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Books Column: A poet, a startup, a seafoodery and the Christmas story of how audiobooks came into our lives

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams recounts the tortuous but provident path of a beloved work of prose – which sparked a revolution in reading.

Do you know the story of how one of the most iconic Christmas tales ever written gave rise to the mighty audiobooks industry? The same industry that, in 2020, took an increasing share, monthly subscription charge after monthly subscription charge, of our reading lives?

Would you like to hear it?

No, the tale in question isn’t Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

The tale in question is A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which has a fascinating publishing history – one that culminated in New York, 1952, when Dylan Thomas, almost as an afterthought, suggested it for a recording he’d agreed to do for Caedmon Records.

Caedmon would today be called a content startup. It was founded by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney, two women in their early twenties who were convinced that there was a sizeable market for the voices of authors reading from their own work. Thomas was their first bet. The story goes that the two had been unable to contact the poet during his New York tour until they learned that he was to be found up at all hours drinking. They visited him at his Chelsea Hotel room at 5am and convinced him to make the record.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953) drinking a glass of beer and smoking while seated at a desk with stacks of his books of poetry, New York City, c. 1950. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thomas had been writing childhood reminiscences for more than a decade at that point, some of which he’d recorded for the BBC. He eventually merged several of the pieces into a single essay, which he sold to a magazine – and then promptly forgot about.

Cut to 1952 and the discussions between Holdridge, Roney and Thomas on what he should read for them. They eventually settled on his Christmas tale, barring one problem: it didn’t seem to exist. Let Caedmon take the story from here:

“Although this was the first record ever made by Thomas and by Caedmon, and so worthy of solemnity, the choice of contents was a gay and haphazard affair. Poems we discussed over rounds of beer, and dropped in favour of puns and scandal and politics. But as time before the recording session grew short, thoughts of including a prose piece occurred to Dylan. One afternoon – the place a restaurant called The Little Shrimp – the thoughts crystallised. There was a story – the name escaped him – which Harper’s Bazaar had printed a while back. About Christmas in Wales. Could we get hold of it? The issue finally gotten hold of was the Bazaar’s sole existing file copy, lent only upon the most solemn oath of return.”

It’s somewhat incredible to think that giant companies like Amazon, which owns Audible, have a trace of a seafoodery called The Little Shrimp in their DNA.

Choosing the poems to accompany A Child’s Christmas in Wales, meanwhile, was equally without design. The six that made the cut were decided upon the day of the recording at Steinway Hall – after Thomas had arrived without his books and a last-minute dash to a bookshop had to be undertaken. They include the unforgettable “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.

The pure charm of A Child’s Christmas in Wales drove the record to sell thousands. Caedmon took off as a business and the audiobook industry was born. On the sleeve of my pressing of Thomas’s record, a 1957 LP that has always been in our family, the list of selected recordings offered by Caedmon includes, under “Authors’ Own Readings”, records by William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, JRR Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway and a dozen other names you’d recognise at a glance.

This time of year, the thing to do is pour a whiskey, turn off all the lights except those strung across the windows, lower the needle and listen in the dark to Thomas’s voice, strong and clear yet somehow also tremulous and winded, conjuring on that concert hall stage in New York a Christmas none of us ever knew – but somehow lives in our bones.

There stands his unforgettable character Miss Prothero, sketched into life with just a few deft lines, peering into a smoky room, the eternal question rising to her lips –

“Would you like anything to read?”

Yes indeed, Miss Prothero – but after one final playback of the LP, if you don’t mind. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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