Pip Prop had probably the longest pre–publication history of all of Harry Jones’ books – and one of the most ‘colourful’. It already existed as at 22 February 1965, according to a letter from the BBC in which the Corporation suggested that Jones send it to an agent. Presumably, Jones had sent the manuscript to the BBC in the hope of having it accepted as a radio play or television drama.
Jones didn’t take the BBC’s advice straight away and first submitted the manuscript direct to William Heinemann, which company rejected it on 12 April 1965. Eventually Jones submitted the manuscript to his agency, Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown advised Jones on 28 June that it had been rejected by Muller, but that they were going to try Jarrolds. Jarrolds presumably also said no and the agency returned the manuscript on 28 November. Jones then submitted it direct to John Hale, asking if they would like to publish it under his real name of Harry Jones so as to distinguish it from his western–affiliated non de plume. Hale rejected Pit Prop and Jones put it on a back–burner until retirement gave him some time to devote to writing and wrangling with publishers.
A year later, in October 1966, came the Aberfan Disaster, so perhaps it was all to the good that the book was not accepted the first time around. The speed at which the publishing world works would have seen the book scheduled for publication at just about the time of the disaster, in which case either publication would have been abandoned or, had publication gone ahead, the book would have been viewed as sick opportunism. There is such a thing as bad publicity, no matter what people say.
In 1980, now that he was being published by John Hale, Jones asked again if the company would like to see both Pit Prop and a new book, Chartist’s Revenge. Jones sent the manuscript for Pit Prop on 18 August. (He sent Chartist’s Revenge to Hale 9 October 1981. It was rejected based on current market requirements, though acknowledged to be of publishable standard. Burnham Priory will publish Chartist’s Revenge just as soon as the manuscript comes to light.)
Now the fun started. On 10 December, Hale rejected Pit Prop based on the ‘fact’ that “…descriptions of Welsh scenery do not ring true and a Welsh reader had pointed out some inaccuracies and also a lack of Welsh words.” This was basically a red rag to a bull! Jones responded on 17 December, the week long hiatus caused, perhaps, by having to calm down enough to put pen to paper without one or other object – or the author – spontaneously combusting.
Jones pointed out, to start with, that Monmouthshire, where the novel is set, was completely English speaking at the time in question and that you were far more likely to hear West Country or Irish words than Welsh, what with the influx of non–local workers to satisfy labour demands.
He refuted other suggestions of inaccuracy with, basically, “I should bloody well know because I was there,” in best Max Boyce style. It ought to be mentioned that he also backed these assertions up with irrefutable proof.
Hale apologised on 22 December and asked to see the manuscript again. It was accepted on 18 February 1981 and Jones was offered £150 for the right to produce 1,500 copies with royalties at 10% of published price from 1,000 to 3,000 copies, 12.5% to 6,000 copies, 15% over 6,000 copies and 5% on all export sales.
Payment arrived on 16 March, a week after the contract was signed, which is incredibly fast work for a publishing company. Hale really must have wanted to keep Jones sweet – and why not, Pit Prop was a lulu. How come they’d turned it down sixteen years previously?
Jones’ wife, Alice, meanwhile, had been horrified to discover that Jones had not only used real events in Pit Prop, but that he had also used real names, which she had changed somewhat rapidly once she had found this out. To this end, when Jones returned the corrected proofs on 22 August 1981, he also added a request that Hale add a disclaimer blatantly lying about the book not being based on real persons. Not that it was put to Hale in these terms! All one can say in reading Pit Prop is that Jones’ youth must have been peppered with a host of undesirables as close neighbours and workmates. Hale, meanwhile, agreed on the inclusion of the disclaimer but when the book was published, on 7 January 1982, said disclaimer was amongst the missing.
On publication Pit Prop was passed off as a recently–written book in all publicity – and as one that Jones was obviously proud to have written. The South Wales Argus said, “Pit Prop has probably given him more pleasure than any other [of his books], for it’s the one book he has always wanted to write.”
The westerns are all excellent, but Pit Prop is probably the pick of the crop from the Hal Jons/Harry Graham catalogue. Let’s just put it this way, the fact that Jones was writing from experience and that it was real people being described gives the book rather more bite. And for those who stated that the description of the disaster itself was not realistic, well Jones, again, can say that he was bloody well there and that he should bloody well know.
Indeed, he wrote an article for The Miner (the magazine of the South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers), titled Born to It, in which he waxed realistic, rather than lyrical, about his experience of being trapped underground, putting it higher on his list of dislikes than being shot at by German machine gunners in Normandy. Basically, a realistic description of an underground disaster might not be as dramatic as a faked one, but Pit Prop certainly isn’t a fake.