I am not a fan of Dylan Thomas, in fact, I hadn't even read much of him until two days recently that I spent listening to his BBC recordings and reading everything I could find online. Rarely before, if ever, have I felt so tortured writing an article. But if ever I needed any more proof how much I loved writing, the rush at the end of this was it. There are a reading of his works recently, and this is what I wrote about that mid-morning:
Is it easy to love a mad genius, forgive him and her for their digressions from accepted norms of morality and social behavior because of what they are and what they create? Literature and art and music are replete with raucous, loveable creativists who were a tad off the rocker most of their lives, but they left behind and/or continue to create that which beautifies this world every day. And so their un-conventions are tolerated. Dylan Thomas was known to be a roistering, drunken and doomed poet; it was a reputation he actively encouraged and did everything he could and more to keep up with. Like many other mad geniuses, he did not live long, all the ‘living’ he did sent him to an early grave, at just 39.
The Welsh poet was born a hundred years ago in Wales, in Swansea “…an ugly, lovely town…sprawling, unplanned, smug-suburbed…” He did not speak Welsh, he did not see himself as a Welsh poet and he did not seem to like being Welsh much either. His poems though, rolled over the tongue, his own on BBC recordings, or those of actors or readers reading aloud, taste mightily of the Welsh air, smelling of mountains and the headlands of Mumbles along Swansea Bay.
A little of the imagery that was so much a part of his poems, radio dramas and short stories seeped into Bangalore’s Rangashankara recently, when the actors Gareth Armstrong and John Griffiths read out from Thomas’ body of work. The two, blessed with the gift of golden voices, rich and sonorous, sang traditional drinking songs, brought alive eccentric old uncles and gave a peek into Welsh life in the post-World War II years. To old fans, the Sunday morning reading allowed them an hour to dust off and revisit old favourites. To those unfamiliar with Thomas’ works, it was just the right introduction, the two actors having chosen some of his most accessible stories and poems.
How apt that this comes at the beginning of Thomas’ centenary birth year. Different parts of the world are planning many events, readings and plays. How apt too that the reading is by two Welsh men, both old enough to have known the Wales Thomas wrote about, one, Armstrong, even having being taught by some of Thomas’ old teachers. You know they are personal fans of Thomas’ works, it shows in their rendering. They must have been boys like the boys Thomas writes about in ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’. The memories of childhood have no order, Thomas writes, oscillating between describing people in his town to talking of his firm and kind school behind which was a narrow lane, the lane was always the place to tell your secrets; if you did not have any, you invented them. When Armstrong and Griffiths read, they become those boys, boasting, making up secrets to tell in the lane of confidences.
The reading, which will, by the end of it, turn out to be a delightful potpourri of Thomas’ stories, verses and plays, is interspersed with the actors’ insights into the poet's life and those old times. They tell of how Thomas’ parents probably spoke Welsh themselves, but the children were resolutely brought up to speak and write English. As a result, Thomas only ever wrote in English. His style though is said to have been heavily influenced by and adheres extensively to the rules and metrics of Welsh poetry, however unwittingly on his part.
Thomas’ Wales was an era where holidays meant being sent off to stay with relatives who might have no children of their own or ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s.’ Griffiths and Armstrong become the grandpa and the boy. The anecdotal story takes the reader into villages like Llansteffan and Llangadock where the eccentric grandpa would rather be buried while he was alive, for the ground is comfy and you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea.
The little nooks of Wales are ever present in Thomas’ stories. He is as much of his geography as his country claims him as its own. Mumbles, a headland off Swansea Bay, is the venue for ‘Holiday Memory’. The train that took Thomas and his family there used to be the oldest passenger train in the world, Griffiths lets in, right before belting out a Welsh song for while waiting for the train. It used to be a journey three miles long, to Mumbles, for August Bank Holiday. The holiday is full of a slap of sea and a tickle of sand and Thomas remembers the sea telling lies in a shell, held to my ear for a whole harmonious, hollow minute by a small, wet girl in an enormous bathing suit marked Corporation Property.
There is little of his poetry except for the more popular ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘The Hunchback in the Park.’ Perhaps it is because the hour is short, or maybe it is that Dylan Thomas isn’t always for digested reading. The two actors regale instead with another story, that of a young Thomas being taken along by an uncle on an outing to Porthcawl with a motley bunch of friends. Riding on a charabanc, a motor coach, the old men stop for “refreshments”, little Thomas left to guard the chara for 45 minutes (that) passed like a very slow cloud. He passes time looking at the cows opposite, and they look at him, there was nothing else for us to do. The public house (pub) crawl that follows leaves the men drunk and in changed colours, beetroot and rhubarb and pius. They holler, blow the bugle and rollick like enormous ancient bad boys. Much later, just as Thomas drifts off to sleep against his uncle’s mountainous waistcoat, “who goes there?” cries out Will Sentry, to the flying moon.
The idyllic stories and the large bulk of his poetry weren’t enough to feed Thomas’ growing family. Then came the BBC years, where to supplement his paltry income from writing, he wrote scripts and went on to record poetry readings, short stories and participate in discussions and critiques. Thomas’ readings now make his work a little more approachable. In those years, his deep voice made him popular across the pond in the US, where, on one of several reading tours, he finished ‘Under Milk Wood’, a part of which Gareth Armstrong and John Griffiths read and conclude with. The full radio play wasn’t broadcast until after his death in New York in 1953.
Thomas, ravaged already by years of alcoholism by then, stayed at Chelsea Hotel on that last trip to America. Befitting perhaps for the doomed poet to have ended up there, in that mecca for mad geniuses of that age. Its hallowed hallways were witness to many a madness, inspiring many a masterpiece. Chelsea Hotel added to its roster Thomas’ story too, his famous boast of having downed “18 straight whiskies” after a bottle of Old Grandad on his last night feeding into the Hotel’s legend.
Just as the whiskies and the women and the unpredictabilities fed into Thomas’ image of himself and what the world had come to expect of him. It would be easy to let his reputation take precedence over his words – a riotous youth squandered away is more amusing a story than how he strung his words, like some medieval bard who roamed the Welsh highlands. He went with a rage, rage against the dying of the light. And it is for words such as these that another mad genius’ debauchery becomes forgiven.