Wales set to restore Dylan Thomas’ faded reputation as centenary nears

by Tracy Mcveigh

The Observer

The little park where he played as a boy in Swansea, on Wales’ south-west coast, has had a facelift, and a bronze statue is to be erected outside his childhood home. Manuscripts and rare photographs have been borrowed from an archive in New York, and his quotations have been liberally applied to council vehicles. Wales is preparing to embrace once again Dylan Thomas, its errant son, 100 years after his birth. Next year the poet who was too “English for the Welsh and too Welsh for the English” is finally to receive the full accolades many feel he has long deserved.

Announcing that £750,000 would be made available for the “DT100″ festival, the Welsh government hopes the centenary will boost tourism, but first minister Carwyn Jones said the festival would also be used to raise the status of Thomas, and Welsh tourism minister Edwina Hart called for “resurrecting” a passion for the poet.

There are strong feelings that Wales, and the rest of the U.K., have neglected Thomas, allowing his work to be overshadowed by a conception of the man as a drunkard, scrounger and womanizer. His admirers want to use the occasion to debunk the myths and rediscover the poet who in his lifetime was dubbed “Britain’s finest” — the poet who worked so hard that there are as many as 200 versions of the same poem, and whose reading tours were grueling.

Dylan Thomas made an unlikely hero — a short, curly-haired, tubby man, usually in a borrowed suit, with a cigarette permanently cushioned on a fat bottom lip. But he is the man who inspired John Lennon to write songs, put the Dylan into Bob, took the girlfriend of Augustus John to bed (and had him pay for the hotel room), hung out with Salvador Dali, was feted by Charlie Chaplin and photographed for Vogue by Lee Miller. He is even credited with opening the West’s literary doors to African literature by promoting Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s novel “The Palm-Wine Drinkard,” and with starting the spoken voice LP. Thomas was one of the first to recognize the huge potential of TV.

Yet here has never been a complete works, and academia has snubbed him. John Goodby of Swansea University said Thomas has been “airbrushed” out: “Thomas fell from grace. There was a whole slew of books in the 1970s … and then nothing. It was as if in Wales there was this inwards, more nationalistic, discourse, which Thomas didn’t fit. He didn’t write in Welsh, for a start.”

Although some later works, such as “Fern Hill” and his play “Under Milk Wood,” remain popular, it is the kind of popularity that makes academics suspicious and his reputation has declined, said Goodby. He said that Thomas fell between the cracks because he was hard to pigeonhole and his work had such an embarrassing richness when plainer, anecdotal poetry was being critically acclaimed. Goodby said Thomas would never have been able to write anything if he’d been as drunk as people said. He represented a spirit of freedom. “But things are getting better,” he concluded. “Swansea was in denial of him for a long time but now they see he could be a money spinner and do for Wales what James Joyce has done for Dublin.”

In Thomas’ day, middle-class parents discouraged their children from speaking Welsh for fear it would stunt their career prospects. His schoolteacher father even sent him to elocution classes. He himself didn’t want his poetry to be “regionalized,” although his love of Wales is undeniable.

“He echoes what a lot of us feel: sometimes you love to hate Wales,” said eminent Welsh poet Menna Elfyn. “I once wrote a poem in the shape of a boomerang because that’s how I felt about Wales — ultimately you are pulled back to your roots in a search for a quiet spot.”

Elfyn was speaking while with a visiting group of poets from Trinity University College, drinking tea and listening to recorded readings from that long-dead voice in the Boathouse, the last home of Thomas, where he lived with his wife Caitlin and their three children, much of the time in abject poverty, in the Welsh seaside village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, the setting for “Under Milk Wood.”

Have the poets forgotten Dylan? “Well, here we are,” Elfyn said. “But Dylan’s problem was always that thing that he was too English for the Welsh and too Welsh for the English. I think he must have spoken or understood more Welsh than he let on, but in those days it was frowned upon. He has had a hard time; Britain never appreciated him the way America did. The myths don’t help. They said he was boastful but he often read other poets’ work at readings — that shows humility.”

Laugharne — “timeless, beautiful, barmy” — is much as it must have been 60 years ago this month when Thomas last left it, catching a bus on his long journey out of Wales and across the Atlantic for New York. He died there in November 1953, aged 39, in what for years was represented as an alcohol-induced death. Typically, the myth was begun by Thomas. Returning from the pub to the Chelsea Hotel, he boasted: “I drank 18 whiskies.” In fact, he probably had four. When Dr. Milton Feltenstein, a “needle-happy quack,” according to Goodby, came to the hotel in a smog-ridden New York to treat Thomas, who was complaining of chest and breathing problems, he decided the poet had alcoholic delirium and injected him with morphine. That act would have brought a manslaughter charge these days. It depressed the poet’s breathing, sending him into a coma. He died four days later: a rock star end for the rock stars’ poet.

The grave of Dylan Thomas, shared now with his wife Caitlin, has a simple white wooden cross, incongruous in the gothic churchyard of St. Martin’s in Laugharne. Along with the Boathouse, it gets around 15,000 visitors a year, which is nothing compared to the hordes who visit the homes of the Brontes, Kipling or Dickens. But next year could change all that. Swansea has ambitions for DT100 to help it towards winning the 2017 U.K. City of Culture title. There are already leaflets for Dylan Thomas trails, including Laugharne, and events are being added for 2014.

Jo Furber is Swansea council’s literature officer, based at the elegant Dylan Thomas Center, an arts center with an exhibition devoted to the poet. “We have so many people coming in to learn more about him. They sometimes don’t arrive as an admirer but leave as one. He has probably suffered because he is difficult to categorize, both in his life and his poetry. He was a man who didn’t go to university yet was incredibly well-read. He loved the classics, but was happy to read detective stories in the bath, eating jelly babies.”

She is applying for funding to put the center on the literary heritage map. “We’d love to expand. What we’d love the most is to find some moving footage of him; there has to be some out there somewhere. Perhaps the centenary will bring that out of an attic somewhere.”