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Although I review lots of books it's rare that I actually buy books at full price. I'm not mean; just on disability benefits and money is tight, so every purchase is carefully considered. I have bought books recommended by people on dooyoo and have never had a bad tip. So when I read the review on this book by CarolineR-D I had to send for it straight away. I left it a few days to review, as I wanted to allow time for her review to be read, it was so good.
I bought this for my immediate family, which comprises my daughter, son-in-law and grandson, Jack Dylan. (Dylan is his second name and he was named for Dylan Thomas). I did consider reviewing it after Christmas but then it would be too late for others to buy. I knew it would be gratefully received and that my daughter and I will probably take turns in reading it aloud on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It's intended as a family present anyway and one to make a family tradition from.
This is a little paperback version published by Penguin and is only 41 pages long. But those 41 pages are filled with a sense of magic and poetry that define the love between families in a very special way. As a family we have always held certain traditions and these include family services on Xmas Eve and Christmas carols on Christmas day. In 2003 my mother was slowly dying after suffering a massive stroke and she died before my daughter's wedding in June, just a few weeks after. My daughter had a civil ceremony and one of the main readings was one by Dylan Thomas. It brought tears to my eyes at the time and does still. But on to happier thoughts.
This is the reason why I know the book will work it's special magic for us all. I read it in one go and was thrilled by the short stories within that didn't read as chapters, but rambled along just as Thomas did himself. I don't think he approved much of punctuation; it got in the way of the words that run through the pages much like the notes of music on a piano scale.
The book starts with these words; 'One Christmas was so 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...' the sentence carries on in the same vein. Straight away I have an image of my mother hanging up our paper-chain decorations as she hummed a carol, she had a lovely singing voice. In those sad deep nights when my memories of her and dad fade I hear echoes of their voices across the years, so I know exactly what Thomas means with these lines.
In typical Thomas style the words just roll out with the rhythm of the Welsh tongue, no longer spoken save for special occasions. We were born in South Wales but only my late brother every spoke Welsh fluently. I will hear his voice as well in every page read. So the narrative takes a walk along the seashore and down the street with Thomas stooping for snowballs and bringing out handfuls of memories. One is of him waiting outside the gate of Mrs. Prothero for his friend Jim to help throw snowballs at the alley cats. Strangely we lived next to a family by the same name some fifty years ago when I was knee-high to a grasshopper but there weren't any throwing snowballs at cats then.
But in the book a fire breaks out and the fire brigade is called. Thomas relates these memories as boys do with some awe, before dashing off in his mind's eye to when bear and wolves roamed the 'harp-shaped hills' where the snow kept on falling day after day. He then writes of the 'postmen scattering cards' before telling tales of the Useless Presents with boy like glee. I remember those types of presents well. The words echo in my mind and shake loose the cobwebs so I'm a child again and remembering wanting a bike for Christmas and getting a boring paint book.
The book carries us away like this with 'The Uncles'; those men who sat stuffed with Christmas goose or chicken (I don't remember turkey and neither does Thomas). The uncles sit with stiff collars unwinding and the aunts with brittle bird-like posture balancing the best cups against bosoms heaving with exertion, red as fire in over-heated rooms.
Then with not so much as a full stop he's off again, down the hill-terraced streets to the sea again and the men who never stop their constitutional for any day. Or the two young men with pipes 'no overcoats and wind-blown scarfs would trudge down to the forlorn sea' and my own mind goes back to my daddy and his huff-puffing pipes aglow. Back to Thomas and ' I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of others, the bird smell etc...' as he goes on to describe getting home to the Christmas table and the balloons ready to blow up maybe popping and making us jump.
(Everything in comas belongs to the book, the rest is my words)
I could happily go on and then you'll have read the book through me, so I'll just add that the narrative follows the day's events with a surety that everything will be like other years and bellies will be full for a change. Then the boys go playing explorers in the snow, pretending to get lost and dogs with barrels to find them. Later on there will be games around the fire in the best or front room and one by one the aunts and uncles will doze off. Later on singing and maybe a drop of ale or sherry livening the aunts to sing. Mothers take off pinnies and the dads might step out for a while. But the children are spent with the day and soon they are off to bed, where 'I said some words to the close and holy darkness and then I slept.'
Even reading the book has set my own mind in motion and some of the words have doubled back to make me smile. I'm going to read this review in it's entirety to my family at Christmas, then my daughter will read a bit of the book, maybe even say when I took her bundled up in blankets to the nearest steep parking space, overlooking our Welsh mountains and we watched for Rudolph and Santa.
This is a lovely book and it's going to be read with fondness while we remember past family and Jack Dylan will maybe read a bit with his Nan because he explores with me and will want to hunt for dragons. I can't wait to show this little gem around and what a cascade of memories this has awoken and all for £3.42.
This is aided by the lovely line drawings of Edward Ardizzone who by sketches in black and white brings the narrative to life. I love this gorgeous little book and I hope you will as well. (You don't have to be Welsh like me but it helps).
Thanks for reading and indulging my own thoughts.
©Lisa Fuller November 2011.
