Dylan Thomas, James Herriot, and the Spirit of Christmas


You might think that having the likes of Dylan Thomas (he of, “Do not go gentle into that good night”) drop by at Christmas would be tantamount to exclusively broaching Scrooge’s Christmas Eves prior to that special one. Just in case our unlikely courier of charm might, to some, fixedly and unwelcomely portend a variation of The Nightmare before Christmas, we also have in our sack the sure-fire James Herriot and his just-right reminiscence about The Christmas Day Kitten. I’ll keep my enthusing, about Thomas’ visit, to a minimum, whereupon there is the YouTube of the author’s 1952 reading; and, then, to some hints about Herriot’s doing so much more than damage control.  As good a place as any to reach the nub of Thomas’ going back to the ways of Christmas celebration when he was a boy in Wales is the moment—somehow still compelling to him as an adult—when he and his friend, Jim, “…patient, cold and callous… waited to snowball the cats.” This glimpse of cold-weather crudity striving for gratifying sizzle sets the tempo of every incident recalled. A fire breaks out from an errant bid for hospitality, and a maiden aunt asks the firemen, “Would you like anything to read?” Young Dylan brags to younger children there, about the unique wild side of winters past, postmen past, Christmas presents past and the uncles past (“There are always uncles at Christmas. The same.”), galvanizing a domestic, even ascetic celebration like that into a spectacle of slightly eerie departures from a long-standing sedateness. After the luncheon feast (where the uncles shone at over-indulgence), the boy-adventurer would go out for a walk with a few chums. A wiser Thomas describes such a moment as that in which the callow, irrepressible little show-off would tarnish beyond fruitful recognition the unembellished magic of life around him and within. “The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks around their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying, “Excelsior.” On the “poor streets,” the children “cat-called” after the stuffed revellers, their cries, “…fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay.” At tea, Auntie Hannah “laced hers with rum… and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave.”

And after that, “tall tales… we told by the fire.” And it is at this point, instead of the perennial standbys, that there is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter that can’t be forgotten (just as Herriot’s once-only and never-forgotten Christmas outsider). Carolling in the night, Dylan and his friends take into their head to go to the front door of a “large home” (a place bringing to mind the homestead of Edward Scissorhands). The kids decide against the ethereal “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in favor of “Good King Wenceslas.” Soon after starting, they were accompanied by “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door, a small dry voice through the keyhole.” They ran away until they arrived at Dylan’s house, where they hoped that some jelly was left. An even tipsier Auntie Hannah inadvertently reminded him of the recent shock that was too hot to handle, in singing about “Bleeding Hearts and Death” and singing that her heart was like a bird’s nest—causing the sated revellers to laugh. In bed and ready to sleep, Dylan looked out at lights in windows and the music rising up from them, but only seeing those “on our hill.” There was “moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow.” There was “close and holy darkness.” And there was a sweep of love that proved impossible to brave.


Elusive, wild and subtle love—also on the order of children’s Christmas experiences—suffuses the even more ephemeral story, The Christmas Day Kitten, by James Herriot, who begins by declaring, “Christmas can never go by without my remembering a certain little cat.” Unlike Thomas’ full-throttle, Welsh migration to the poetic side of life, Herriot speaks from the point of view of a Scot transplanted to functioning as a veterinarian in rural England, and thereby his flights of fancy have to be pulled out of a seemingly low-key narrative apparently showing a sweet but low-wattage embellishment of solid Anglo-Saxon domesticity. (That might seem perfectly apt for the children’s story that it has famously become. But, recall, that the piece has been excerpted from the adult account, Vets Might Fly (1976), covering the author’s actions and reveries as a pilot at the outset of World War II.)


