Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

In praise of… the garden shed

Today’s post is inspired by an interview on BBC’s Breakfast News programme this morning with Sandi Toksvig. Sandi is presenting a daily programme during the coronavirus crisis exploring relatively obscure historical events or people that ought to be more well known. You can link to the broadcasts here. However, it wasn’t the content of the interview that caught my attention (although it was typically insightful and funny), but rather the location. Sandi was being interviewed over a Skype link from her garden shed. To be fair, I suspect it’s less shed than garden office, and it did look to be larger than my living room. Nevertheless, it was all pine planks and just a bit sauna-like.

It was another beautiful day in Cardiff today, with bright blue skies, almost wall to wall sunshine and just a hint of breeze to encourage activity while outdoors. Just the perfect day, in fact, to take inspiration from Sandi and decide to give my own garden shed a coat of protective varnish ready for the summer. I really like my shed. It’s 2.4m by 1.2m (or 8 foot by 4 foot if you’re reading this and are of my vintage – which my daughter reliably informs me all my readers probably are!). It’s large enough to house all the essential things that a fifty-something male office worker needs to make him feel useful (jigsaw, drill, electric plane, flogging hammer) alongside all the things that are needed seasonally but can’t be stored in the house (Christmas decorations; outdoor furniture seat pads; gazebo). There’s also just enough room for a really comfy wicker chair. Somewhere to sit for a few moments and just be still.

I really empathise with people who have sought retreat in sheds and other similar buildings to focus on the creative process. Dylan Thomas’ writing-shed in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire is a great example. It’s not much bigger than my own shed, although is fairness, the views across the estuary and out to sea are absolutely amazing.

And Thomas was not alone. Other famous writers who sought inspiration in their sheds include Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. Don Stratford wrote a poem about his shed which (I regret to say) is much nearer to the role that my shed plays in my life than the experiences of the literary greats.

A mans’ gotta have a shed y’know
A place he calls his own
Where he can go and lose himself
Like a king upon his throne

It can be neat and tidy
With everything in place
Or one unholy bloody mess
Where there isn’t any space

But you can rest assured old friend
No matter how it fares
It’s his domain and castle
Down to the worn out chairs

My shed may not lead to a great novel, play or poetry, but it has provided the inspiration for this blogpost, and that’s a start. Isn’t it?

Day 8 : A departure from the daily challenge

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas’ beautiful, anguished poem seems appropriate for today’s blog post. It’s a departure from the November daily challenge theme, but I hope you’ll forgive that. For the second time this year, a team in work were today coming to terms with the untimely death of a colleague. Grief affects people in different ways and over different timescales; but the initial shock and overwhelming sadness is common to everybody on first hearing the news. That was the general mood in the team this morning. But it soon began to develop into something else : a realisation that so much of what we get anxious or irritated about is so inconsequential in the great scheme of things. There is – quite literally – so much more to life.

So as I drift into this weekend, I am resolving to care less about the things that matter so little; and to pay much more attention to the things that are truly important. My commitment is to rage against the dying of the light by seeking to reflect the light and lightness of life much more brightly.

Barenboim to Penylan in six steps

One of my favourite posts of National Blog Post Month is my annual Wikipedia-inspired six degrees of separation quest. Today is the 75th birthday of conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, so he is my starting point.

Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in November 1942. He began piano lessons with his mother at five years of age, and following a move to Israel in 1952, he attended classes with various virtuoso pianists in Salzburg and Paris. He initially performed as a classical pianist, travelling throughout Europe and North America, before turning to conducting following a debut recording with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1966. Barenboim is widely acknowledged as among the foremost experts on the music of Beethoven, and his interpretation of the 9th Symphony is held in particularly high regard.

Barenboim met Jacqueline du Pre on New Year’s Eve 1966 and they were married in June 1967. du Pre was born in Oxford in 1945, the daughter of an accountant and a mother who was a concert pianist and tutor at the Royal Academy of Music. du Pre began cello lessons at the age of five and started attending the London Violoncello School, before eventually enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music. du Pre quickly established an international reputation as a solo performer, at one stage performing at the Proms for seven consecutive years from 1963 to 1969. In 1971, du Pre began to lose sensation in her fingers and other parts of her body, and was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. du Pre stopped performing that same year, and died in 1987 at just 42 years of age.

From 1956 to 1961, du Pre was the recipient of a Guilhermina Suggia scholarship to support her lessons at Guildhall and with virtuoso cellists. Suggia (full name Guilhermina Augusta Xavier de Medim Suggia Carteado Mena) was a Portuguese cellist who learnt her instrument at school in Paris before spending large parts of the 1920s and 1930s in the UK. She grew particularly fond of the area around Lindisfarne Castle in the north of England. Following her death in 1950, her Stradivarius cello was sold and the proceeds held in trust to provide scholarships for talented young cellists.

As well as being a prodigiously talented musician, Suggia was also a striking woman, by all accounts. One of those to be commissioned to paint her portrait was Welsh artist Augustus John. John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in 1878, and moved to London after school to attend the Slade School of Art. He was acknowledged as amongst the most talented draughtspeople of his generation, and he initially developed a style that drew heavily on the post-impressionist school. In his later years, however, his fame grew around his talent for portraiture. Amongst others, he was commissioned to paint  T. E. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw.

However, perhaps his most famous portrait is of fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas. In fact, it was John who introduced Thomas to Caitlin Moran, the woman who would go on to marry the poet. Much has written about the life and times of Dylan Thomas. In many ways, he typifies the troubled artist, hugely talented but equally emotionally fragile, drinking heavily and seemingly uneasy with the world. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he produced some of the most evocative poetry and verse-prose of the 20th Century, inspiring a whole generation of Welsh writers.

Among these was Dannie Abse, born into a Jewish-Welsh family in Cardiff in 1923. I have written about Abse’s semi-autobiographical book Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve on this blog before. It’s a beautifully written memoir of a young boy growing up in suburban Cardiff between the wars. But Thomas’ role in inspiring Abse to write the book is perhaps less obvious than might have been thought. In an interview for the Wales Arts Review in 2013, Abse explained : “Then I realised that there were two things that were not in Thomas’ book; he was not Jewish and there were no politics at all. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to stress those aspects quite particularly in Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. I wanted to bring in the whole world and scream about the war that was going on in Spain, as it does in that book. So Dylan Thomas had an influence on me, negatively, I wanted to avoid being too much like him.”

And so to the final connection in this Wikipedia odyssey. The Abse family home was in the Penylan district of Cardiff – something less than 5 miles from where I was born and raised in Splott, and from where my family home now is in Old St Mellons. Happy birthday, Daniel Barenboim!