by Jacqueline Dowling
This week has seen several anniversaries and memorial services: 100 Years since the start of WW1, 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that of Dylan Thomas who died too young, 50 years ago. I have a collection of his work, dog-eared, thumbed and read over and over and over. Perhaps my early childhood in Wales had something to do with it, learning Welsh along with English, then forgetting it as I grew older. But his words and music and magic stay with me – Dylan, why oh why did you self destruct at such a young age? You had so much more to say.
‘…Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall…’
(Poem in October – Dylan Thomas)
This morning I rose early to avoid the after-church shopping rush. The town was deserted. Gulls wheeled, the sea a deep cobalt blue with white-caps dancing in a frenzy before the south east wind. The bells of St Peter’s church rang out through the wind, happy bells, frisky and different. The wind whisking their message far and wide from its squat stone tower. The air smelled of sea and kelp. Whales, in their late season, leaped and thrashed between the swells, fountains of white water shooting into the early light. High above an aircraft, heading like the whales to Antarctica, left contrails in the sky. And the bells rang out across the sea. Dylan Thomas heard bells too. He wove them into his poems and essays; they rang across a different landscape: a more gentle one of estuary and river. Quiet places and quirky people.
Bells – they have so many different voices. The muffled tolling for the death of a monarch. Joyful pealing out on state and royal occasions, all the bells of London singing with one voice. And the mournful solitary tolling of a bell in times of war.
‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice save the choirs,-
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.’
(Anthem for Doomed Youth – Wilfred Owen 1918)
No bells toll for the tragedies of the 21st century. If they did, they would go on and on …and on.
A later part of my growing up took place in Stratford-upon-Avon, where bell ringers practise every Tuesday evening, a traditional pealing of the bells in Holy Trinity church, by the river, near the theatre. My grandmother’s house was across the fields opposite the church, and a short ferry ride took us across the Avon, on a chain wound flatbed to the actors’ pub The Dirty Duck and round the corner to the church, in that order. The bells were always happy, and on a quiet Sunday evening we’d sit on the river bank, listen. When they ceased, there was frequently the hiss of a hot-air balloon filling the silence, floating in the late evening light.
Bells – drifting through a summer’s night dense with moonlight. Wheatfields amber beneath a harvest moon which hovered bronze and glowing, just above the earth, cradled by stars in the vastness of the night sky. Bells. . . pealing in the New Year across those same fields, now covered in soft pillowy snow. Stealing under the thatched eaves of our cottage, as they’d done so many times before.
In Cirencester we heard a beautiful carillon from the cathedral, as we did in Amsterdam, Venice and Cape Town. The bells speaking – as they have spoken down the centuries. Each with a different voice.
‘Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened…’
(Poem In October-Dylan Thomas)
And I bought bells. Christmas bells. Children’s bells. Happy bells. . .
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