I’ve long felt a kinship with Wales, perhaps because it’s where one of my favorite writers, Jan Morris, lives. Recently I had the chance to stay overnight and tour Dylan Thomas’s boyhood home in Swansea. Then I visited his other homes in Laugharne and New Quay. After the story ran in the Washington Post, I received a letter from a NY-based former embassy officer who helped Dylan clear customs on his last trip to America.
Below is the full uncut story, or click the link above for the slightly shorter version that ran in the Post — the letter is at bottom:
In Search of Dylan Thomas:
Seeking the elusive poet whose words brought Wales to the world
“This is not a museum,” says Annie Haden, the vivacious Dylan Thomas enthusiast who has restored the Welsh poet’s childhood home in Swansea, an industrial city on Wales’ south coast. “I’m the oldest thing in this house!”
About 60 years old, Annie, who tells me to call her by her first name, is displaying some Welsh hyperbole – she’s not the oldest thing in this loving memorial of Wales’ best-loved English-language poet. There’s a typewriter from the 1920s, colorful drawings based on phrases from Thomas’ poetry, antique copper kettles, even oblong filament lightbulbs that looked like something fashioned by Thomas Edison.
But she’s right – it’s not a museum. Annie, who has spent years refurbishing Thomas’s first home, is intent on making this a living breathing house, a place where the writer’s admirers can eat, drink, recite poetry, play music, and stay the night.
“Would you like a drink?” she asks me. “It is a Thomas house after all.”
The nation of Wales is gearing up to celebrate the centennial of Thomas’ 1914 birth so I thought I’d explore the coastal homes where he wrote and found solace, the beaches that made his spirit soar, and perhaps a favorite pub or bookstore. Like many of his countrymen, I appreciate Thomas’ work, though I can’t say I fully comprehend it all. I’m hoping that visiting places that shaped and inspired him will give me a deeper understanding of the artist and his words.
Thomas, who died before his 40th birthday, is often remembered as much for his excessive drinking and womanizing as for his art, but his poems, including “Do not go gentle into that good night” which he wrote for his dying father, have stood the test of time.
* * *
“And I fly over the trees and chimneys of my town, over the dockyards, skimming the masts and funnels … over the trees of the everlasting park … over the yellow seashore and the stone-chasing dogs and the old men and the singing sea. The memories of childhood have no order, and no end.” –Dylan Thomas, Reminiscences of Childhood
Located in the Uplands suburb of Swansea, Dylan Thomas’ birthplace is a handsome Edwardian two-story house on the steep part of Cwmdonkin Drive. Out front attached to the white stucco facade is a simple round plaque reading: “DYLAN THOMAS, A man of words, 1914-1953, was born in this house.”
I arrive on a rainy afternoon a few hours after touching down at London’s Heathrow; the brick-red tiles in the entryway are so worn they’re noticeably bowed. “We didn’t want to restore it because it’s part of the history of the house,” Annie says.
She puts a polished copper kettle on the stove. The time between the great wars, when young Dylan grew up, Annie says, was an “era when people never got rid of stuff like old copper kettles. People see relics and say, ‘My gran had one of those.’ That’s what brings ’em right in.” As we talk over tea about the home’s restoration, I can tell Annie loves words as much as Thomas did. “I’m a stripper,” she says, pausing for effect “and scrubber of wood.”
We climb a wide and time-smoothed wooden stairway to the upper floor and peer out the window of the back bedroom. Annie recalls Thomas’ poetic phrase about “ships sailing across rooftops.” In the bedroom once shared by Dylan’s parents, she points toward a row of houses, the Bay of Bristol in the distance. Because of the sloping hill down to the sea, it appears that boats bob atop Swansea’s roofs. “You get it,” Annie says, “when you see the view.”
In Dylan’s little room, illuminated by an antique gas lamp, a collectable copy of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” sits on a small table. Lines from that book are painted on the walls. Annie asks if I notice anything. I read the lines and ask if one might have a mistake. She brightens and says there’s not just one mistake but several “because there’s nothing more empowering for a child than to say to an adult, ‘you’ve got it wrong.’ ”
She looks me up and down and asks, “How tall are you?” I tell her 5-5. “Well then, you’re a half inch taller than Dylan.” I concede I’m really 5-4-and-a-half. She seems pleased that I’m the same height as her beloved bard.
“I know Dylan,” she says. “I’m his mother now.” Then Dylan’s mother retreats to the kitchen to bring out lamb “that’s come nine miles to be with us tonight,” fresh pastry-crusted salmon from the nearby River Tawe, potatoes and a divine bottle of French Cotes du Rhone. Later she’ll top off the feast with a fresh-baked rhubarb-fruit tart.
I suggest the house is a labor of love, but Annie is quick to correct me. “It’s a labor born of frustration,” she says. “This boy of ours hasn’t been acknowledged and he should be.”
Annie says I can choose where I’ll sleep and invites me to stay in Dylan’s tiny boyhood room. But the room is barely bigger than the single bed so I opt for the guest room at the front of the house, which young Dylan called the “best room.”
