This milky website brings together seven articles that have previously been published elsewhere. In the first three, I write about Under Milk Wood and Dylan’s time in Cardiganshire (today known as Ceredigion) in west Wales. There's a fishing village on the west coast of the county called New Quay, which Dylan first visited in the mid 1930s to call on his aunt and cousin. He was a regular visitor in the early 1940s, and came to live there in 1944/45 in a bungalow called Majoda. This period in Majoda was one of the most prolific of his adult life, "a second flowering," wrote his biographer FitzGibbon, "a period of fertility that recalls the earliest days." There was a "great outpouring of poems" as well as film and radio scripts, and a start on Under Milk Wood.
I’ve written a good deal more about Dylan’s time in New Quay, as well as in other places in Cardiganshire, in Dylan Thomas: A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow (Seren 2000) and in The Dylan Thomas Trail (Y Lolfa 2002)
1. The Birth of Under Milk Wood
2. Conceiving Polly Garter
3. Dylan’s New Quay: More Bombay Potato than….
4. Striding Dill Jones: Jazz with Hwyl
5. Dylan’s Carmarthenshire Roots
6. Severed Heads: Oloff de Wet’s Bust of Dylan Thomas
7. Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?
The Notes for the first three papers begin after the third paper
David Thomas November 2008
1. The Birth of Under Milk Wood
"It was written in New Quay, most of it." Ivy Williams, Brown's Hotel, Laugharne
This chapter is a revised and much expanded version of an earlier paper about the writing of Under Milk Wood; it contains a good deal more information about the work that was done on the play in New Quay, Elba and New York, as well as a fuller account of the extracts from the play that were read by Dylan in Prague in March 1949.
My original paper, which demonstrated that little of the play was written in Laugharne, appeared in the spring 2001 issue of the New Welsh Review. Many found it fascinating, but others rushed to defend Laugharne, pointing out both that Dylan wrote some of his finest poems at the Boat House and that the general public "loved" Laugharne because it fitted their ideas of where a writer like Dylan would live and would write a play like Under Milk Wood. Who was I to spoil the pretty picture?
Certainly, Laugharne and Under Milk Wood are linked in the popular mind as closely as fish and chips or cockles and laverbread. It is widely believed that Llareggub was based on Laugharne and that Dylan wrote the play there. Literary opinion has bolstered the public view, from Ferris in 1977, who wrote that much of the play was written at the Boat House, to Stephens in 2000 who said that the greater part was.[i]
In his 1993 biography, Tremlett was content to claim just the first half for Laugharne but ten years later he would have us believe that all of Milk Wood was written there, even though we've known since Brinnin's 1955 book (and Cleverdon's of 1969) that the second half was mostly written in America.[ii] Carmarthenshire's tourist office, and the local authority's website, also boast that the whole play was written at the Boat House.
Carmarthenshire, which prides itself on being a "land of myth and legend" where "in certain places, the facts become intertwined with fiction", has turned Dylan's time in Laugharne into a world-wide marketing opportunity to attract the devoted and the curious. Laugharne, after all, has everything it takes to make a perfect shrine: the poet's grave, his work hut, his favourite pub and a ready-priested shore, all in a magnificent estuary setting. No wonder that within weeks of Dylan's death the News Chronicle predicted that "Now will begin the Dylan cult and Laugharne will become a shrine." [iii]
The commercial enshrining of Laugharne began with the renaming of the cliff path to the Boat House as 'Dylan's Walk'. This was followed by the opening of the Boat House in 1975, an event consolidated in 1977 by the founding of the Dylan Thomas Society and the publication of Ferris' biography.
In 1978, the 25th anniversary of Dylan's death, three Swansea businessmen enticed Dylan fans to journey on "up market pilgrimages" to Laugharne. Chauffeured Bentleys and Mercedes took parties on trips around Dylan's Swansea and Laugharne, stopping for champagne receptions, cordon bleu dinners and poetry readings. This promotion was part of a marketing blitz from the Welsh Tourist Board, who believed that "Dylan could soon be one of the biggest attractions to foreign tourists to Wales..." [iv] Carmarthenshire Council thought the same and bought the Boat House, spending over half a million pounds to save it from collapse, and refurbishing it as a heritage centre. It has been a wise investment - around 20,000 people annually visit the Boat House, which has become "one of Wales' most popular national monuments".
