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For Barry Jones: Dylan Thomas and Clive James

Poetry Readings at Barry Jones Birthday Poetry and Music Event, FortyFiveDownstairs, Melbourne, 5 November 2023


One of the things that Barry Owen Jones and I have in common is the extravagant Welshness of our names.

In Barry’s case there’s no doubt about the genuineness of the connection. As he tells us in A Thinking Reed, his great grandfather Edward Jones emigrated from Wales to try to get a piece of the Gold Rush, albeit with a conspicuous lack of success.

But in my case I have to admit my apparent Welshness is completely ersatz. The earliest Evans we can trace in my family tree may have had distant ancestors in the bogs beyond the marches, but by the early 19th century he was very much a Londoner.

And as to the apparent clincher ‘Gareth’, the truth of the matter was that when I was born in 1944 my mother wanted to name me after the film star Gary Cooper, for whom she had at the time a serious case of the hots, and only succumbed to Gareth – neither she nor my father realising at the time that it was rather distinctively Welsh – when someone persuaded her that it sounded a bit less ocker


All that said, and fraudulent though it may be, I’ve always been happy to bask in the connection, never more so than when enjoying – as I know does Barry, because we’re both suckers for loquacity – the wonderfully rich poetry of Dylan Thomas.

And there’s no more richly chewy language in the Dylan canon than the opening lines of his verse play, Under Milk Wood. I can’t begin to emulate Richard Burton’s recorded reading, let alone Dylan’s own, but here goes:

UNDER MILK WOOD - Dylan Thomas

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.


Time passes. Listen. Time passes.


Another thing that Barry and I have in common is that we have to acknowledge, with him now past 90 and me now in my 80th year, that we are both very much in sniper’s alley.

So too, and very much more so, was Clive James in 2014, when he wrote Japanese Maple, having been diagnosed with the terminal combination of leukemia and emphysema four years earlier, having defied gravity until then and certain that this year would be his last – but challenging himself to live until the autumn to see, in his Cambridge garden, the leaves of the tree his daughter had just given him ‘turn to flame’.

Clive’s politics – like Barrie Humphries’s – were never a thing of beauty, but his Unreliable Memoirs remain probably the funniest autobiographies ever written, his volumes of essays, particularly Cultural Amnesia some of the most scintillating cultural commentary ever penned, and his poetry – of which he was the proudest of all his writing, as he told me when I visited him in that garden a year earlier – often quite hauntingly lovely.

Lest it be thought that my reading Japanese Maple now is being just a little bit gloomily pessimistic for what should be a joyous birthday celebration, the good news is that Clive continued to defy gravity, and see his tree’s leaves turn to flame, for another five autumns before he finally succumbed. So there’s hope for us all…


Your death, near now, is of an easy sort. So slow a fading out brings no real pain. Breath growing short Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls On that small tree And saturates your brick back garden walls, So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends This glistening illuminates the air. It never ends. Whenever the rain comes it will be there, Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new. Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame. What I must do Is live to see that. That will end the game For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes, A final flood of colours will live on As my mind dies, Burned by my vision of a world that shone So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

(New Yorker, September 15, 2014)