Overlooking Cwmdonkin Park, where Dylan’s legs and imagination ran free, the spacious best room has a fireplace and brass candlesticks, a sink with a pitcher for wash water, a photo of Dylan and his wife, and a little crib. A book of Thomas’ poems waits on the nightstand.
* * *
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. …
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
His parents’ first language was Welsh, but Dylan was raised speaking English so he would not sound working class, Annie says. Dylan took elocution lessons to get rid of his Welsh accent and read poems in the bathroom to train his voice because he realized it’s “not just what you say but how you say it.
Many of Wales’ early and modern poets write in a strict-meter form of Welsh, but Thomas became internationally known because he wrote so eloquently in English. Yet it was Thomas’ undeniable, intrinsic Welshness that gave his poetry so much strength, Annie says. “The meter and structure is old Welsh in form and the English loved it.”
Annie tells me that Thomas wrote hundreds of poems in this house, with his greatest output coming between the ages of 16 and 20. He worked in the morning and drank late, Annie says. Unfortunately Thomas couldn’t hold his alcohol, perhaps because he’s now believed to have been a diabetic, so he became a “performing monkey,” she says.
“Obnoxious behavior became his calling card. In London he was a performer. That’s not creative, and it’s tiring. He had to keep coming back and recharging here – not just this house, this town,” she says. “He’d say when he was on the train to London (that) he wasn’t going to England, he was leaving Wales. He was leaving his heart, he was leaving his safety.”
Like a protective mother, Annie denies that Thomas was an alcoholic. There’s “such a lot of work of such high quality that alcoholism is not considered.” I refrain from listing all the great writers who overindulged in alcohol. Annie refills my glass with Cotes du Rhone and I ask about Thomas’ most famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night” written as Dylan’s father, a frustrated poet, lay dying.
“Listen to it from a child’s point of view,” Annie says. “His father wouldn’t give Dylan the words he needed like ‘well done’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ The work between father and son wasn’t finished.”
Keri Finlayson, a poet and frequent visitor to No. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, tells me that young Dylan sat upstairs and listened to the sounds of voices floating up through the vents of his two-story home. “I like thought of words flowing around static objects,” she says. “I think of the boy in this tiny room, or in the bath learning to project” his voice.
Annie tidies up the kitchen, shows me how to turn up the heat, then bids me goodnight. I’m alone in the room where Dylan Thomas was born, his words on the nightstand for company.
The next morning I stroll along the lush byways of Cwmdonkin Park, where a dead tree standing more than 30 feet high has been carved into the shape of a pencil to honor the bard who grew up across the street.
At Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre, a stone’s throw from the Bristol Channel, are photos of long lists of words Thomas compiled as he wrote. He placed scrolls of rhyming words before himself like an artist’s palette, selecting just the right shade for the meaning he wished to convey.
Audio recordings play in corners of the center. As I listen I understand that, similar to James Joyce, the best way to comprehend Thomas is to hear his work read aloud, ideally in his own voice.
Thomas’ work has been called “thrillingly incomprehensible” but I can hear what the Welsh call hiraeth, an ineffable longing, and it all starts to make sense. Read aloud, Thomas’ poetry becomes music. Which makes me think that Bob Dylan, who took his name from the Welsh bard, is his natural heir: a musician who turns songs into poetry.
Now that most of Swansea’s industries have declined, the city no longer harbors the smokestack stench of Dylan’s time, but still I’m eager to explore the places to which he escaped as a teen. He called his bohemian group of friends the Kardomah Gang – they took their name from the café where they gathered.
In summer, the ruffians would camp out for a week or two by Rhossili Bay, drinking in the fresh air, clear night sky and copious amounts of ale and whiskey. Today the place attracts ice-cream-cone-toting families who hike among the bleating sheep on the lush green bluffs, gazing out at the broad crescent of sand and a pair of islands called Worm’s Head, accessible by a land bridge for less than an hour at low tide.
* * *
“When I think of that concentrated muttering and mumbling and intoning, the realms of discarded lists of rhyming words, the innumerable repetitions and revisions and how at the end of an intensive five hour stretch (from 2-7) prompt as clockwork, Dylan would come out very pleased with himself saying he had done a good days work, and present me proudly with one or two or three perhaps fiercely belaboured lines.” –Caitlin Thomas, Dylan’s wife
When Thomas was 23 he left the sanctuary of his family’s Swansea home and moved to another seaside abode, a place he called the Boathouse in Laugharne (pronounced Lahrn) overlooking Wales’ west coast. Walking up a stone path on a drizzly morning, I first arrive at his “word-splashed hut” perched like a bird’s nest on a cliff above the sea.
The converted shed where Thomas created some of his best work was exposed to Wales’ tempestuous storms and crashing ocean sounds. The room remains a churning sea of manuscripts, discarded drafts of verse, empty cigarette packs and literary journals.
Farther up the stone path is the house where Dylan, his wife Caitlin and their children lived. It feels like a small ship, with low doorways (five and half feet high, just enough for Thomas). The house been converted into a homey museum, called The Dylan Thomas Boathouse at Laugharne. In the parlor is a grand radio from the 1930s. While Thomas was traveling – to London, New York or Paris – his children would gather round the radio and listen to their father recite his poetry and stories on the BBC.