There are three occasions on which Dylan declared that Laugharne was the setting for the play.[v] But we should not make too much of this because on two of these occasions Dylan was using the play to beg for money. There are also three letters, all written from Laugharne and none asking for money, when Laugharne did not feature in Dylan's thinking at all. In these, he wrote that the play was set "in a small town in a never-never Wales"; "in a Wales that I am sad to say never was"; and in a "Welsh town-that-never-was". When Dylan gave the first reading of the play in America on May 3 1953, he introduced it as a "picture of a small Welsh town-that-never-was". And when John Brinnin came to Laugharne in 1951, Dylan told him only that the play was based on "the life of a Welsh village very much like Laugharne." [vi]
Dylan's friend, the author Richard Hughes who lived in Laugharne, told Colin Edwards that when Dylan "came to write Under Milk Wood, he didn’t use actual Laugharne characters." Hughes had made the same point in his 1954 review of the play. Although Dylan had once intended "to use some of his fellow-townsmen recognisably", reports Hughes, when he abandoned the plot about a mad town (see below), he also decided on "the total abandonment of particular 'true' portraits." The characters of Llareggub "ought to live in Laugharne, perhaps, but in fact not one of them does."[vii]
Hughes is probably right that there are no true or complete portraits of Laugharne residents in the play. But there are certainly some elements of Laugharne that can be found in the text: the name Rosie Probert was that of a former inhabitant of the town; Mog Edwards' boater and butterfly collar came from Laugharne draper, Mr Watts, though his shop was Gwalia not Manchester House; and, as we noted in the Introduction, Duck Lane and Wee Willy Wee are from Laugharne. Salt House Farm probably inspired Salt Lake Farm but it is not on top of Sir John's Hill, as some writers claim. Neither does it root Milk Wood in the particularity of Laugharne since it was not written into the play until 1953. Denzil Davies MP has claimed Organ Morgan for Laugharne, asserting that he was based on E.V. Williams, the organist at St Martin's Church, who lived a few doors down from Brown's Hotel.[viii] Butcher Beynon certainly draws in part on butcher and publican Carl Eynon, though he was in St Clears not Laugharne:
"He [Dylan] used to come in here and sit in the room with the coracle men around an open fire and I'd watch him listening and memorising and writing down. He told me he was writing a play and that I was in it, but he'd put you off if you started fishing him...My fridges are down the lane out the back there and sometimes Dylan would see me walking back up to the shop carrying a cleaver, often with my little dog. It was a dachshund, see, a sausage dog, but in his play he calls it a corgi." ( Burn,1972)
And which Laugharne resident was Captain Cat? In his Edwards interview, John Morgan Dark suggests it was a Mr Whitaker Jones, who was not blind, and Jane Dark of Laugharne that it was a sea captain nicknamed Cat, who was. Both agree that, whoever he was, he frequented the Cross House Inn, but neither Phil Richards, who ran the Cross House, nor his daughter Romaine, were at all convinced about this in their Edwards interview, and do not suggest any names of their own. None of these accord with Min Lewis' suggestion (1967) that it was Laugharne resident Johnny Thomas. And most tellingly of all, Billy Williams of Laugharne thought that the original for Captain Cat was a New Quay sailor.
It is particularly interesting that so few of Laugharne's distinctive and historic features are reflected in the play. This is hardly surprising - how could a play about a "quintessentially" Welsh town peopled with identifiably Welsh characters be plausibly based on an English-cultured, English-speaking enclave such as Laugharne? Those who press Laugharne's claims deal with this problem by advancing two further arguments. First, that it is not the detail of Llareggub's people, places and culture that matters but rather the eccentricity of its inhabitants. Only Laugharne, it is claimed, possessed "the play's anarchic spirit". This is not the strongest of cases as those who know New Quay's colourful history, or even that of Llansteffan, will appreciate.
