‘Holiday Memory’ by Dylan Thomas

* Picked by David Collard

In those always radiant, rainless, lazily rowdy and skyblue summers departed, I remember August Monday from the rising of the sun over the stained and royal town to the husky hushing of the roundabout music and the dowsing of the naphta jets in the seaside fair: from bubble-and-squeak to the last of the sandy sandwiches.

First published as part of the short story collection Quite Early One Morning (1954), ‘Holiday Memory’ was published separately by Dent in the early 1970s as one of an attractive series of booklets illustrated, quite beautifully, by Meg Stevens. They cost 30p and I bought my copy on holiday from a gift shop in Criccieth in 1972, when I was 13. I still have it. 

Dylan Thomas was the first author to snag my attention, by which I mean his life interested me just as much as his books did, and the first literary biography I read was Constantine FitzGibbon’s The Life of Dylan Thomas, borrowed from the local library. Before that I’d read only Under Milk Wood and Adventures in the Skin Trade and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (although I hadn’t yet heard of Joyce). I’d also read some of the poems but they baffled me, and still do. 

The prose, on the other hand, I loved. It seemed so natural and unforced, so casually  exuberant. 

During the war Thomas had worked as a documentary script writer for Strand Films, and the opening of ‘Holiday Memory’ resembles a brisk montage assembled from library footage that might form the opening to a short film with a title like The British at Play:

August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.

The collective nouns (fanfare, wince, whinny and so on) offer a genial, uncritical take on a collective social occasion. It’s in the spirit of Mass Observation, and the socially-engaged documentary films of Humphrey Jennings.

There follow three paragraphs each opening with with ‘I remember’, and the same phrase is employed repeatedly later in the text, long before Joe Brainerd and Georges Perec developed the approach as a self-conscious literary exercise. But Thomas’s memories are not so much personal as generously generic, such that they have become – at least in my case – my own vicarious memories of holidays untaken, pleasures never experienced. I never enjoyed childhood holidays as much as I enjoyed Thomas’s intense evocation of them.

In his poem ‘To the Sea’ Philip Larkin describes trips to the seaside as “half an annual pleasure, half a rite”, and a destination essentially fit for families (and Larkin was no family man), a place of small pleasures where old and young can together enjoy ‘the miniature gaiety’ of sand and sea and funfair.

 And mothers loudly warned their proud pink daughters or sons to put that jellyfish down; and fathers spread newspapers over their faces; and sandfleas hopped on the picnic lettuce; and someone had forgotten the salt.

Thomas deftly captures the chaotic energies of childhood, of wild boys and their smart sisters, the hectic intimacy of large families. I’ve elsewhere compared his prose with the densely-populated cartoons of Giles, that matchless genius of The Daily Express, and in particular his affectionate portrayals of lower middle class family life – cosy, cluttered and chaotic.

As darkness falls the fun fair, threadbare by day, becomes a place of wonder. Thomas catches this transformation perfectly:

Girls in skulled and crossboned tunnels shrieked, and were comforted. Young men, heroic after pints, stood up on the flying chairaplanes, tousled, crimson, and against the rules. Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce.

“Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce”: there’s a whole lost world in that, a forgotten social order as innocent and silly and simple as an ice lolly. 

First published in Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1954. Also published by Dent, 1972. Available to read online here

David Collard is the author of About a Girl (CB Editions) and Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays about James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy (Sagging Meniscus). He curates and hosts the online salon The Glue Factory. You can read his individual Personal Anthology and other occasional contributions here.

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