Living on a boat has meant that we have had to make some difficult decisions about which books come with us onboard. Tonight, I introduce to you one of my most favourite friends on our bookshelf – the collected poems of Dylan Thomas – and explore why he holds such an important place in my life.
“26h January, Wednesday.
A magpie on the top most branch rattles its greetings to the blurred dawn.
A blackbird calls.
The day begins with a bruised sky and bird song.”
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In this episode I refer to:
Matt Gaw’s informative and touchingly evocative exploration of darkness and the night in his (2020) Under the Stars: A journey into light published by Elliott and Thompson.
My copy of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas published by J&M Dent.
I read excerpts from the following poems by Dylan Thomas:
The episode concludes with a complete reading of his ‘In my craft or sullen art’.
More information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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One of the hardest aspects about living in any limited space is that it restricts the amount of books that you can have with you. Kindles, go someway to alleviating the pain, but there is nothing like holding a book in your hands. Feeling the textures of paper, smelling the fragrence of paper and glue and cardboard covers and time, the solidness weighing in your hand, the colour, the beauty of the print and the freedom of flicking the friendly, familiar pages like a fan on a summer's afternoon.
Both of us are used to lots of books. Books lined the walls of our living room, sometimes stacked two abreast on a shelf. Upstairs, in the study and our bedroom there were more. Books were, in every sense our habitat. But that was no different to my childhood home where books were in an abundance. Every evening, at the end of a day, we would all sit together and read. Dad in the big armchair, Mum sitting on the floor (Mum used to like sitting on the floor) tucked in beside him. Absent-mindedly holding hands. Every so often, one would stop and read out a passage that was interesting or funny or in someway noteworthy. Sis and I at opposite ends of the big long sofa, in our respective corners. Sis reading voraciously, paperbacks with broken spines and spilling pages. First pony books and then as she grew older, books about flying and aeroplanes. I sat in a crows-nest of comics - Whizzer and Chips, Giggle, TV 21, Countdown, Look and Learn, The treasury of Knowledge, Speed and Power. Or a small pile of books plucked from the livingoom shelf, usually about the countryside, filled with drawings photographs. I too was a voracious reader. But unlike Wendy, I read pictures, losing myself for hours in them. Imagining how the picture continued just out of frame, roaming over the horizon, sneaking off over the style and across the fields, or what I would see if I turned round. Some books sucked me in with their words, but it was pictures I loved. I made the story up by reading the pictures. Sometimes, when later I read the words, it came as quite a shock that this was an altogether different story from the one I knew!
I was, and still am, a slow reader. I read words like I read pictures. Stopping, pausing, seeking another angle in my head. It took me a long while to read fast. But there is something still inside me that feels it is wrong, unnatural to ruch at the words as if they are just instrumental conveyors of information. It is a pain and a frustration, but also a joy. I just accept it now.
But books are even more than just that. Every book here on the shelf beside me, I can remember where we bought it or who gave it to me. I can remember how I read it - or didn't quite finish it, and it is patiently waiting for me still. We have thousands in store and they hold memories too. When we were penniless, but fell in love with it and decided to buy it anyway. The dusty second shop where it glowed on the shelf like cartoon treasure. Sometimes, treating ourselves for an after shop coffee and getting to know its cover, the print forms, reading extracts, teasing excitement of a new world beckoning. These books, the books here on the shelf are part of us, part of our lives. Whatever, their contents, it is also suffused with the history of the paths we have walked together.
So how do you chose? How do you narrow down a library of several thousands to around 30 (if that)?
It's not easy. But let me show you one way....
Like this one. As soon as I touch it, kaleidoscopes of memories and emotions tilt and swirl, sending my world giddy. The cherry red cover, the perfection of its thickness and weight. Its cover which I have never liked - but strangely, I have never liked it for so long that I like it now and would not have it any different. But, oh, there's oh so much more...
Book: Dylan Thomas. (1977) Collected Poems 1934-1952. London: Everyman's Library. JM Dent & Sons.
Bought in Paton Books, Holywell Hill, St Albans (an independent bookseller now, unfortunately, no longer in business) in the late 1970s.
Ever since sitting down with my family, as a lad, to listen to Under Milk Wood on the radio. It was occasion. The old valve radio warming up into a hiss of static. The Radio Times folded open on the page of the day's listing with the cast list and the drawing of butcher Beynon with his little cleaver with which to chase after the corgis and flying gibblets, on the arm of Dad's chair. I remember being mesmerised by the words. They tumbled like music flaring with images painted with such unsettlingly startling colours. The words. .... ah those words!
To be honest, I understood very little of it. I knew that it was funny because Mum and Dad laughed, but was not sure why (not that it mattered, I liked it when Dad laughed; it was a good, round sort of laugh with no sharp edges to it).
I loved Adventures in the Skin Trade and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, but it was Thomas' poems that lured and yet taunted me in equal measure. Their words drew me in and set my heart beating even though their sense evaded me (and often still does).
The force that through the green fuse drives the flowerDrives my green age; that blasts the roots of treesIs my destroyer.And I am dumb to tell the crooked roseMy youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Oh what intoxicting dark currents these words distrurbed in my awaking consciousness and their music cut deep within me, straight to the marrow of my inner hiding self that was only then finding the courage to emerge..
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
Or what about this - the opening to his Fern Hill
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughsAbout the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,The night above the dingle starry,Time let me hail and climbGolden in the heydays of his eyes,And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple townsAnd once below a time I lordly had the trees and leavesTrail with daisies and barleyDown the rivers of the windfall light.
It was my thirtieth year to heavenWoke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour woodAnd the mussel pooled and the heronPriested shoreThe morning beckonWith water praying and call of seagull and rookAnd the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wallMyself to set footThat secondIn the still sleeping town and set forth.My birthday began with the water-Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my nameAbove the farms and the white horsesAnd I roseIn rainy autumnAnd walked abroad in a shower of all my days.High tide and the heron dived when I took the roadOver the borderAnd the gatesOf the town closed as the town awoke.A springful of larks in a rollingCloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistlingBlackbirds and the sun of OctoberSummeryOn the hill's shoulder,Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenlyCome in the morning where I wandered and listenedTo the rain wringingWind blow coldIn the wood faraway under me.Pale rain over the dwindling harbourAnd over the sea wet church the size of a snailWith its horns through mist and the castleBrown as owlsBut all the gardensOf spring and summer were blooming in the tall talesBeyond the border and under the lark full cloud.There could I marvelMy birthdayAway but the weather turned around.
In My Craft or Sullen ArtIn my craft or sullen artExercised in the still nightWhen only the moon ragesAnd the lovers lie abedWith all their griefs in their arms,I labour by singing lightNot for ambition or breadOr the strut and trade of charmsOn the ivory stagesBut for the common wagesOf their most secret heart.Not for the proud man apartFrom the raging moon I writeOn these spindrift pagesNor for the towering deadWith their nightingales and psalmsBut for the lovers, their armsRound the griefs of the ages,Who pay no praise or wagesNor heed my craft or art.