Wales: Toasting a famous son

By William Hageman

The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas is being celebrated in a year-long series of events leading to the 100th anniversary of his birth on October 27, 1914, writes William Hageman.
The Laugharne Boathouse, about 40km northwest of Swansea, where Thomas spent the last four years of his life. Photo / Thinkstock
The Laugharne Boathouse, about 40km northwest of Swansea, where Thomas spent the last four years of his life. Photo / Thinkstock

Around these parts, everyone knows about Dylan Thomas, Wales' greatest poet.

Gordon Stuart not only knows about Dylan Thomas, he knew him.

Sitting in his living room, the 89-year-old artist recalls the Thomas he knew - and who sat for him just weeks before his death.

"He was gentle, charming," Stuart says.

"All the nice things. And his lovely voice... He was delightful to listen to."

Thomas, the Welsh poet, playwright and man of letters, is being remembered and celebrated in a year-long series of events leading to the 100th anniversary of his birth on October 27, 1914.

Sixty years after his death - on November 9, 1953, in New York - Thomas's influence is still felt. John Lennon and Paul McCartney read his work. Poet Sylvia Plath mimicked him. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.

Thomas' poems have been translated into 30 languages. Though mostly regarded as a poet, he also wrote radio scripts, plays, short stories and for films.

His poetry includes Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and And Death Shall Have No Dominion. His most famous play is Under Milk Wood, and his A Child's Christmas in Wales is a classic.

The life Thomas led adds to his legend: he was a poetry-writing child prodigy and a charismatic, hard-drinking womaniser who was in his grave at 39.

All of Wales will celebrate Thomas' centenary with concerts, readings, performances in disused pubs, hiking tours, a major exhibition of Thomas material at the National Library of Wales and more. But Swansea is the epicentre.

It is where Dylan Marlais Thomas was born, where he played as a child and drank as a young man, where he wrote most of his poetry. The city in the past has been accused of not giving him his due, but that seems to be changing.

"I think it's one of the things the city hangs onto because he's so incredibly famous," says Rhiannon Morris, who tends bar at the No Sign Wine Bar on Wind Street, one of Thomas' hangouts.

"I think a lot of pubs like to associate (themselves) with him. 'He came here', so they cling on, and rightly so.

"He probably went to a lot of pubs. But this old building hasn't changed in 50 or 60 years... It has a nice feel to it."

The same can be said for Thomas' birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive.

The Thomas family moved into the new house in the Uplands section of town in August 1914. His father was a schoolmaster, and Dylan was born in the upstairs front bedroom.

Geoff Haden, who began restoring the house in 2005 and opened it in 2008, says that Dylan's father, David John Thomas, was a frustrated writer who "channelled all his ambition into his son".

"His father read him Shakespeare at a very young age - in the womb, some say - but at a very early age nonetheless," says Jo Furber, Swansea Council literature officer.

Thomas' first book of poetry was published when he was 20. He moved to London, became a celebrity and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. But the house, where Haden says he wrote two-thirds of his published work, is where he always returned.

"There's a Welsh word, cwtch (pronounced kutch)," Haden says. "It means hug. And he'd come back here for that cwtch. In 1937, they moved, and he lost that cwtch."

The house and its environs show up in Thomas' work. The front parlour is central to A Child's Christmas in Wales. He wrote about his tiny bedroom, "the bedroom by the boiler", and the frightening door under the stairs ("animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked").

The rooms at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive are as they would have looked when the Thomas family lived there. Haden and his former wife researched the house before they began restoring it, and got help from a woman who had been a teenage maid for the Thomases in the 1930s.

"She knew the layout, the furnishings, the routine of the house," he says.

"She was a godsend... She said, when I first met her, 'Don't say anything bad about him. He was a lovely boy.' She was wagging her finger. 'And (his parents) were lovely too."'

The Hadens have brought the house back to 1914, seeking out items that would not have been out of place in the Thomas household. They tried to make it look as though "the Thomas family has slipped out for an hour, and we're just looking around before they come back".

Since 2001 the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea has had a permanent exhibition, Dylan Thomas Man And Myth.

Upon entering, visitors find a showcase displaying a Harris Tweed suit. It comes with a great story.

Shortly before his death, Thomas was staying at New York's Chelsea Hotel. Furber, who curated Man And Myth, says the poet found himself out of clean clothes and borrowed a suit belonging to another hotel guest, painter Jorge Fick. After Thomas' sudden death a few days later, the suit was returned to Fick, and it was Fick's widow who donated it to the centre in 2006. Intriguingly, the lining of the right pants pocket has a large ink stain. Did Thomas's pen leak? Or was it Fick's pen? No matter; it adds to the charm.

The exhibition also features a watercolour and a crayon drawing Thomas did as a child; his death mask; copies of the last photos taken of him, in the White Horse Tavern in New York; a restaurant tablecloth on which he and some friends doodled.

Thomas was 39 when he died after a night of heavy drinking. He came back to his hotel and, according to the BBC, proclaimed to a companion that he'd set a record by drinking 18 whiskeys. Shortly after, he collapsed into a coma.

Furber says Thomas cultivated a persona that he thought poets should have.

"He'd have one pint, make it last all evening, then if he met some friends on his way home, he'd pretend to be drunk."

The centre will add more items for the 100th anniversary celebration, including Thomas' notebooks, which will be on loan from a US university.

"There are still things in people's attics," Furber says.

"One thing we're hoping for is film of him. He made BBC appearances, but they were (lost)."

Another stop for Thomas devotees is Laugharne, about 40km northwest of Swansea. Here Thomas spent the last four years of his life with his family - he was married and had three children - living in the Boathouse and working in his writing shed, a former garage.

"His children recalled tiptoeing past the shed and hearing him trying out lines for things he was writing," Furbey says.

Among the work he produced there was the poem Do Not Go Gentle - for his dying father. He also put the finishing touches to Under Milk Wood.

Laugharne is where Thomas sat for Gordon Stuart, who was introduced to the poet in a pub.

"He said hello, and I told him I had done a sketch," Stuart recalls.

Thomas liked the sketch, and the two hit it off. Stuart asked him if he'd sit for a portrait, and they settled on a day in early September 1953.

The plan was to do one portrait, but they did three sittings that resulted in four sketches, two of which are now in university collections, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Stuart has the last.

"Dylan said, 'How do you want me to sit?' Profile. And he was very fine. He sat very still, was very well-behaved. Not a drink in sight. We did the last one in the writing shed," Stuart says.

A few weeks later, he got word that Thomas had died.

VISITING DYLAN THOMAS COUNTRY

Anyone with even a passing interest in Dylan Thomas must see Swansea.

The best place to start is his birthplace and childhood home. Sit in the parlour and read some of his poems and letters, or look out his parents' bedroom window to Swansea Bay. The landscape hasn't changed. You see what he saw, and what he wrote about.

Walk down to town and visit the No Sign Wine Bar, The Uplands Tavern and other pubs he frequented. Have a quiet pint and reflect.

Walk the narrow streets - slowly - to gain a greater appreciation of the man and the poet.

Other sites worth visiting:

The Dylan Thomas Centre (Swansea)

The Boathouse (Laugharne)

Further information: See dylanthomas100.org for information on the many events being planned for the Thomas centenary.

- MCT

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