Second, there is the default argument: there is no convincing evidence about Ferryside or the Mumbles (and I agree about that) and, furthermore, Dylan did not know New Quay well enough because he lived there for only nine months and never returned. Therefore, Llareggub must be Laugharne. But Dylan had been coming to New Quay since the mid 1930s, sometimes to visit his aunt and cousin who lived there. He also came to see Lord Howard de Walden at Plas Llanina, and worked in its Apple House. Dylan often returned to the town during the War when he was staying a few miles away in Talsarn, before ending up in Majoda in 1944/45. He also came back after the War, and was still writing to Skipper Rymer, who once ran the Dolau pub, as late as 1953.[ix]
Since Dylan took several years to write the play, it is not surprising that a number of villages and towns would swim in and out of his consciousness as he sought to create Llareggub's profile - including Laugharne, Llansteffan and New Quay. When the play is analysed in detail, New Quay seems to be the most significant of the locations that Dylan drew upon. Some of the names in Under Milk Wood come from New Quay - Maesgwyn farm, the river Dewi and the Sailor's Home Arms, for example. Llareggub's Welshness and sea-going history is that of New Quay, as is its harbour, woods, terraced streets and quarry. Dylan's sketch of Llareggub is plainly of New Quay and, as Cleverdon, has pointed out
"The topography of the town of Llareggub...is based not so much on Laugharne, which lies on the mouth of an estuary, but rather on New Quay, a seaside town...with a steep street running down to the harbour." (1969, p4)
Cleverdon's description of the "steep street running down to the harbour" helps us to appreciate that the various references in the play to the top of the town, and to its "top and sea-end", refer to toppling, cliff-perched New Quay, not to Laugharne, which has little top and no sea-end at all. Under Milk Wood is also full of other words and phrases that root the play in the "particularity and locality" of New Quay. The Fourth Drowned sailor asks about buttermilk and whippets - Jack Patrick of the Black Lion bred whippets and made buttermilk in his dairy next to the hotel. The town's terraced streets viewed from Majoda inspired the phrase "hill of windows". I provide more examples in Thomas 2000 and 2002b.
FitzGibbon has observed that Llareggub "resembles New Quay more closely [than Laugharne], and many of the characters derive from that seaside village in Cardiganshire..." (p237). For example, Dai Fred Davies (one of Dylan's friends - see his letter of August 29 1946) supervised the donkey engine on the Alpha and became Tom-Fred the donkeyman in the play. Dan 'Cherry' Jones inspired the name Cherry Owen. Indeed, Dylan inadvertently uses the name "Cherry Jones" in one of his drafts of the play. In an early list of Milk Wood characters, Dylan describes Cherry Owen as a plumber and carpenter - Cherry Jones was a general builder in New Quay. One of the town's postal workers, Jack Lloyd (also mentioned in the same August letter), provided the character of Willy Nilly. Lloyd was New Quay's Town Crier. Willy Nilly's penchant for opening letters, and spreading the news from one house to another, is a strong reflection of Lloyd's role as Crier, as Dylan himself noted on one of his worksheets for Under Milk Wood.[x]
Llareggub's sailors had travelled the world, and brought back coconuts and parrots for their wives. Captain Cat, who spoke a little French, had been to San Francisco. His drowned companions had visited Nantucket. It is then hardly surprising that Billy Williams of Laugharne, whose little fishing boats seldom went further than Bristol, thought that the inspiration for Captain Cat was a New Quay sailor. In Dylan's day, there were over thirty-five retired, ocean-going captains living in the town, a wonderful gallery of Captain Cats to inspire a writer's imagination. Indeed, one in five of New Quay's men aged twenty and over were master mariners, either retired or serving. One of these was Captain Tom 'Polly' Davies, who lived opposite the Black Lion and drank with Dylan there. Tom Polly had worked as a censor for part of the War, and had been a Government Observer during the Spanish Civil War. Both these roles probably helped to form Dylan's image of Captain Cat as "The Witness", as Dylan described him in a list of the characters of the play, someone privy to the everyday lives and secrets of the people of Llareggub.[xi]
And whilst Captain Cat lived in Schooner House, Tom Polly lived in Schooner Town - ninety-nine schooners were built or owned in New Quay between 1848 and 1870. Dylan himself provided a significant clue to New Quay's influence on the play when, in an early draft of Milk Wood, he described Llareggub as a "schooner-and-harbour-town".[xii]
A few hundred yards to the north of Majoda stood the church of Llanina. Ackerman has rightly pointed out that the story of the drowned village and graveyard of Llanina, "is the literal truth that inspired the imaginative and poetic truth" of Under Milk Wood (1998, p127). To the south, between Majoda and New Quay, stood Maesgwyn farm and the little community of Pentre Siswrn but they, two roads and about sixty acres of farmland were lost to the sea in Dylan's lifetime. It is these drowned houses and fields that inspired the "imaginative and poetic truth" of the play, as much as those of Llanina. Not to mention the 150 sailors in local graveyards who died at sea or in foreign ports.