At the front desk I meet Maggie Richards, who grew up in Laugharne in the 1950s. She tells me Thomas’ play for voice, “Under Milk Wood,” which has been called “Ulysses in 24 hours,” was based mostly on Laugharne. Thomas changed the name to Llareggub, which spelled backwards is Buggerall. The first performance of the play in Laugharne was in 1958, she says.
“That’s how I got interested as a small child – I used to go and see these,” Richards says. After a time the community stopped performing the play, but the Laugharne Players re-grouped in 2006. “We’re doing it again this August,” says Richards, who directed the play in 2009, “but if half the players can’t be there, it might be a one-woman show.”
The scent of baking draws me to the basement kitchen where two young women are making bara brith, a lightly sweet Welsh bread. I ask about it and they cut me a slice to taste, on the house. Walking back down the rain-slickened path, I head to Brown’s Hotel which housed one of Thomas’ favorite pubs. He spent so much time there he gave the pub’s phone as his contact number, but the hotel was closed for renovations.
Nearby is Corran’s Books in a weathered stone building with a bright blue door. Owner George Tremlett, author of a biography of Caitlin Thomas, says Laugharne is where Dylan Thomas matured as a writer.
“His early work wasn’t very good” Tremlett says. “It was here that he found whatever it was he needed to make the mix.” What made this town so right for Thomas? It’s an egalitarian town, Tremlett says. “The rich man counts for very little here. And it’s very easy going – I think that fitted him like a glove.”
In his last years Thomas and his family moved to New Quay, a seaside resort that has created the Dylan Thomas Trail, a set of sights related to the poet. Number 8 is May’s Designs where the owner, a young ebullient woman named May Hopkins, has painted Thomas quotations on the walls. “When one burns one’s bridges,” reads a Thomas line, “what a nice fire it makes.” Another says: “He who seeks rest finds boredom, he who seeks work finds rest.” Says Hopkins: “That’s up for the girls who work here so they can take the hint.”
The shop sells driftwood, paintings, and photos of Dylan and Caitlin. Hopkins is proud that Thomas lived in her town. “I do like his work,” she says, “but I don’t understand a lot of it.”
I walk along a concrete pier and look out to the “fishing-boat-bobbing sea” that inspired Thomas in his last years. A lone bottlenose dolphin gracefully arcs above the water, a seal clasps a silver fish that flaps in vain.
* * *
“It is the measure of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light.” –Dylan Thomas’ “Poetic Manifesto”
Before leaving Wales I attend a lunch with Thomas’ granddaughter, Hannah Ellis, who says that Dylan “clearly had a very happy childhood.” However his world was shattered in February 1941 after the German blitz leveled much of Swansea, leaving 230 dead and 7,000 people homeless in mid-winter. “Our Swansea is dead,” he writes in “Return Journey,” a BBC radio play. The play isn’t simply an elegy for his hometown, Ellis said, it’s his attempt to rebuild Swansea with his words.
Like Annie Haden, Ellis believes her grandfather hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. She hopes the upcoming centennial celebrations will change that and introduce a new generation to his work. “When I tell someone I’m Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter,” Ellis says, “I don’t want them to say ‘Who?’ ”
After almost a week in Dylan Thomas’ Wales, I have a much better sense of the poet, but there’s one last place I feel compelled to visit: the stately National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where some of Thomas’ possessions remain. I sit with a curator, with the delightfully Welsh name of Ifor Apdafydd, in a high-ceilinged room. Apdafydd shows me a map of downtown Swansea that Thomas drew, a betting slip with odds on horses, a Pan American airline ticket, and a letter to his uncle thanking him for a gift and praising the Disney movie Dumbo.
The curator then unwraps a leather wallet containing Thomas’ passport. “Can I hold it?” I ask. Apdafydd hesitates, then consents. I slowly turn the yellowed pages and see stamps for France, Italy, and Iran, where Thomas traveled in 1951 to write a script for the Anglo Iranian Oil Company.
After that last stamp, the better part of the passport is blank, no mark of a return to Britain. I survey the grand room in this house of words that Thomas helped build. “So many empty pages,” I say in a low voice as a wave of sadness washes over me. “So many pages left unfilled.”
Shortly after this story appeared in the Washington Post in August, 2013, I received this letter:
Dear Mr. Shapiro,
I enjoyed reading your article in today’s Washington Post and I have a bit of relevant information to add to it. If you still have access to his passport I’m pretty sure you’ll find my signature at the bottom of his U.S visa and there is a little story connected with it.
At the time I was a new vice consul at the American Embassy in London. I happened to be passing through the reception area of the visa section when I encountered a noisy confrontation between one of the reception clerks and a man who looked like an impoversihed hobo. The clerk was demanding that the visitor go away and I overheard their conversation. When I understood that the shabby visitor was actually Dylan Thomas, I immediately invited him to my office and issued him an American visitor’s visa. Unfortunately, his visit to America ended in tragedy but I retained an abiding interest in his poetry.