In late May 1961 a young South African, Stephanie Kemp, wrote her name and the date in her new hardback copy of Quite Early One Morning - broadcasts by Dylan Thomas published by J M Dent & Sons Ltd of Bedford Street, London, preface by Anaerin Talfarn Davies of Wales Region, BBC.
The book passed to her boyfriend, John Clare, a fellow Cape Town student, future BBC reporter and journalist and my father, who kept it through the seventies and the eighties when he briefly lived with Stephanie again. Then he moved to a flat near hers, in Tufnell Park, and kept the book there and for many years afterwards until he ill-advisedly lent it to me around 1997.
In a flat in Shadwell in 1999 I vowed never to part with it. The cover shows Dylan Thomas in a black polo-neck, looking clean, smart, young, sober and angelically focused on the script in front of him: a magnificent prospect, balm to any producer's programme-day heart! At this time I was working at the bottom of BBC Radio, hoping to be a producer.
Behind Thomas, through the glass, you can see the producer in a suit. (Some of my friends still put on suits on the days they put their programmes out. And you know the picture is posed because of course you want the reader facing the producer through the glass.)
The studio in the picture was our smoking room, Studio B10, and work is about to commence.
Last shuffle of papers; stillness.
OK you ready? We’re recording.
Quite Early One Morning. Quite early one morning in the winter in Wales, by the sea that was lying down still and green as grass after a night of tar-black howling and rolling, I went out of the house, where I had come for a cold unseasonable holiday, to see if it was raining still, if the outhouse had been blow away, potatoes, shears, rat-killer, shrimp nets, and tins of rusty nails aloft on the wind, and if all the cliffs were left. It had been such a ferocious night that someone in the smoky ship-pictured bar had said he could feel his tombstone shaking, even though he was not dead, or at least was moving; but the morning shone as clear and calm as one always imagines tomorrow will shine.
The sun lit the sea town, not as a whole - from top-most down - reproving zinc-rooved chapel to empty-but-for-rats-and-whispers grey warehouse on the harbour, but in separate bright pieces. There, the quay shouldering out, no one on it but gulls and the capstans like small men in tubular trousers. Here the roof of the police station, black as a helmet, dry as a summons, sober as Sunday. There, the splashed church, with a cloud in the shape of a bell poised above it, ready to drift and ring. Here the chimneys of the pink-washed pub, the pub that was waiting for Saturday night as an over-jolly girl waits for sailors.
The town was not yet awake...
That flat in Shadwell was sixty quid a week, there were three of us, and the Tube Mice in the kitchen, a species I think they only have in London which look like they have been sucked through hoovers and diminished. There was a Hawksmoor church out the back, St George in the East, and I went to get my ears syringed nearby and wrote my first half-decent non-juvenile poems about the ear syringing and the church (the syringing one was much better). I have lost the poems and my ears need syringing again. I was dreaming of writing books.
Six years later my first would come out, and then another and so on. I did not know, then, it does not matter how many you write; you are always starting out, you are always many dreams and a few miracles away from writing a book. But I did know that the point of it, the real point of it, was to hymn the world, to hymn it and hymn it, and find the match of words and feelings that would do the trick. In the flat in Shadwell I wrote one of my bad poems and came up with a line describing fallen leaves as summer’s burned plans. You can tell I had been reading a lot of Thomas! I’ve used that line a few times in different places, as he did with his.
My room was a warm box and Stephanie Kemp's copy of Quite Early One Morning never looked better than under my bedside light. I don't know how many times I read those two paragraphs then, as the capstans like small men in tubular trousers were carved into my writing heart.
There are many nature writers, and many more life writers, and there are travel writers and poets. But Thomas was all these at once, and this copy of his book is my talisman. All you have to do, it says, is walk out, quite early one morning, and see what is there and write it down (and maybe you turn your essay into Under Milk Wood, a radio play for voices and get Richard Burton to narrate it and find you have made one of the landmarks of the literature of Wales, of Britain, of Europe). But the main thing is to go out quite early one morning and write it down.
Bestselling travel writer Horatio Clare joins an icebreaker for a voyage through the ice-packs of the far north. Click here to buy it now.