A Grown-up's Christmas in Wales
Inspired by the Dylan Thomas classic, Bruno Maddox returns home on a quest for the perfect holiday experience—a storybook Christmas—and finds it's all a little more complicated than he'd imagined
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.
But the presence of the child could, conceivably, change all that. Efforts will be made to show her a good time. Festive motions will be gone through. (Already there is talk of visiting Santa in his grotto in a town a half-hour away.) And what happens after that is a matter of record in the psychological literature of this species. Adults orchestrate elaborate, magic-filled Christmases "for the sake of the kids" the same way they play chess out of genuine concern for the safety of the king. Absolutely they want the child to enjoy it, but at the same time they're using the child's presence as an excuse to revisit, reenact, even improve upon, their own fond memories of Christmas, to get back to that womblike state of magic and satiety before life became hard, before they knew the difference between a 1099 and a W-2, before root canals, and blind dates, and laundry, and...
"Do you have the car keys?" my father asks.
"I am going to the butcher," he declares with a sort of dreamy confidence. "For I am planning to make a ham."
It's happening already. Not only is a ham—not ham, crucially, but a ham—exactly the sort of special-occasion delicacy that I can see playing very Dylan Thomas-esque in the recollection...
...and father would cook a great ham. Hours it would bubble in its dented pot while we sang to the radio and toasted its progress with tumblers of sherry, then with two mismatched wooden spoons he would paddle it up from the briny deep...
...but as long as I've known my father he's never cooked one. Clearly this is some childhood memory of his that's been nudged to float to the surface by the presence of the child. Which is excellent news. For my father really was, like Dylan Thomas, a little boy running around the Welsh seaport town of Swansea in the prewar half of the last century. They were born a few miles and only a decade or so apart. If his childhood memories of Christmas start resurfacing, then the odds of our having a Dylan Thomas-style Christmas increase radically.
Just when I think the scene can't get any more quaint and nostalgia-worthy, it does. My father heads to the cupboard beneath the stove, rummages for a while, and emerges brandishing, to my niece's delight, the lid of our largest cooking pot. I query him as to his intentions for that item and he replies that he will be taking the lid to the butcher's shop in order to measure the ham. You simply can't make this stuff up.
Selflessly, I offer to drive, and off we go in our sleigh-like Honda Civic, a youngish man and his father, cresting the hills and plumbing the valleys of their ancestors, all the way to the little town of Talgarth, home to—in my experience—the world's finest meat emporium: W. J. George. From a tiny shop in a narrow winding street generations of the George family have distributed fresh lamb and beef and every other sort of meat to discerning carnivores from across mid-Wales. The great Bryan George, the shop's current head honcho, has seen it all in a lifetime of blood and sawdust, yet even he suffers a moment of bewildered hesitation upon being handed the lid of a stockpot—thus confirming for me the atavistic quirkiness of my father's behavior.
Back at home, wine has been opened, and I fall into an armchair by the fire with a glass of it and a leather-bound copy of Bleak House—with which I would make more progress if I were not distracted, pleasantly and repeatedly, by my own awareness of the scene's idyllic and memorable nature.
Yuletide wonder and magic accrue steadily over the ensuing six hours. After a deep, Dickens-inflected doze I head out onto the darkening hills with my binoculars to look for birds.
I spent the summer here alone trying to finish my second novel, but birds would keep landing on the branches outside my window and I felt duty-bound, as a man of letters, to jot down details of their plumage and then look them up in reference books. My favorite was a buzzard the size of a pterodactyl who perched all night on a fence post at the edge of our property. I wasted a lot of creative energy trying to tame him and get him to answer to "Stuart." My calculation was that from professional and romantic standpoints I'd do just as well returning to Manhattan with a huge bird of prey on my shoulder as I would with a mediocre lump of sophisticated urban fiction on my laptop—and, frankly, the former seemed more likely. But no. Magpies stole all the meat I left out, and if ever I crept within 50 feet of Stuart he would hop into the air, flap his mighty wings exactly once, and free-fall smoothly away down the valley, clearly not keen on an interspecies relationship at that point in his life.
But here comes Stuart now, at dusk on the 23rd, gliding out of the gloom and circling my head with a high, girlish cry. And for an instant everything is perfect. There we are: a youngish man and his pet buzzard enjoying a moment of peaceful reflection on the darkening hills of Wales on the evening before the evening before Christmas. Classic.
From here it's all downhill.
The ham, for one thing, is a disappointment—by which I mean that it's fine. I was secretly hoping my father might drop it on the floor or bungle the glazing process in some eccentric way that I might look back on years later with wistful amusement. But no, the ham is fine: moist and pink and strongly evocative of some ham I once bought at a high-end delicatessen on lower Broadway.
Nor was his decision to cook the thing mere whimsy, as I had hoped. The ham had a function: to be part of a light buffet supper for various friends and locals, who come trudging over the hills for Christmas Eve drinks. On a sort of macro, visual level the party is reasonably cozy and charming. New arrivals hang their rain-wet scarves on the Aga to dry. Firelight does flicker on earthy, rural faces flushed with wine. There is, as mentioned, the ham. But the conversation is unrelentingly modern and prosaic, flowing from the intellectual deficiencies of George W. Bush to the nuts and bolts of European agricultural subsidies and back again. My niece, who tends to hit the hay pretty early, makes a cameo in her one-piece pajama suit, but contrary to my elaborate theory, her talismanic presence fails to spark any noticeable uptick in Christmas spirit. Either my theory is flawed, or there's something wrong with the child, I reckon.