In fact, this little chamber drama emits every bit as much profound reflective poignancy as Thomas’ gem. Its compass makes itself known by unspoken aspects of the seeming Old Dear, Mrs. Pickering, and the inflectedness of her generosity toward a stray tabby frequently visiting her in her comfortable house where her three “much-loved Basset hounds” [pure-bred, of course] sit around getting fat like Thomas’ uncles. “Do you ever get the feeling that she wants to stay with you?” the veterinarian/speaker asks, during his first seeing this “Debbie” at the lady’s place, an event that left him “in some surprise.” (Such reticent lobbying by the vet makes up the complement of our way into this far from children’s tone poem.) Though Mrs. Pickering insists, “She’s a timid little thing. Just creeps in, has some food, then slips away. She doesn’t seem to want to let me help her in any way”—the speaker tries to have her consider, “But she isn’t just having food today.” Still seemingly to stand on unassailable grounds (while in fact as obtuse as Thomas’ maiden aunt and her not really attending to what hospitality really means), she refers to how once in a while “she pops through” into the sitting-room [that is to say, when the Old Dear can’t effectively bar the way. She muses that her sitting by the fire for “a few minutes” [a few minutes the dog-fancier tolerates before shooing her out] is “as though she was giving herself a treat.” Then the illustration (by Ruth Brown), of Debbie’s having grabbed the chance to “pop through” while the lady was distracted by the man, takes over, and we have a heart-stopping, virtually cinematic moment of the richly flaming fireplace, the fat clean dogs asleep on the lush carpet and the thin unkempt cat sitting mesmerized by that primal treasure of a fire she knows to be hers to love and delight in, though so far from her range.

This diminutive, seemingly calculated fragment (apparently, and I’m sure, to many, almost incomprehensibly, deemed by the author to be the favorite instance of his career) is a paragon of gently ironic nuance—light years away from the ironies of the films I love, but a close relative notwithstanding. The speaker goes on, from his having been, undetectably (to Mrs. Pickering), but palpably haunted (to the reader) about the aftermath of that first encounter with the furry figment on the fringes of attention. “I often visited the Pickering home and always looked for the little cat.” That he refuses, from that perspective, to call her Mrs. Pickering’s name for her, “Debbie,” with its servant class connotation, is an instance of the delicate (nearly invisible) and yet strangely combative nature of this most fascinating version of a child’s book. He recounts once being rewarded by her happening to be on the scene. He remarks spotting ‘her nibbling daintily from a saucer” (as if afraid to make an offending move); but, as if intuiting he was a kindred spirit, “…she turned and almost floated on light footsteps into the hall, then through into the sitting room.” Now thinking of her as Debbie, while within the clutch of Bassets, he confirms how she loves to gaze “into” (not merely at) the “glowing fire,” embracing its glow. “I tried to make friends with her” (Mrs. Pickering seemingly attending, elsewhere in the house, to one of the pastimes of a well-off but not wealthy widow). “I talked to her softly and I managed to stroke her cheek with one finger.” Mrs. Pickering back on the scene—covered by, “Then it was time for her to go…”—the speaker wants to hold on to this parting glimpse of a thread of love. “The last I saw was the little tabby figure flitting away across the grassy field.” Though we see he has invested much emotion into his concern—murmuring, “I wonder where she goes?”—Mrs. Pickering’s “That’s something we’ve never been able to find out,” must be taken as spurious.


But in face of Debbie’s arriving, on Christmas morning, near death and carrying a kitten in her mouth, she doesn’t hesitate to call the vet, urging him to “come quickly…There’s something very wrong.” The speaker pointedly regards “the empty market square,” “the pretty colored lights” in the closed shops and the heavy snow on the road –this latter engulfing him in the creature’s struggle to reach the house; and the other points, a mixture of keeping himself matter-of-fact calm and realization that a degree of emptiness, far from pretty, had tormented Debbie’s whole life. His first observation—for he’d been half expecting the terrible outcome—was that Mrs. Pickering’s house was “beautifully decorated,” in harmony with “the rich smell of turkey.” “With ‘a very worried look” she led him to the sitting-room where he couldn’t help noticing how unlike Debbie’s brief, remarkably alert joys there she had ended up that day. His extra surprise—“What have we here?”—at seeing a kitten huddled close to her, was given some respite by the Old Dear’s jabbering about this, “the strangest thing,” after an absence of what she reports to be “several weeks” (which we might infer to be longer and stemming from some unacknowledgeable friction). “She brought it in here and laid it on the rug.” The illustration is striking in its irony, showing the dying cat and her kitten placed on a muddied sheet, with the very important carpet glowing beyond. “Is she ill?” the very senior-sounding hostess offers. The speaker, after describing himself as passing his hand over Debbie’s body—“which Mrs. Pickering had placed on a piece of sheet”—and noting with a blandness to brace remarkable pain, “She was very, very thin and her coat was dirty. I knew that she didn’t have long to live,” politely and with something other than workaday relief, replies, “Yes…yes, I’m afraid so. But I don’t think she is in any pain.”

