So I have a history of crying on airplanes, especially on the long flights. It isn't that I'm any kind of sissy. Au contraire: I'm an alpha male with a capital alpha, and therein lies the problem. When you spend your time running a huge corporation and/or racing Formula One cars and/or writing literary fiction incredibly slowly in your bathrobe, the experience of sitting passively in a chair while someone else calls the shots tends to unleash all sorts of sentiment and you shed tears at the drop of a hat. Usually at the end of the movie. Or during the movie, if someone makes a courageous speech, or if there's a reunion of any sort, or if someone's wife or child dies.
On this occasion, though, I'm on a transatlantic red-eye to Heathrow weeping discreetly into my thin blanket over Dylan Thomas's classic tale A Child's Christmas in Wales, a recording of the poet reading that has languished unlistened-to on my iPod for as long as I can remember. For those who aren't familiar with it, A Child's Christmas in Wales has a famous first sentence,
One Christmas was so 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....
about which more later, and from there it's 10 solid minutes of wonder and enchantment and firelit olde-worlde charm. In a hypnotic, singsong rumble of a voice, Thomas recalls playing make-believe with his boyhood chums against a backdrop of endless snow, throwing snowballs at cats, and invading various impossibly cozy interiors where adults are getting squiffy on parsnip wine and singing the old songs badly. Church bells peal from time to time, and, finally, having borne definitive witness to the magic of Christmas, Dylan drags himself "home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay," and goes to bed.
It's powerful, deeply moving stuff. By the end of the recording I'm weeping harder than ever. I've had several bottles of that miniature wine, which may have something to do with it, but also...well...I'm on my way to spend Christmas in Wales. Me. It hasn't been the best of years, back there in Manhattan, to be honest, and well...what if...?Is it possible that...?
Nah. I'm being ridiculous. I'm 34, not 6 or 12. I belong to a family of low-key atheists more likely to mutter something cryptic and perceptive about media deregulation than to burst into homemade wine-inspired song. Besides, it never snows anymore. The proposition that I myself am about to be blindsided, to be saved by the healing magic of a Welsh Christmas and undergo some Scrooge-like redemption, is preposterous on its face...or is it?
Somewhere over Greenland, this question unanswered, suddenly I am no longer awake.
Driving from London to my parents' cottage, you can really see how Wales acquired its reputation as a land of mystery and ancient magic. One minute you're cruising boredly along through the green and yellow flatlands of southern England; the next you've lost radio reception and you're climbing vertically into the rainy mountains through little slate-gray towns with Lord of the Rings-y names like Llandrindod Wells and Caerphilly. J.R.R. Tolkien actually grew up just over the English border, and on day trips into Wales as a child was allegedly much struck by the atmosphere: the mist-shrouded peaks, the deep, sudden valleys, the short, simple, peace-loving folk going about their agribusiness with a song on their lips, utterly unprepared to be terrorized by a flame-breathing dragon or a sinister cape-wearing stranger atop a black, snorting horse. Today, only a minority speaks Welsh as a first language—it being an impenetrable babble of consonants and semantically significant inflections that has about 15 words for the filigreed bulge on the handle of a broadsword and none at all for steering wheel. But over the years, the Welsh government, in fits of France-like paranoia over the loss of cultural identity, passed laws decreeing that all road signs be written in both English and Welsh, that Welsh be taught in schools, and that there be a Welsh-language TV station—which, insanely, there is.
The roads become narrower the deeper you penetrate the Welsh interior, dramatically so, until both directions are sharing a single lane between tall hedgerows, necessitating very low speeds, constant reversing, and the occasional head-on collision. I've been fairly lucky in this regard. A speeding old gentleman nearly hit me once; we braked to a halt a few inches apart. Flustered and defensive, he leaned out of his window and yelled, "Sorry about that, but you were...you were driving in the middle of the road." I had no choice but to stare at him. Both my side mirrors were an inch deep in shrubbery.
Eventually, though, barring accident, you turn off the snaking road between Llaneglwys and Crickadarn (a tiny village close to where John Landis filmed the claustrophobically rural scenes for An American Werewolf in London), spend a minute bumping down a muddy, tree-ceilinged lane, and emerge beside a little L-shaped cottage and a larger, newer renovated barn. The buildings are set low in a long, steep valley of fields and trees. Running along the bottom of the valleyis a gurgling brook, a picturesque one, the kind of thing that in summer you half expect to find Samuel Taylor Coleridge lounging beside, with a sandwich and a legal pad, and/or Liv Tyler bathing nude in with a unicorn. In winter, though, the brook often freezes over. Leaves fall from the trees and lie there poignantly on the ice.
Not this year, however. On the morning of December 23 as I emerge from the barn—where I sleep, because I'm tall and the ceilings are higher—the ground is snowless and the invisible brook is audibly unfrozen. I'm not much perturbed. There's a wintry scarf of mist lying lightly along the shoulder of the green hill opposite. Woodsmoke dangles lazily upward from the chimneys of the house. And by this point the idea that I might be in for some life-changing storybook Christmas has—like most ideas that come to me on airplanes—fallen victim to the forces of sobriety and pragmatism. With an entirely empty mind I amble down to the cottage in search of toast. Several years ago my parents invested the bulk of my inheritance in one of those massive, cast-iron Aga ovens that have no temperature controls, and it makes the best toast conceivable, moistly crunchy, almost fried-tasting.
I'm munching a heavily buttered slice of said toast at the breakfast table, bantering idly with various family members, when I happen to make eye contact with my sister's one-year-old daughter, who is sitting in her high chair waving a spoon like a flag—and it is only then that it occurs to me that my hopes of an enchanted, heartwarming Christmas may not be entirely unrealistic.
You see, historically, Christmases with my family have been restrained affairs. We all love one another very much but aren't naturally comfortable with outward celebrations of that love, especially those mandated by the calendar. On Christmas Day there is a turkey, and muttered season's greetings, and an awkward exchange of kitchenware.