Columnist William Newman: Christmas with Dylan Thomas

  • A statue of Dylan Thomas. Jackie Bishop via Flickr

Published: 1/21/2022 1:09:26 PM
Modified: 1/21/2022 1:08:22 PM

My wife, Dale, flew to Mauritius this past October. Mauritius is an African island nation in the Indian Ocean, 700 miles east of Madagascar. The reason for the journey was Estelle.

Our daughter Leah lives in Mauritius with her Mauritian husband, Kenny. Estelle is their new baby. She is named after my grandmother, who died in 1964 when I was 14 and whose photograph is on my desk at home.

In November I, too, took that long trip — the newly-arrived Estelle was a big draw. And not just for grandparents.

Soon after I arrived, so did Raj and Emily, two of Leah’s close friends — British expats who work in Uganda for international development groups. I learned that Raj grew up in and around London and Emily in Wales. They both are smart, interesting and funny. But I digress.

For decades, I told Emily, I’ve wanted to travel to Wales to visit the home of Dylan Thomas, where that Welsh poet wrote, as well as the pubs in the town of Laugharne, where he drank far too often, and Saint Martin’s Church, where he and his wife, Caitlin, are buried. I began reading Dylan Thomas when I was 15 or 16. I still do.

Emily told us that every Christmas when she and her brother were young, her father, Peter, would read them “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Dylan Thomas’ most famous short story, and to this day, when they are home for the holidays, he still does. I shared that for many years I had, and would listen to, a record of Dylan Thomas reading that story and although some vinyl had survived our house fire in 1988, that record sadly had not.

And then Emily invited Dale and me to visit her family in Wales. She said that her father would love to share his insights and anecdotes about Dylan Thomas, his work and family, and added that the house I have so much wanted to visit is just down the road.

This year, late on Christmas eve, back in Northampton with Leah, Kenny and Estelle, who had flown back with us, I relived the joy of that conversation. Leah said there were some presents I needed to open. I told her that I was tired and on my way to sleep and since we didn’t celebrate Christmas, presents could wait! But Leah responded no, actually, these couldn’t.

Then she handed me two packages. They were from Emily and Raj.

One present was a recent and beautifully illustrated edition of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The second was a hardcover edition of Dylan Thomas’ “The Collected Stories.” When I opened that book, I saw a discard stamp from the “Rio Grande Valley Library System,” which made me feel even more nostalgic. In law school, on a co-op job with Texas Rural Legal Aid, where I mostly worked with migrants, I lived in the Rio Grande Valley, just north of the border in the town of Edinburg.

And then — talk about Christmas — Leah handed me another package, presents from her. She added that when she set out to find them, she didn’t know that Emily and Raj were buying those books for me. Inside her package were two records.

One was a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and five poems, including “Fern Hill.” The title of the other record is “Dylan Thomas Reading His Complete Recorded Poetry.” On the label it says, “Intended for use on either monaural or stereo phonographs. Recorded in New York and London between 1949 and 1953.”

First I read aloud “A Child’s Christmas In Wales” and then put that LP, which turned out to be in pristine condition, on our turntable, and we listened to Dylan Thomas’ rendition.

Dylan Thomas died in New York City on a reading tour in 1953 at the age of 39 — perhaps from pneumonia but, maybe, simply from drinking.

Although his words remain a treasure, we should be clear that much of Dylan Thomas’ work is anything but idyllic. Some stories and poems are dark and difficult. And Caitlin’s memoir about their tempestuous marriage and his passing is titled “Leftover Life to Kill.”

But his work lives on. He was a free spirit who wrote in free verse. His poetry was often narrative, his prose always lyrical, and his topics frequently forbidden in polite society. That was part of his allure, of course — the sexuality, romanticism and agnosticism — as well as his love of words, his exquisite craftsmanship.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” with its description of the “carol-singing sea” and “the useful presents” and “the useless presents,” and the cigar-smoking uncles and Mrs. Prothero, “who said the right thing always,” continues to bring joy to children and adults. If I am lucky and live long enough, I hope to someday read this book to Estelle, to ride with her on the rolling tide of its words up to its gentle ending, “I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host.

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