Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.


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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016




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All the Christmases roll down

Every person, every family, will have their rituals today.

From food to gifts to visiting, Christmas routines have a durable, longstanding feeling. Even those who dislike the day have their trusted way of doing so.

My habit is waking early on Christmas morning and taking 15 minutes to read a story written by the poet Dylan Thomas.

A Child’s Christmas In Wales, written in 1950 but composed in stages over the preceding years, was famously recorded for broadcast by a cash-strapped Thomas in New York in 1952. The poet died a year later and the story was published in 1954.

A dream-memory of an early 20th century Christmas in seaside Welsh village, on the face of it the story, its characters and movement, are from a different world.

It’s a place one of snow, cats, sleeping old men, postmen on icy laneways, “always uncles”, an frost-bound hibernating town above a “forlorn sea” at the foot of a white world.

It’s opening lines are, to me, a pure seam of Christmas memory and emotion – a childhood distilled, words worth reading once a year.

“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, 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.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find…”


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In search of the perfect opening line

He got game. Ernest Hemingway on safari.

He got game.
Ernest Hemingway on safari.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lingual man in possession of an empty page must be in want of a good opening line.

This crossed my mind recently while browsing through some short stories and, more pressingly, when I sat to write this post.

As a journalist my default setting is usually to put the most important info in the first line.

Writers of fiction, novels or short stories, require a different approach.

Some of my favourite fictional first lines are a short, shocking stab. Others are longer, introducing an image or setting a mood. Others yet bear comparison to a short poem.

Some are one line, some are more.

The best are always singular, the very best perfect. But no good ones are incidental.

Analysing what makes a perfect opening line is difficult; the best way to do it is to simply read the best examples, cut loose from their source titles.

With this in mind I decided to assemble my top five.

Here they are, with a hint to the work in question afterwards.


“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, 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.”

So begins one Welshman’s childhood chronicle.


A whale of a time. Herman Melville.

A whale of a time.
Herman Melville.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A nothing that comes back to haunt one big-game hunter – and his wife.


“Call me Ishmael”.

The only time anyone does, it turns out.


“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

The first of three opening lines, one for each hero.


His sheet metal memory. John Steinbeck.

His sheet metal memory.
John Steinbeck.

And, finally.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

So the story of Mack and the boys, and all humanity, begins.


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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.


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