On Christmas Day I conclude that it's probably her. I give my niece a large stuffed green frog from FAO Schwarz, which has outstretched hug-me arms and the desperate, conflicted facial expression of a person who has just been turned away from a public restroom on the stated grounds that nobody likes him. The frog holds her attention long enough for her to tug its eyeball and gnaw its foot with her gums, then she dunks it face-first into a brushed-aluminum salad bowl someone has given someone. The frog remains in the bowl until the 26th, when my sister gathers the child and her presents and drives them all back to London. I've seen episodes of Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser more touching and poignant.
That's basically it. Christmas has passed. I am largely unchanged. But Fate does grant me one final shot at a sentimental and transformative epiphany. The following day, just for the hell of it, my mother, my father, and I drive west down the vast, bracken-bronzed series of valleys that leads to the coast and to Swansea, birthplace of Dylan Thomas and my father and, much, much later, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Beneath a wintry sun we tour the landmarks of my father's boyhood at a speed appropriate to a safari park full of murderous dinosaurs. We see his house, his school, and the grounds where he used to play rugby, and having used only half of the day, we drive out to the end of the marshy green Gower Peninsula and enjoy a traditional Welsh lunch of cockles and fried seaweed at a restaurant on the cliff top overlooking the beach. Then we leave the restaurant—or my father and I do. My mother, as a lady sometimes will, announces she'll be joining us in a moment.
And here we are, standing beside an old fence, looking down at the great white sweep of the Rhossili Bay sands hundreds of feet below us. The sun is quite strong, and so is the wind. No one says anything, until finally my father remarks:
"That old wrecked ship has always been there."
Halfway along the beach, 10 feet or so in from the waterline, the black ribs of a ship's old wooden hull protrude from the sand. And he's right. They do ring a bell. I must have been seven when I first came to Rhossili, and I remember it surprising me. No one had told me Britain had beaches, not immaculate white-sand beaches with towering cliffs and crashing waves. (My bird-watching binoculars are still in my coat pocket. I employ them.) The ocean was never quite warm enough for swimming though, I remember—though I remember we would try. I can recall shivering in towels on late Sunday afternoons, glum about the long ride back to London, not to mention Monday and school, and looking up at those tall, sad timbers and feeling a lonely kinship—
Huh. I guess not. What appeared from a distance to be the rotted hull ribs of an ancient ship my binoculars reveal to be a group of wet-suited surfers, possibly Swedish or Australian (the hair), leaning on their boards and talking surf.
"Actually, it's people," I say.
My mother reappears right then, waving, and as we turn away toward the car, I experience the rustle of preemptive embarrassment that for people like me signals an imminent epiphany, and then, on cue, the epiphany.
Which is that it will probably all be fine. When it comes to Christmases—and childhoods, to a lesser extent—it isn't so much what happens as how you remember it. As the months and years fly by, my father's ham will likely acquire a richer, deeper, more delicious glaze—or become an amusing disaster. Decades down the line I'll take my niece out to dinner and over wine recount the magic of her first Welsh Christmas in sloppy, heartfelt, occasionally fraudulent detail, with particular emphasis on the crackle of affection that filled the air when she first laid eyes on her frog...
For this is how we are, we people.
Months later, on a hunch, I return to southern Wales, and after several hours in the reading room of Swansea Central Library, digging up old newspapers on microfiche, I establish the following: that it snowed for one day and one night when Dylan Thomas was six, and not at all, not a single flake, when he was 12.
Hardly surprising, this, of course. There's a reason they call it poetic license. The guy was on a mission—he'd actually signed a contract—to tug his audience's heartstrings as hard as possible with visions of lost, unrecapturable beauty. Prudently, he opted to write about the Christmases of his youth, because as an object of universal nostalgia—universal in the pre-multicultural Britain he was writing for—a childhood Christmas is impossible to beat. He then draped everything in snow, because snow is enchanting, and fleeting, and therefore poignant.
And he set it in Wales. Wales, which, with its myths and mists, and its long green valleys full of rain and cloud, and its bubbling unfathomable druidic language, actually resembles a version of the long-gone, ancient past that we all carry around with us in our heads—with the crucial distinction, of course, that unlike most lost, unrecapturable landscapes, you can actually go there.
December weather in Wales is relatively mild, and snow is rare. Fly into London, and from there it's less than three hours by train or car to Swansea, on the southern coast.
WHERE TO STAY
Home from Home
One hundred forty simply furnished houses and cottages to rent for your own Welsh holiday experience. COTTAGES FROM $200 PER WEEK. 42 QUEENS RD., MUMBLES, SWANSEA; 44-1792/360-624; www.homefromhome.com
Recently opened 20-room luxury hotel, formerly home to Swansea's port authority. A perfect launching pad for exploring southwestern Wales. DOUBLES FROM $181. SOMERSET PLACE, SWANSEA; 44-1792/484-848; www.morganshotel.co.uk
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Worms Head Hotel
A seaside favorite on the Gower Peninsula for Welsh dishes, such as cockles and laver bread (fried seaweed). LUNCH FOR TWO $30. RHOSSILI, GOWER, SWANSEA; 44-1792/390-512
Dylan Thomas found inspiration in the pints at this 250-year-old pub. KING ST., LAUGHARNE; 44-1994/427-320
WHAT TO DO
Dylan Thomas Boathouse
Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood in his home here, now a museum. TOURS $5. DYLAN'S WALK, LAUGHARNE; 44-1994/427-420; www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
Dylan Thomas: The Biography by Paul Ferris (Counterpoint Press).
A Child's Christmas in Wales read by Dylan Thomas (Harper-Audio).