By Susan Richardson
Since the untimely death of Dylan Thomas in November 1953, the writer’s popularity has escalated, especially in his native Wales. In Swansea, the city of his birth, people who are otherwise uninterested in all things literary, flock to readings of Under Milk Wood and engage in lively discussions about it afterwards. Even bus drivers have been heard to quote a few lines from such poems as The Hunchback in the Park as they transport passengers through the streets which Thomas used to wander. From the edge of Swansea Bay to the northernmost suburbs, it seems, he is universally known as “our Dylan.”
Thomas famously referred to his South West Wales birthplace as that ‘lovely, ugly town’. Without question, the ‘loveliness’ dominates – beyond the rather bland central shopping area, the residential suburbs spread out across the hills to the north and along the bay to the west as far as the seaside village of Mumbles. A cycle track and promenade follow the coastline: there is a pitch-and-putt golf course, ice cream parlours, areas of parkland and, finally, at Mumbles Head, a stately Victorian pier. Beyond that, still further west, is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Gower Peninsula. Precipitous cliffs and extensive beaches offer walkers, climbers and less energetic seekers of the sun a multitude of outdoor options, all within a forty-five-minute drive of the city centre.
It was in the city centre that Dylan Thomas was born on October 27, 1914. The family home was 5, Cwmdonkin Drive, in an area of Swansea called the Uplands. As its name suggests, this suburb is situated high on the side of a hill, with a view of rooves and chimney pots and the wide arc of the bay beyond. At the time of Thomas’ birth, the area immediately above the house would have been devoted to farmland: now, however, the city suburbs extend much further.
It was in this house on steep Cwmdonkin Drive that Thomas spent his cosseted infant years, leaving it only to explore leafy Cwmdonkin Park, which he subsequently featured in his 1939 short story, Patricia, Edith and Arnold, and to attend a private day school in nearby Mirador Crescent. It was in this house, too, that Thomas penned several hundred poems: he decided he was going to be a writer at a young age – possibly because his father had also wanted to be a poet, but failed – and though some of the poems he wrote between the ages of 14 and 19 are full of affectation and rather derivative, it was, without a doubt, the most prolific writing period of his life. He was, by this time, attending The Swansea Grammar School, where his father was senior English Master, and he both published poems in, and edited, the school magazine. In all other subject areas, however, he was unmotivated: he failed the Central Welsh Board exam and left school as soon as he was able to, at the age of sixteen. He started work, instead, as a reporter for the “South Wales Daily Post”, now called the “Swansea Evening Post”, a newspaper which still enjoys a large circulation.
He became an enthusiastic member, too, of the Little Theatre Company, appearing in several of the plays staged by this amateur group which, at the time, was based in Mumbles. Today, this attractive seaside village is packed with pubs stretching along the coast road, known as the ‘Mumbles Mile’. For new arrivals at nearby Swansea University, ‘doing the Mumbles Mile’ – visiting every pub and downing several drinks in each – is regarded as a major part of the initiation process into student life. There can be little doubt that it was during his “Daily Post” and Little Theatre Company
days that Thomas, too, was initiated into the hard drinking habits which impaired and ultimately curtailed his writing career. What began as an urge to prove his ‘manliness’ in the beer-fuelled culture of South Wales, gradually developed into something he could no longer control.
By 1934, Thomas was starting to publish his work in poetry magazines but hoped to achieve a literary reputation outside of Wales and avoid being regarded as a provincial poet. He decided, therefore, to leave both his job at the “South Wales Daily Post” and his coddled home environment, and move to London. The house of his birth has since become a place of pilgrimage for Thomas fans; it bears a blue plaque indicating that he lived there and was opened to the public eighteen months ago as ‘5 Cwmdonkin Drive’, a venue for literary events. Regular poetry readings by both Welsh-based and international writers take place there, as does a twice-monthly workshop for aspiring poets.
It is not the only literary venue in Swansea with a Thomas connection. The main Literature Centre, in fact, located in the Maritime Quarter of the city, bears the poet’s name. This grand, cream-coloured building was built in the 1830’s and used to be Swansea’s Guildhall, until it fell into disrepair. When Swansea was designated as the U.K. City of Literature in 1995, however, it was refurbished and christened ‘Ty Llen’ (Welsh for ‘House of Literature’). Three years later, it was re-named ‘The Dylan Thomas Centre”, after a permanent exhibition on the life and work of Thomas was opened there. This exhibition, I in my intricate image, is based on the private collection of Jeff Towns, owner of nearby “Dylan’s Bookstore.” As well as the exhibition, the Centre offers a large programme of readings and literary discussions. The Adult Education Department of Swansea University holds literature and creative writing classes there. The downstairs foyer doubles as a gallery exhibiting the work of local artists, while upstairs, in addition to a theatre space and numerous meeting rooms, there is a very convivial bar. The building also houses a gift shop selling literary memorabilia and a bookshop-cum-caf offering new and second-hand copies of Thomas’ work.
The Centre is best known, however, for its “Dylan Thomas – the Celebration Festival”, held each year between October 27th and November 9th , the dates of the poet’s birth and death. The Festival features talks, performances, readings and films relating directly to Dylan Thomas and his work: each event is priced at 6 and attracts a huge number of both local and overseas visitors. The Festival also tends to focus on some of the writers and artists who share connections with Thomas, such as his drinking companion, the Irish playwright, Brendan Behan, and Bob Dylan, who is reputed to have taken his stage name from the Welsh poet.
