Child’s Christmas in Wales, the opening song on John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ 1952 prose work A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Whilst Child’s Christmas in Wales takes some inspiration from Thomas’ work of the same name, evoking the same wide-eyed wonder of a young child at a time of festivities, the song gives more than a passing nod to another Dylan Thomas work, the poem The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait (1946).
Musically, Paris 1919 is to John Cale’s canon as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) was to theirs and strongly influenced by producer Chris Thomas’ recent experiences working with Procol Harum on their Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972). Set amongst the lushly orchestrated backdrop, the lyrics of the album are arguably Cale’s most impressive but confusing work to date. Child’s Christmas in Wales stirs a similar feeling to the Dylan Thomas work of the same name, one of magic and joy in the company of family and friends at that time of year with lines such as “With mistletoe and candle green” and “good neighbours were we all” but the songs setting, aboard a ship (“Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship”), shows the influence of The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. The most obvious lyrical reference to The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait is in the lines “Too late to wait, the long legged bait Tripped uselessly around”. The main character of Thomas’ poem is a fisherman who uses a girl as bait. The fish violate the girl and she dies: “A girl alive with hooks through her lips, All the fishes were rayed in blood”. Note here the similarities between the line in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales to the line in Thomas’ The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. Other similarities include the references to cattle in both Cale’s work and Thomas’ work. For example, in The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait, after various miracles and strange things happening, notably the disappearance of the sea, the fisherman sees “the bulls of Biscay and their calves” and “The cattle graze on the covered foam”. These references to cattle and the replacement of one environment for another are mirrored in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales in the line “The cattle graze uprightly seducing the door”. Cattle are also mentioned in the second track of the album, Hanky Panky Nohow in the rather baffling lyric, “There’s a law for everything and for Elephants that sing to keep the cows that agriculture won’t allow”.
With Child’s Christmas in Wales, John Cale uses the influence of Dylan Thomas as a springboard to the set the scene for the evident themes of the sea, travel and war on Paris 1919. The penultimate verse of Child’s Christmas in Wales (“Sebastopol Adrianapolis, The prayers of all combined, Take down the flags of ownership, The walls are falling down”) can be read in three ways. Firstly, the walls falling down could be a reference to the magical occurrence where one setting is replaced by another in Thomas’ The Long Legged Bait. Secondly, the lines could refer to the submission of the long legged bait with the flags representing the girl yielding to the narrator’s advances and the walls falling down representing her defenses tumbling. Thirdly, it could be a war reference, with the flags of ownership representing either the countries at war and the walls falling down representing invasion and the assuming of control. Just as Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales finds Thomas reminiscing about childhood Christmases, we could see the narrator of Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales as a soldier aboard a ship over the Christmas period reminiscing about childhood Christmases at home.
“Sebastopol” refers to the southernmost suburb of Pontypool, Torfaen, South Wales, named in honour of the Crimean city of Sevastopol (also known as Sebastopol) which was taken during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) during The Siege of Sevastopol (1854 – 1855). Adrianapolis is the old name for Edime, Turkey, the site of The Battle of Adrianople (378), fought by the Roman Army and Gothic rebels and the Siege of Adrianople during the First Balkan War (1912 -23).
