A Young Man in a Sea Town on a Warm Bank Holiday
Dylan Thomas, the well-known English poet, was born in Swansea in 1914 and died in 1953. His poetry, which is full of vitality and, especially in his earlier work, powerful but obscure imagery, has had a great influence on the younger poets of his generation. His volumes of poetry include Eighteen Poems (1934), Twenty-Five Poems (1936), The Map of Love (1939), Deaths and Entrances (1946) and Collected Poems (1952)| His prose includes Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and Advert tures of the Skin Trade (1955).
The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is a semi-autobiographical work consisting of a series of ironically humorous stories, each dealing with some episode in the poet's life in Wales - as a child, a schoolboy, a young man. The extract we include has been taken from the story One Warm Saturday. The plot of the story is simple. The young'poet, having declined to join his friends for the week-end, spends the holiday alone in a small seaside town. The extract casts some light on one of the most popular ways of spending Bank Holidays and week-ends in England where no one lives very far from the sea.
In a huddle of picnicking women and their children, stretched out limp and damp in the sweltering sun or fussing over paper carriers or building castles* that were at once 'destroyed by the tattered march of other picnickers to different pieces of the beach, among the ice-cream cries, the angrily happy shouts of boys playing ball, and the screams of girls as the sea rose to their waists, the young man sat alone with the shadows of his failure at his side. Some silent husbands, with rolled up trousers and suspenders dangling, paddled (slowly on the border of the sea, paddling women, in thick, black picnic dresses, laughed at their own legs, dcgs chased stones, and one proud boy rode the water on a rubber seal. The young man, in his wilderness, saw the holiday Saturday set down before him, false and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun; the disporting families with paper bags, buckets and spades, parasols and bottles, the happy, hot, and aching girls with sunburn liniments in their bags, the bronzed young men with chests, and the envious white young men in waistcoats, the thin, pale, hairy, pathetic legs of the husbands silently walking through the water, the plump and curly, shaven-headed and bowed-backed children up to no sense with unrepeatable delight in the dirty sand, moved him, he thought dramatically in his isolation, to an old shame and pity; outside all holiday, like a young man doomed for ever to the company of his maggots, beyond the high and ordinary, sweating, sun-awakened power and stupidity of the summer flesh on a day and a world out, he caught the ball that a small boy had whacked into the air with a tin tray, and rose to throw it back.
The boy invited him to play. A friendly family stood waiting some way off, the tousled women with their dresses tucked in their knickers, the bare-footed men in shirtsleeves; a number of children in slips and cut-down underwear. He bowled bitterly to a father standing with a tray before the wicket of hats. "The lone wolf playing ball," he said to himself as the tray whirled. Chasing the ball towards the sea, passing undressing women with a rush and a wink, tripping over a castle into a coil of wet girls lying like snakes, soaking his shoes as he grabbed the ball off a wave, he felt his happiness return in a boast of the body, and, "Look out, here's a fast one coming," he cried to the mother behind the hats. The ball bounced on a boy's head. In and out of the scattered families, among the sandwiches and clothes, uncles and mothers fielded the bouncing ball. A bald man, with his shirt hanging out, returned it in the wrong direction, and a collie carried it into the sea. Now it was mother's turn with the tray. Tray and ball together flew over her head. An uncle in a panama smacked the ball to the dog, who swam with it out of reach. They offered the young man egg-and-cream sandwiches and warm stout, and he and an uncle and a father sat down on the Evening Post until the sea touched their feet.
Alone again, hot and unhappy, for the boasting minute when he ran among the unknown people lying and running loudly at peace was struck away, like a ball, he said, into the sea, he walked to a space on the beach where a hell-fire preacher on a box marked "Mr Matthews" was talking to a congregation of expressionless women. Boys with pea-shoot- ers sat quietly near him. A ragged man collected nothing in a cap. Mr Matthews shook his cold hands, stormed at the holiday, and cursed the summer from his shivering box. He cried for a new warmth. The strong sun shone into his bones, and he buttoned his coat collar. Valley children, with sunken, impudent eyes, quick tongues and singing voices, chest thin as shells, gathered round the Punch and Judy and the Stop Me tricycle, and he denied them all. He contradicted the girls in their underclothes combing and powdering, and the modest girls cleverly dressing under tents of. towels.
As Mr Matthews cast down the scarlet town, drove out the bare-bellied boys who danced around the ice-cream man, and wound the girls' sunburnt thighs about with.his black overcoat - "Down! down!" he cried, "the night is upon us" - the young man in dejection stood, with a shadow at his shoulders, and thought of Porthcawl's Coney Beach,* where his friends were rocking with girls on the Giant Racer or tearing in the Ghost Train down the skeletons' tunnel. Leslie Bird would have his arms full of coconuts. Brenda was with Herbert at her rifle-range. Gil Morris was buying Molly a cocktail with a cherry at the "Esplanade". Here he stood, listening to Mr Matthews, the retired drinker, crying darkness on the evening sands, with money hot in his pocket and Saturday burning away.
* (Porthcawl's Coney Beach - Porthcawl is a seaside town in Glamorgan, South Wales; Coney Island is a seaside resort and amusement centra in Brooklyn, New York City. The combination of the two is meant to produce a humorous effect.)
He thought: Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with visions needs no other company; Saturday is a crude day;
I must go home and sit in my bedroom by the boiler. But he was not a poet living and walking, he was a young man in a sea town on a warm bank holiday, with two pounds to spend; he had no visions, only two pounds and a small body with its feet on the littered sand; serenity was for old men; and he moved away, over the railway points, on to the tramlined road.
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