Monday, 23 January 2012

Handbag etiquette and A.N. Wilson roots for Wales!

Among DT grand-daughter Hannah Ellis’ plans to revive the Dylan Thomas Society (WM, 14/1/12) is an interactive version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. For my mother, it was decade-spanning stocking fodder, with its ‘shawling snow’ and ‘polar cats’. Happy days, and yet too much pudding chokes the dog, as the Welsh idiom goes. Two recent titles from London publishers prove that DT’s shadow continues to dampen our new fiction pages.

The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie won the Telegraph’s Novel in a Year award and an accolade (his first for Wales?) from A.N. Wilson. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals is Wendy Jones’ fiction debut. That she previously wrote the biography of the transvestite potter, Grayson Perry, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, is attractive, as is the deluxe hardback edition of her novel. But my ideal of fictional small-town life is closer to Psychoville than Llareggub, so I was deflated to read Jones on ‘I listen to [Under Milk Wood] most days’. And both Thoughts and Happenings… and The Coward’s Tale were rendered limp at first glance by their tableaux of eccentrics defined by honorifics and occupation. Reviewers: prove me wrong!

Mid-decade Manhattan is the place to escape Welsh clichés, even though Dylan died in 1953 at NY’s Chelsea hotel. My Santa wish-list for a Mad Men Series 5 DVD was foiled by legal wrangles keeping the masterpiece off-air (from forbidden BskyB) all last year and up to March. Since one of Don Draper’s bed mates, according to the Times, was ‘not another woman but The Best of Everything, [a] 1958 novel by Rona Jaffe’, I gave that a go instead. The career girl genre never shook my Martini, although I enjoyed the holiday R4 broadcast on Helen Gurly Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962), revealing it as another of the genre’s pioneers as well as being a model for Mad Men. So Jaffe’s novel being dubbed as a precursor to Sex in the City should have been a warning. It is baggy, and while its matching handbag etiquette is educational, as is its portrayal of pre-Pill sex anxiety, there is nothing here of sexual mores (and indeed fashion mags) that Sylvia Plath didn’t put pithier in The Bell Jar only five years later: ‘Bile green. They were promising it for fall, only Hilda, as usual, was half a year ahead of time. Bile green with black, bile green with white, bile green with nile green, its kissing cousin…. Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles.’

Postscript: A.N. Wilson on Resistance. Gets the film, still doesn’t get the language. We know we're fascinating but give us a rest, dear.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, published on Saturday 21 January 2012

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