Performances of Under Milk Wood by the still-active Little Theatre Company are always a popular aspect of the Festival. Last year, one of Britain’s most respected artists, Peter Blake, drew an enthusiastic audience: he spoke about and put on a show about his work-in-progress, a set of illustrations for a new edition of the ever-popular play. Swansea University generally hosts a Conference within the Festival also, focusing on such topics as the 1930’s contexts of Thomas’ early writing and his use of language and form. International, as well as local, academics are again inspired to attend.
For those who leave the Festival with their interest in Thomas still not completely sated, a walk through the rest of Swansea’s Maritime Quarter is to be recommended. In fact, a leaflet called “The Dylan Thomas Trail” has been produced by Swansea City Council so that visitors can use it, and the accompanying map, to guide themselves to various points of interest. The home of the Little Theatre Company, which relocated from Mumbles, is to be found there adjacent to Dylan Thomas Square. While overlooking the yachts moored in the marina, there is a statue of Captain Cat, the blind sea-captain from Under Milk Wood. The Maritime Quarter is currently a boom area, with art galleries opening in converted churches and apartments being sold for exorbitant sums of money.
Had these been built in Thomas’ day, he would, of course, never have been able to afford one: sound money-management was not his forte and he was in debt for most of his adult life. In 1948, fourteen years after he’d left Swansea, having published three collections of poems and numerous short stories, he began to yearn for Wales, possibly because the country of his birth was his greatest source of poetic inspiration and it was during return visits there that his writing had been at its most productive. He decided, therefore, to move back to Wales with his wife, Caitlin, and their young family, though the problem as to how they would finance this was not immediately resolved. At first, he considered moving into The Old Rectory in Rhossili, the most dramatically-situated of the Gower Peninsula villages. It is perched atop a beetling cliff: a steep path leads down to the four-mile stretch of beach below. Thomas drew on his memories of childhood camping trips to Rhossili for his short story Extraordinary Little Cough, when the central character, the “Little Cough” of the title, races along the sands before collapsing by his friends’ camp fire. Thomas also wrote a prose piece about his time spent on Worm’s Head, a craggy nub of land, which is accessible from the mainland only at low tide. He got stranded there once in his youth and couldn’t scramble back to Rhossili village until the tide turned late in the night.
Now, in his mid-thirties, he finally decided against setting up home in The Old Rectory, most probably because Rhossili contained no pub. Instead, he expressed the wish to live further west in the coastal settlement of Laugharne, where no less than seven public houses were located. His wish was granted and his financial problems temporarily eased when, in April 1949, a moneyed woman and lover of the arts, Margaret Taylor, took on the role of his patron and bought The Boat House for him for 2,500. The Boat House is built against the side of a cliff overlooking the estuary of the River Taf, which leads out into Camarthen Bay. Opposite are rounded hills divided into irregularly-shaped fields, over which the interplay of sun and clouds casts interesting shapes of light and shadow. Thomas’ work space was a hut further up the cliff path and judging by the few poems, such as Over Sir John’s Hill, which he managed to complete during the four years he lived in Laugharne, the view seemed to inspire him. He also started work on Under Milk Wood, which had, at that time, the working title of The Town That Was Mad. By the Autumn of 1951, he’d conceived of the play’s overall structure – that of twenty four hours in the life of a seaside town, loosely based on Laugharne – but was consistently failing to finish it. His Laugharne days were punctuated by bitter arguments with Caitlin and regular drinking sessions at Brown’s Hotel in the centre of the village, and he also embarked on a series of lecture tours to the United States. It wasn’t until just before his third visit to the States in 1953, in fact, that the title Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices was decided upon and the work received its first rehearsed reading.
Almost fifty years have passed since that initial reading and the play has, without doubt, an enduring charm. Indeed, it is regarded as one of the most enchanting works for radio ever written. On occasions, the dialogue approaches poetry, though Thomas himself referred to it as ‘prose with blood-pressure.’ The characters, who include Polly Garter, Nogood Boyo and Organ Morgan, are vital and engaging, and both the reality and fantasies of their lives are vividly conveyed to us.
Extracts from Under Milk Wood and recordings of Thomas reading his poetry are played now in the Boat House at Laugharne for the benefit of visitors who go there. Whether you stand on the verandah of the house, looking across the estuary, peruse the exhibition relating to Thomas’ work on the first floor or sit in the caf eating bara brith (Welsh fruit bread), it is possible to imbibe the poet’s words. It is also possible to wander up to the hut where he wrote and peer through the door at his desk and chair, some fragments of writing, an empty bottle.
Thomas’ route into the village can then be traced, past the ruins of Laugharne Castle to Brown’s Hotel. A pint of the recently-launched “Dylan’s” beer can finally be drunk in his memory.
Thomas died in New York in 1953 while on his third lecture tour – most likely from excessive drinking and an injection of morphine – but he’s buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery, Laugharne. The Wales which had offered him such inspiration, but from which he’d also, at times, felt the need to escape, finally claimed him. A white cross marks his grave: a surprisingly simple tribute to a poet who lived an undeniably colorful life. Susan Richardson is a writer and tutor of writing, currently lecturing at the University of Wales. Her play, ‘Two Of Me Now’, about Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, was published in the Bloomsbury Heritage Series last year More on the Web