Some of Dylan Thomas’ best-loved works are those pieces which evoke memories of his childhood. This is probably because every adult shares the common bond of experiencing childhood and owning personal memories which, although infinitely variable between us in their intensity and nature, help to form who we are as mature people. We all have our own sanitised nostalgia, wistful perhaps, sentimental certainly, so that when Thomas chronicles his own rose-coloured background, his work instantly strikes a chord within us all.
Dylan Thomas mines this rich seam of his schoolboy and adolescent memories in many of his short stories and poetic works. Some of the most evocative of these recall his childhood holidays with relatives in Carmarthenshire. This is the case with “Holiday Memory”, a joyous short story, also broadcast as a radio play, in which Thomas recalls an idyllic and raucous August Bank Holiday spent by the seaside. The story can be divided into two contrasting but complementary parts: the bright, riotous day spent on the beach, eating cockles, going for donkey rides and watching Punch and Judy shows, and the noisy, boisterous evening spent at the funfair. We will be concentrating on the second part of the story, and more specifically, we will be focusing on Thomas’ extraordinary use of language and startling imagery, as well as on tone and mood, in his description of the funfair.
Let us therefore begin our analysis of “Holiday Memory” with Thomas’ description of dusk falling on a day spent by the sea, (lines 1-2). Thomas uses a series of rapid images to illustrate how the sun has started to set and darkness has suddenly enveloped those left on the beach. Darkness has descended from the sky, it has grown “up out of the sand”, has “curled” around them, it is a new entity beckoning them towards a new and exciting part of the holiday. The sun, meanwhile, is “bloodily smoking”: a startling, almost violent image, illustrating the hues of a West-walian sunset and obliquely reminding us of the heat of the day that has just ended. Thomas then employs a compound word in describing the early evening breeze as a “sea-broom of cold wind”, (lines 3-4), that suddenly springs up from the water to ruffle the sands, and chase away the last few people from the beach.
The next four lines, (5-8), describe how the family packs up everything they have brought to the beach, and the children eagerly begin to look forward to visiting the funfair. The, “oh, listen, Dad!” in parenthesis is a conversational, familiar touch, among much complex imagery and detailed description. It conveys the barely contained excitement of the children; and it may also indicate that the children had spent the day apart from their father, and are noisily recounting to him their days’ activities. In addition, Thomas’ father’s death in 1952 affected him deeply, and although “Holiday Memory” was not published until 1954, after Thomas’ own death, it could be that Thomas was remembering his father as much as his childhood in this story.
The next twelve lines, (9-20), are a description of the differences between the fair in the day time and the fair by night. Thomas tells us that “fairs are no good in the day”, and further goes on to describe them as “shoddy” and “tired”. There follows a list of startling images through which Thomas describes various features of the fair in the day time and then the night time, and his writing here shows intense lyricism and highly charged emotion. The hoop-la girls’ voices are “crimped as elocutionists”, an improbable juxtaposition of words alluding to how stilted, incomplete and unsatisfactory the girls’ shouts are. In the night however, the girls’ voices croak “like operatic crows”, a bird image that portrays raucousness, as well as noisiness and exuberance.
During the day time, the coconuts are “roosting”: another word associated with birds, used here to indicate stillness and lethargy, whereas in the night, the coconuts rain down “like grouse from the Highland sky”. We notice that Thomas has enlarged upon the bird image here, but he has drawn on an unusual inversion of what birds actually do: birds do not fly and are not hunted at night, just as they do not roost in the day. In describing the gondolas, Thomas employs words associated with drunkenness, but the lurching of the gondolas in the day time is “sober”, compared with the “tipsy” gondolas “weaving on dizzy rails” in the night time. The gondolas of the night are also “griffin-prowed”, the griffin being an animal of fantasy and myth. It is almost as if these qualities are lost in the bright, clinical light of day.
More unusual animal imagery is used to describe the wooden horses of the carousel. The day time horses are still and merely await the coming of night. The night time horses are “neighing”, they jump “a thousand Beecher’s Brooks” “easily and breezily” to a “haunting hunting tune”, they are as fast and nimble as “hooved swallows”. The contrast between the lifeless inactivity of the horses in the day, and the noisy, athletic and vibrant animals of the night is stark. In addition, we notice how Thomas keeps the threads of the hunting and bird imagery running through his description: the horses are like “hooved swallows”, and they gallop to a hunting tune, he also uses assonance to describe the horses’ athleticism, as they clear imaginary fences “easily and breezily”. It is obvious, in conclusion, that Thomas employs language to indicate life, noise, speed and movement in his description of the fair by night, and appeals to the reader’s every sense: things whizz and whirl, they weave and spin, are tipsy and dizzy, they neigh and croak. The fair by day is, by contrast, still and lifeless, scruffy and decaying.
As the boys approach the fair from the beach, they are “scorched and gritty”, (lines 21-22), a skilfully conjured image of sun-burnt and sand-encrusted children, who have made the most of their day on the beach. One of my favourite similes employed by Thomas is his description of young children clinging to their mothers’ skirts (lines 47-48) as “pop-filled and jam-smeared limpets”. It is a brilliantly boisterous depiction of children who have had every whim indulged for just this one day: they have been to the beach, then to the fair, and have been allowed to eat sweets and jam and drink fizzy pop. We are indirectly reminded of the seaside setting of the holiday in the comparison of the children with limpets. The messy abandon of the children is further juxtaposed with the dishevelled exhaustion of their mothers to illustrate that a hectic, fun-filled, day has been had by all.