, I was struck by the number of children buried there. And those were just the ones from families wealthy enough for marked stones. My grandfather, or maybe it was his father (these things get confused), went down the mine at the age of seven. His first job was holding open the gates for the ponies, quite often in complete darkness. He had a candle, but it would go out with the draft. These children were in darkness forever and ever. That's what I was drawing on when I was creating Ianto Jenkins’ backstory – he was a child when he went down that mine and he was scared. He was ‘the coward’.”
Gebbie went underground herself. “I visited Big Pit, in Blaenavon one dank, early autumn. I was quite apprehensive, channelling Ianto, I guess. I loved the image of men going down, standing, into the dark. And perhaps you can see that in the novel ... that we go from the light right down into the depths of the backstory and then up into the light of some sort of resolution. My head was full of imagined noise from men and machines. It was easy to imagine the smell back then, there was nowhere for the men to relieve themselves except where they worked. The horses, sweat. Machinery, perhaps, and the coal. Coal has a scent, earthy, and dust, of course. I was able to feel the mass above me, and see the weight of rock pressing the semi-circular tunnels out of shape. And I felt how brave are the men who worked in those places, and still do. Although some aspects of the novel are quite romantic, I was always very determined not to romanticise the pit or the accident. “
When Gebbie started work, mining was far from the national consciousness. Then came the Chilean disaster and the tragedy at Gleision. “I finished the final edit as the Chilean miners were coming up, so that was great. But the worst thing was the Welsh colliery disaster in September... just awful... the same month as my fictional accident. I think a lot of people didn’t know that British mining was still going on. Or that if it was it was all safe and mechanised, that it’s only in third-world countries that anything nasty can happen."
Patting her novel with affection as she talks, Gebbie is understandably proud of her achievement and “delighted” by an early review describing it as “the legitimate offspring of Dylan Thomas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez”: “mostly because it sets off this impish image in my head of the two of them rough and tumbling”. As a writer, Gebbie says she had “been told ‘no’ in spades. I was told I wouldn’t get published over 50. That nobody wanted short stories. I had so many negatives chucked at me. But that was a spur. And it should be a spur for anyone else who feels that what they’re doing has a life of its own. This character, Ianto Jenkins, just came under the study door and took over. It was wonderful. And, if it never happens again, I shall be eternally grateful.”