Monthly Archives: November 2012

Almost good timing – Christmas with Dylan Thomas

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone; this illustrated edition originally published in 1978

Bookcase 9, shelf 2, book 3

The book-selecting dice are evidently not quite running on the same calendar as me, but I am very glad I got this in November and not, say, June – that would have been completely wrong. This nostalgic, romantic, poetic and occasionally deeply surreal evocation of Christmas past would have been impossible to read in warmth and sunshine, but snuggle up next to the stove on a dark night – perfect. And that’s even if I can’t read anything by Dylan Thomas without hearing Richard Burton’s voice in the background at the same time. Or my own – it’s a wonderful book to read aloud.

There is a sort of narrative to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, taking readers through memories of the Christmas season, starting with one of the most evocative opening passages I can think of:

One Christmas was very much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It moves from ‘the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve’ with Thomas (or his narrator, perhaps that should be) in Mrs Prothero’s garden waiting for cats – (‘It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.’) – being diverted by Mrs P frantically calling ‘fire’,

to him going to bed on Christmas night:’I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

Ardizzone’s illustrations run throughout my childhood like a thread, as does this book – despite my growing up 250 miles from the nearest part of Wales; my father adored Dylan Thomas – and it’s such a perfect combination. The frantic Mrs P, the boys and the cats: they’re just right. It’s tempting to see Ardizzone as a literal ‘translator’ and so he is, but his versions of the time of Thomas’s childhood – ‘when there were wolves in Wales’ and the boys ‘chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears’ – are equally literal:

The use of language is, as you’d expect, absolutely magical. It’s impossible to describe; it has to be quoted:

‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss…’

The year before last, we had heavy snow right over Christmas, even here on the west coast of Wales where we normally get very little. As I forced my way out of the house and up the hill, trudging through the woods, I thought of this so clearly. I’d have liked to declaim it to the few sheep I passed, but I couldn’t remember it well enough (sheep are such sticklers for poetic accuracy – oh dear, I think it’s catching).

More realistically, I love the family get-together (brought hilariously and touchingly up-to-date by Mark Watson in the 2009 BBC film ‘A Child’s Christmases in Wales’), the aunts and uncles – ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas’ – around the fire:

This book is frequently described as a ‘modern classic’, and so it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a delightful read, an amusing, diverting journey into the past, into Christmas family traditions and foibles (‘Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year’), into a partly imaginary but completely believable poetic world. There’s even a possible ghost. What else can I say but a rather early Nadolig Llawen?

Of course, the classic version of this book is read aloud not by Richard Burton but by Dylan Thomas himself; it’s worth digging it out. And if you’re inspired to find this lovely illustrated edition, be aware that there is a minature version about; delightful but impractical. You need to see the deacon’s jawbone and the bishops in the belfrey. Didn’t I mention them?

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Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?