A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is a nostalgic, warm and poignant account of the author's boyhood Christmases in a small Welsh town in the 1920s. It was published in 1955, having originated from a radio broadcast. The book was given to my family as a gift about three years ago and it has become a ritual at our house to read it in the build up to the festive season. The book is the perfect antidote to the commercialised, consumer-driven Christmases we all complain about today. It paints a picture of simpler times. Reading it feels like listening to an elderly relative telling you about their childhood, plucking out moments of clarity from a vast sea of confused memories of Christmases past. As Thomas puts it: ''All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that is our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish freezing waves, and I plunge my hands into the snow and bring out whatever I can find." What a gorgeous piece of imagery! The black and white illustrations by Edward Ardizzone are perfect for the book as their shadowy, hazy quality makes me think of the way that, out of the fog of our memory banks, clear pictures often emerge of events that made a big impression on us.
What I love about this book is that although it shows us how Christmases have changed over the years, it also shows us the ways in which they have stayed the same, which gives us a comforting sense of continuity. Children may be intrigued to read about families having singsongs on Christmas Night or telling ghost stories by the fire in a computer-free, television-free world. However, much of Thomas's account will be familiar to the reader, such as the excitement generated by snow, the ritual of Christmas Dinner, the focus on family, people overindulging on food and drink etc. We still receive what Thomas refers to as 'Useful Presents', such as "balaclavas for victims of head shrinking tribes", which will strike a chord with anyone who knows what it is like to receive scratchy knitted items from a well-meaning aunt, and 'Useless Presents', which are invariably the most popular. These include such things as "bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies" and "a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound." The line - "There are always uncles at Christmas" - made me smile, because that is just how I remember my own childhood Christmas get-togethers, when various uncles would doze in front of the fire. (Unlike the young Dylan Thomas, however, I did not amuse myself by blowing up balloons until they burst to wake them up with a jump.) I also loved Thomas's description of the aunts - "not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers." Reading this book can lead to some interesting discussions about the ways that Christmas has changed, but might also encourage families to bring back some of the old traditions.
The descriptive, poetic language is charming to read. I love Thomas's use of sensory imagery. He doesn't just make us see pictures in our minds but also conjures up the smells and sounds of Christmas - the church bells ringing, the spitting fire, the smoke from pipes and cigars, "the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils", Auntie Hannah singing in the yard, after she's been on the port, new boots squeaking in the snow, the sound of the wind in the trees like "web footed men wheezing in caves" and the hooting ships and cries of the seabirds, which accompany Thomas and his pals on their walk along the snowy seashore.
Nothing much happens in terms of a storyline. This book is really just a collection of Christmas memories and brief character sketches. In just a few words, Thomas is able to bring to life many local characters, such as Mrs Prothero, whose house catches fire and the boys try to extinguish it with snowballs, and an unnamed old man who takes a daily walk without fail to the bowling green and back, "as he would take it wet or fine on Christmas Day or Doomsday" and timid Auntie Bessie, frightened by a clockwork mouse. In just 40 pages we are given a glimpse into the lives of a community and a family. There is humour, but there is sadness also as we recognise the loneliness and vulnerability of some of the characters amidst all the seasonal joy.
I find this an uplifting read. It reminds us that we don't need to have a lot in order to be happy and we should learn to appreciate and see the magic in the simplest things. When the young author tucks himself into bed on Christmas Night and says - "I said some words to the close and holy darkness and then I slept", it gives me such a warm, cosy, "all's right in the world" kind of feeling and adds a spiritual dimension to the book, reminding us of the bigger picture. It gives me a lump in my throat as I read this line, because it seems to convey perfectly the feelings of the awe-struck, wide-eyed child at Christmas time. Somehow the secular things like balloons, humbugs, mistletoe, blazing puddings and an iced cake that "loomed in the centre of the table like a marble grave" combine to create an atmosphere that is so overwhelming that it is almost 'holy.'
I don't think this book would be suitable for young children to read independently, even if they were quite competent readers. The language is rich with metaphors and could be quite difficult for children to understand. Even an adult might have to re-read some of the passages to make sense of the imagery. It's also probably too long for a small child to sit and listen to at one go. Much as I love the book, I can appreciate that for some children it might seem a bit dull with its black and white illustrations and the fact that not a lot actually happens. In my experience, it is more likely to be enjoyed by older children (perhaps from about age 11) who have acquired slightly more sophisticated tastes in their choice of reading matter and aren't always looking for fast action plots.
I do feel the best way to enjoy it is to get one member of the family to read it aloud to everyone. In my view, this book is meant to be read aloud due to its rich, expressive language, which rolls off the tongue and has an almost musical quality. Ideally, it should be read in front of a roaring fire on a snowy night with mugs of hot cocoa or mulled wine to hand. (If you can find someone with a Welsh accent to read it, so much the better. An audiobook CD version is available from Amazon for £6.91, if you want to hear Dylan Thomas reading it in his lovely, lilting tones.) However, be prepared for some rather lengthy phrases which literally have you feeling out of breath by the time you have reached the end of the sentence! Thomas loves to play with language and words and some of the passages can have a somewhat tongue twister like quality if you aren't used to reading poetic language. It's well worth persevering with it though.
I would recommend this as the perfect Christmas 'coffee table' book. It is also a good introduction to the works of Dylan Thomas, and I think it is important for children to become familiar with the classics and to understand how some of the celebrated authors have contributed to our proud literary heritage. The paperback version can be bought new from Amazon for £4.01 plus post and packaging. The hardback version is (surprisingly) slightly cheaper at £2.94.