A master class from Dylan Thomas.
Yesterday, in the UK, we celebrated Bank Holiday Monday. It was our last chance to have a day off work before Christmas! And thankfully, due to a late burst of good weather, it was beautifully hot and sunny. It set me thinking about a piece Dylan Thomas wrote about this day, in the middle of the last century. It starts off:
August Bank Holiday - a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.
It evokes a time when everyone spent the day on the beach, weather permitting. There were no beach clothes as such; girls just tucked their dresses into their pants and men rolled up their trousers, hence the description. But what I really like about this is the way Thomas evokes actions through invented collective nouns - ‘tuck’ used to describe the collection of dresses, and ‘rolling’ becoming a gerund to refer to the corporate adaptation of trousers. The language use is fresh and clichés are avoided, yet Thomas still manages to convey a sense of uniformity in the lack of personalisation. The celebratory nature of the activity is suggested by the collective noun ‘fanfare’ to describe the opening of sunshades, yet the animal imagery of ‘wince and ‘whinny’ makes the bathers seem less than human. The whole effect is comically visual, although a closer reading reveals how Thomas works on our other senses too: the pun of the ‘tune on an ice-cream cornet,’ the literary sauciness and sibilance of ‘a slap of sea and a tickle of sand,’ and the wonderful assonance of ‘hullabaloo of balloons.’ It’s a playful piece to reflect the joy of the occasion, although there is still a hint of menace in the phrase ‘deceptive water.’
Thomas’s writing is rich, clever and layered. A masterclass in writing descriptions – August bank holiday or otherwise!