‘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.

‘One Warm Saturday’ by Dylan Thomas

No writer’s short stories are more bursting with rude, salty life that those of Dylan Thomas, and ‘One Warm Saturday’ is a fine example. It’s the story of a Bank Holiday romance, infused with youthful longing and lust, as well as a sense of life’s inevitable disappointments waiting just around the corner. The tale begins with Jack, ‘a young man in a sailor’s jersey, sitting near the summer huts to see the brown and white women coming out and the groups of pretty-faced girls with pale vees and scorched backs who picked their way delicately on ugly, red-toed feet over the sharp stones to the sea’. When he meets the earthy Lou later in the pub, he’s persuaded by the shifty Mr O’Brien – the man she lives with – to take a bottle back to her place. The story’s power comes from the distance between Jack’s naivety and the reader’s knowledge of the worldly people he becomes entangled with over the course of a boozy evening. For Jack, Lou is ‘a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil for her soft self’, but we fear the worst. When he goes to visit the ‘House of Commons’ – a toilet on the floor below – he returns to find a night of erotic promise reduced to ashes, with Lou and everyone else suddenly vanished. The lush imagery of the opening paragraphs morphs into some of the most barren lines ever to finish a story: ‘Up the rotten, bruising, mountainous stairs he climbed, in his sickness, to the passage where he had left the the one light burning in an end room…The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across  the brick heaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once’.

First published in Life and Letters Today, 1940, and collected in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, JM Dent & Sons, 1940, most recent edition from Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Also in the Collected Stories and Omnibus

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

As rich and filling as a thick slice of plum pudding, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ reminds me of all the Christmases I never had as a child (my parents had no time for that sort of thing), and of all the other Christmases I’ve missed as a grown-up through work or travel or simply being alone, by choice or necessity. I first read it as a teenager at a time when I had a particular passion for Thomas’s prose. Most of his poetry left me cold back then, and still does, but I loved Under Milk Wood, the short stories, the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade and the letters. Everyone should read the letters.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is hardly a story at all, more a shrewdly calculated exercise in nostalgia. A cynic may dislike the author’s ingratiating approach, but I’m no cynic and find it irresistible. There’s a boozy sentimentality underlying it all, and what could be more appropriate at this time of the year? Whenever I read it to myself, or read it to others (avoiding any attempt at a Welsh accent), I am always reminded of those densely-populated Giles cartoons in the Daily Express (once a great newspaper) showing a crowded family kitchen at Christmas time, full of steaming saucepans and bickering kiddywinks, with Mum serenely rolling pastry and Dad asleep with a newspaper spread over his face, the terrifying Grandma tippling sherry in her armchair, the dog chasing the cat under the table, the snow falling outside. An image of warm familial contentment – tolerant, cluttered, secure and chaotic. Christmases were never like this, but it’s a consolation to imagine that they could have been, at least for the Thomases of Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.

The paragraphs are jam-packed with vividly-rendered upper-cased Presents: the Useful (home-knitted clothes mostly but including, in a favourite phrase, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why”) and the Useless (“Bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult”). The house is likewise packed with significant upper-cased Uncles and Aunts (“Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush”). There’s plenty of Just William-style mischief as the young Dylan and his pals Jim and Dan and Jack roam the town and the beach with their sweet cigarettes and dog-whistles. A snow-covered Swansea plays host to a surreal menagerie of creatures: cats, dogs, reindeers, wolves, bears, sloths, camels, a zebra, hippos and a clock-work mouse (which frightens Aunt Bessie, twice). There are also trolls and ghosts and, in a terrifying moment, “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door”.

Perhaps you have no appetite for plum pudding and I’ll admit that, for the rest of the year, my own tastes incline to the austere. But this, believe me, is a quarter of an hour well spent and a perfect accompaniment to egg-nog. I expect you’ll enjoy it.

PS I have a theory that when writing the dialogue in the story Thomas was influenced by the Robert Graves poem ‘Welsh Incident’ (1929). Here’s a recording of Thomas reading it very badly, and here’s Richard Burton reading it brilliantly. See what you make of them both.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, including material from a radio broadcast written for the BBC in 1945, and a 1947 essay for Picture Post. Currently published by Orion, 2006. Available online here

Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His most recent book is About a Girl (CB editions). He contributes to the forthcoming anthology We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, March 2019) and is currently working on a group biography of London writers in the 1970s.

Read David’s previous contributions to A Personal Anthology here

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas developed this story from a piece called Memories of Christmas which he wrote for broadcast in 1945. I read it every Christmas, preferably out-loud and, if I get a chance, at least part of it to an audience, though of course I can never equal Thomas’ own delivery. The anecdotes are charming and the language and images incomparable. For example, while the boys are waiting to snowball cats in Mrs Prothero’s garden, a fire breaks out in her house and they run down the garden with snowballs in their arms – “and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii.”

(First published in 1950, and now in the author’s Collected Stories by Orion Books. The author himself reads the story here)