A pleasure to join the blog tour today for The Homeless Heart-throb by Crystal Jeans, published on 1st August by Honno Welsh Women’s Press, and available in paperback and for kindle. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation, and the ongoing support.
I always try to read and review every new book from Honno – they’re a publisher I respect greatly – but this was a rare one I just couldn’t fit into my reading list. And that was a real shame, given my Cardiff roots – and I was fascinated (and impressed) to read that Crystal’s The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize in 2017, and Light Switches Are My Kryptonite won the 2018 award for Wales Book of the Year. Let’s take a closer look at her latest…
Alternately hilarious, shocking and sad, Crystal Jeans’ latest novel is set in Cardiff. But perhaps not the Cardiff the urban planners and WAG mavens would use in their shiny advertising campaigns.
Each chapter is narrated by different characters linked by the street on which most of them live and the appearance in them all (to greater or lesser extent) of the title character the alcoholic vagrant who for one of the neighbours is an unusual subject of desire. Set in various homes, streets and parks, and a nearby care home for the demented elderly the story lines are darkly humorous and occasionally rude and crude – up front portrayals of people on the frontline of urban poverty, disenfranchisement, drug culture and unappreciated but essential work lives.
Lit up with authentic characters and appealing voices, and the full gamut of human relationships platonic, romantic and sexual this is an unputdownable journey into the underside of contemporary Wales.
So no review – but a delight to welcome Crystal to Being Anne with a stunning guest post. Should I warn you about the language, maybe? No, if this book doesn’t look like one for you, I suspect you might not have read this far…
I lived on Banastre Avenue for almost twenty years and I never knew how to pronounce it. I would make the same tired joke every time I told someone my address: ‘Ba-nah-stree if you’re posh, Banister if you’re common.’ It’s a small terraced street lined with cherry blossom trees and rowans, branching off from Whitchurch Road, which used to be where small, ill-conceived businesses came to die but now flourishes with wanky eateries boasting exposed brick walls.
One day I googled ‘Banastre’. The first name that came up was Sir Banastre Tarleton, a British general who led armies in the American Revolutionary Wars. His nickname was The Bloody Ban or the Butcher because of his reputation for cruelty and bloodshed.
I rejected the other contenders on Wikipedia (all barons and knights and high sherriffs and politicians). This was the Banastre for me. Having your street named after a bloody warlord was more interesting, I thought, than an MP from Lancashire. And so I named the fictional-ish street in The Homeless Heart-throb Tarleton Avenue and decided to name all the surrounding streets after obscure tyrants and dictators. Why not make things fun for myself?
I was raised on a council estate in Mynachdy which sits within Gabalfa. A stream called Nant-Gwaedlyd that flows from Whitchurch apparently got lost in the Glamorganshire Canal in Gabalfa. I don’t know what this means. Did the stream come to Gabalfa to die?
Nant-Gwaedlyd means Bloody Brook, after an 11th century battle between the Welsh and the Normans. Gabalfa, derived from Ceubalfa, means, literally, Place of the boat. Mynachdy means monastery. As a child, I would imagine grey, silent monks floating past the semi-detached houses in my street, clutching scrolls and parchments, their feet not touching the ground.
In high school, I discovered that the small lane that ran behind our bike sheds (between Gelligaer Street and New Zealand Road) was known, during WII, as BURMA Road – Be Undressed and Ready My Angel – because it’s where the local prostitutes would meet the American GIs stationed at Maindy Barracks. And so I would pass through this lane and imagine women with victory rolls and Winter coats, on their knees, sucking the dicks of chisel-jawed men who said things like, Gee Whizz.
I always tell people who ask me about the Cardiff settings of my books that it was an arbitrary decision. ‘It could just as easily be set in Hull for all I care,’ I say. I don’t like being asked about the Welshness of my books and I don’t like to be categorised as a Welsh writer. I just want to be a writer.
I did a reading at a literary festival in Leeds last year alongside another Cardiff writer in which the theme was ‘Tales of Independence and Belonging: New Writers from Wales’ and only three people showed up. Who gives a fuck? I thought. I’m Welsh and even I don’t give a fuck. Would I attend a seminar about the cultural identity of people from Leeds? No. Unless there were free drinks.
I have moments of bashful patriotism (especially during the Six Nations) and have to remind myself that, as Bill Hicks once said (to paraphrase), a place of one’s beginnings is merely the place where one’s parents fucked. So why are my books set in Cardiff? Is the decision really so arbitrary?
When, in The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise, I write about the character based on my mother chasing a woman up Mynachdy Road (called Maindy Road in the book) with her Pitbulls leading the attack, I don’t just see my mother, or the woman she was (rightly) terrorising, I see the wide pavements dotted with old grey bubblegum and post-war council houses of red brick and pebbledash. When, in Light Switches are my Kryptonite, Sylvester visits Cathays Cemetery, I am there too, sitting on the lumpy grass under sycamore trees getting drunk with my girlfriend. I love that cemetery so much (despite having none of my dead buried there) that I revisit it in The Homeless Heart-throb. Pam sits before a grave, eating Jaffa Cakes, and I am there once more, this time taking naff gothy photos of my best friend for an A-level photography project, his boyband face cheek to cheek with a carved angel.
I don’t need to be there. I have an imagination and I enjoy using it. But the streets of my youth – of my life – run in my blood. I harbour fragments of my ancestor’s DNA – these ancestors might still float, footless and monklike, along the same streets in which I played Mob Mob and Spin the Bottle (though, realistically speaking, they are just as likely to be found traversing Pontardawe and Tipperary). I was here before I was here. This has everything and nothing to do with my Welshness. You could say the bloody brook runs through me.
Crystal, thank you – and if you find yourself at that Leeds literary festival again, I’ll be there in the front row…
About the author
Crystal Jeans was born and brought up in Cardiff. She lived in Bristol before doing first a Creative Writing BA then an MPhil at the University of Glamorgan. She works in a care home, which inspired a collection of poetry about dementia (Mulfran Press). She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2010), had poetry published by Seren Press, and two short stories published by New Welsh Review.