Other places name checked on the album are Transvaal (The Endless Plain of Fortune); Andalucia (Andalucia, which also includes references to Agriculture with the character of Farmer John); Paris; Japan (Paris 1919); Chipping Sodbury (Graham Greene); Dunkirk; Dundee; Berlin; Norway (Half Past France); Antarctica and Barbary (Antarctica Starts Here). All of these locations are also important in wars, battles and exploration. They are as follows: The Second Punic War in 218 to 201BC and the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – 1939 (Andalusia); The First and Second Barbary Wars in 1801 to 1805 and 1815 respectively (Barbary. The Barbary Wars were fought between the United States and the Barbary States, Northwest Africa after US President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the high tributes demanded by the Barbary States and because they were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. The First Barbary War was the first military conflict authorised by Congress that the US fought on foreign land and seas); The Vincennes South Sea Surveying exploration which travelled to Antarctica (1839) (The Vincennes was the first US warship to circumnavigate the globe); The Crimean War in 1853 to 1856 (Sebastopol, as previously mentioned); The First and Second Boer Wars in 1880 to 1881 and 1899 to 1902 respectively (Transvaal); The Russo-Turkish War in 1877 to 1878 (Berlin, the site of the Berlin Peace Treaty in 1878, during which Bismarck’s decision to split Bulgaria would start a war in the Balkans 34 years later and would eventually lead to the First World War); The First World War in 1914 to 1918 and Second World War in 1939 to 1945 (Japan, which in alliance with Entente Powers played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the Imperial German Navy during the First World War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 led to the USA’s entry into the Second World War; Berlin was the site of the Battle of Berlin in the Second World War, which led to the suicide of Adolf Hitler; Norway, which was neutral during the First World War but subject to extensive espionage from both sides in the conflict. Norway was occupied by German in the Second World War. Both Britain and Germany had strategic interest in denying the other access to Norway; Dunkirk was the site of a naval air station which operated seaplanes during the First World War and later the site of the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, ending the Phoney War and kick starting France and Britain’s major involvement in the Second World War; and Dundee, a major shipbuilding location during the First and Second World Wars). The Paris of 1919 from which the album and it’s title song takes its name was the site of 1919 Paris Peace Conference, six months where President Woodrow Johnson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau met to shape a lasting peace and redrew the borders of the modern world.
Elsewhere on Paris 1919, John Cale also references Shakespeare in the wonderful Bolan-esque stomp of Macbeth, employing both the characters of Macbeth and Banquo (“Banquo’s been and gone, He’s seen it all before”). Although a welcome addition to Paris 1919, Macbeth seems oddly out of place lyrically. Graham Greene is later name checked on the slightly whimsical sounding track, Graham Greene. Graham Greene fits in with the war theme on Paris 1919. During his life, Greene travelled around the world to remote places. His travels led him to being recruited into MI6 by his sister Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation, and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. This fits neatly in with the theme of espionage on the album. The mention of “Chipping and Sodbury” in the song Graham Greene could refer to Chipping Sodbury being a staging post for men preparing to go to France during the First World War. Chipping Sodbury could also be mentioned because it was the location of an emergency hospital during the Second World War. If we were to take the latter as the meaning for the use of these place names, it would be coherent with the lines “Welcome back to chipping and sodbury, You can have a second chance”. Far from actually being anything to do with Graham Greene, the song may actually be about a wounded soldier in hospital who despite being injured is enjoying the grandeur of the hospital compared to the conditions he has lived in during the war. The character in the song may be fantasising about “drinking tea with Graham Greene” and “making small talk with the Queen”. Just as Dylan Thomas wrote about his past as a boy or as a young man, Cale also looks back to the past but expands this nostalgic view to encompass other themes such as war, travel, espionage to produce a piece of writing which, if looked at closely, reads like a potted history of war told through a collection of short stories.
I have tried to work out the meaning of the lyrics on Paris 1919 for years and just when I think I am coming close, I flail and submit like the Long Legged Bait, such is the majesty and mystique of Cale’s writing. On Paris 1919, which the influence of Dylan Thomas resonates through themes such as the sea and lost innocence in Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas is merely a springboard of inspiration for an album which despite its overall accessibility could be John Cale’s most lyrically audacious and complex work, filled with multi-layered songs with multifaceted meanings. Child’s Christmas in Wales is a stunning opener to an equally stunning album that enthrals, enraptures and captures the listener on each play. It is obvious why Cale chose to position Child’s Christmas in Wales as the first track of the album: This album is a voyage, one of depth and complexity, a concept album that is more than the sum of its parts and one in which John Cale proves that his writing should be equally as revered as that of Dylan Thomas.