Having taken us back to the site of Debbie’s fondest joy, the story proceeds to delineate more specifically its sense of the full proportions of love. It begins by putting us on notice that Mrs. Pickering is not without understanding that reflexive kindness is not enough. “Mrs. Pickering looked at me and I saw there were tears in her eyes. Then she knelt beside Debbie and stroked the cat’s head while the tears fell on the dirty fur… ‘Oh the poor little thing! I should have done more for her.’” Something was, indeed, “very wrong,” and at this point her tears were at least as much about her diminishment in her own eyes as about the pain and death Debbie had undergone. Then the speaker has his own integrity to do battle with. “I spoke gently. ‘Nobody could have done more than you. Nobody could have been kinder. And see, she has brought her kitten to you, hasn’t she?” This process of socially admissible little white lies opens the door for all manner of interpretive histrionics and symbolism pertaining to Debbie’s resolve to save her kitten. Along this sightline, a lucrative entry into the Christmastime verities market was born. But, as an adult vignette, it is the anxieties of Mrs. Pickering and (especially) those of the speaker which unfurl here to revelatory heights.

Mrs. Pickering recovers very quickly from her momentary disarray. Latching on to the cat who loved that flaming in the sitting-room and therefore saw it as where her kitten would be at a well of primal love (unlike the wooden and mixed messages emanating from the clockwork hostess and impeccable dog fancier, who, though, would have to do, as a long shot capable of undoing everything), Mrs. Pickering becomes the benefactor (at a second generation) which the vet had been easing her into. “Isn’t it strange—Debbie knew she was dying so she brought her kitten here. And on Christmas day.” The speaker finds that Debbie has died. “I lifted the feather light body, wrapped it in the piece of sheet and took it out to the car.” On returning to the house where a nice dinner party will be had by all, he finds that the dose of nerve pills he surreptitiously administered has done the trick. “When I came back, Mrs. Pickering was still stroking the kitten. The tears had dried, and she was bright-eyed as she looked at me.” Consequently, we hear about her “Buster” (an awkward fit in a sitting-room), “a handsome and bouncy tabby cat.” We hear, with rich and bittersweet irony, “He wasn’t timid like his little mother and he lived like a king—and with the ornate collar he always wore, looked like one too.”

The speaker never “recovers.” He tells us of “the occasion that always stays in my mind… the following Christmas Day.” On his way back home from helping “a farmer with a sick cow,” he’s hailed in by Mrs. Pickering who pours him a drink, and laughs in having him see how feisty the little aristocrat is with the three Bassets who function on the register of the House of Lords. “Buster does tease them so. He gives them no peace.” She takes the vet into the yard and tosses a rubber ball. Buster chases it down, seizes the ball in his mouth and brings it back to his mistress. He does it again and again. (The illustration, showing him about to grab the ball in mid-air, does nothing so much as complement the speaker’s unspoken thought that Buster’s mother would have made the same moves, only in [fiery] pursuit of birds and rodents.) “Have you ever seen anything like that?” the Old Dear asks, delightedly. Diplomat that he was, he says, “No… He’s a most remarkable cat…” Back in the sitting room, she holds her new boy close to her, “laughing as the big cat purred loudly.” The fireplace is no longer a focus. The speaker then tells us, “Looking at him so healthy and contented, I remembered his mother who had carried her tiny kitten to the only place of comfort and warmth that she had ever known.” He magnanimously (but also ironically) declares that Mrs. Pickering “was thinking the same thing,” in remarking, “eyes …thoughtful,” “Debbie would be pleased.” Bare-bones narrative packing a weight of vastly civilized social tension, he replies, “Yes, she would. It was just a year ago today she brought him in, wasn’t it?” She thinks of the outcome as, “The best Christmas present I’ve ever had.” His presence here takes us back to the very first sentence, “Christmas can never go by without my remembering a certain little cat.”

Mrs. Pickering had been moved to regard the episode as rising to her “best” gift ever. The speaker has been shaken to the point of never ceasing to be on the spot about what more he could have done. As such, he’s a life-long correspondent to that imperative of doing justice to the same fire Debbie loved (including the barely discernible omnipresent cruelties of refined, respectable taste), just as Dylan Thomas (also obliquely, and so well) admits to being prodded by his doing nothing to enhance the bid for fire on the other side of that door. That Mrs. Pickering is a more complete person as a result of the vet’s troubling (for him) prescription of unmerited praise marvellously complicates—or, in other words, makes more real—the depths inherent in Christmastime and its igniting the magic of love.

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