Since Dylan started work on the play at New Quay, it is hardly surprising that the town had a profound influence on the writing of Under Milk Wood. I have described elsewhere the many other ways in which New Quay was mother of the play, and I discuss the particular case of Polly Garter in the next chapter. None of this makes Laugharne any less beautiful or attractive to visitors, or less significant as the place that inspired several wonderful poems, but it played a relatively small part in the production of Under Milk Wood. I want now to examine the play's growth, and show that most of it was written in New Quay, South Leigh and America.
From Caswell Bay to Prague
According to Bert Trick in his interview with Colin Edwards, an embryonic Under Milk Wood was written by Dylan in 1933:
"He read it to Nell and me in our bungalow at Caswell around the old Dover stove, with the paraffin lamps lit at night...the story was then called Llareggub, which was a mythical village in South Wales, typical village, with terraced houses with one ty bach [lavatory] to about five cottages, and the various characters coming out and emptying the slops and exchanging greetings and so on; that was the germ of the idea which...developed into Under Milk Wood."
It is likely that what Dylan read to the Tricks was a story rather than a play for radio, for at this time Dylan had had no experience of writing for that medium, and did not make his first broadcast until 1937. He also recognised his own limitations for writing something "long" for the radio. His letter in November 1938 to T. Rowland Hughes, a BBC producer, was a prophetic warning about how difficult the writing of Under Milk Wood would prove to be:
"I don't think I'd be able to do one of those long dramatic programmes in verse; I take such a long time writing anything, & the result, dramatically, is too often like a man shouting under the sea. But if you 'd let me know a little more about these programmes - length, subjects unsuitable, etc - I'd like to have a try. It sounds full of dramatic possibilities, if only I was."
In 1939, Dylan had a discussion with Richard Hughes about writing a play about Laugharne, in which the villagers would play themselves. Four years later, in 1943, Dylan met again with Hughes, and this time outlined a play about a Welsh village certified as mad by government inspectors. Constantine FitzGibbon has written that "after the revelations of the German concentration camps," Dylan told him the plot about a mad village, and dates this to a "year or so" after 1943 (p237).
In September 1944, Dylan and family had arrived in New Quay, Cardiganshire, and moved into a bungalow called Majoda. He wrote Quite Early One Morning there, one of the most important precursors of the Under Milk Wood, commissioned by Aneirin Talfan Davies as Portrait of a Seaside Town, and broadcast on December 14 1944. In his Introduction to Under Milk Wood, Daniel Jones has noted that, following the success of the broadcast, Dylan contemplated "a more extended work against the same kind of background". Jones also writes that there was much discussion between Dylan and his friends about the form this extended work should take.
In 1945, the BBC producer Philip Burton visited New Quay to prepare a "radio impression of a Welsh village by the sea", broadcast on March 1. Burton's programme may have been another influence on Dylan that secured New Quay as a significant template for Milk Wood. The reminiscing sailors of the play are anticipated at the start of Burton's script (e.g. "I was in Wellington…the night of Pearl Harbour."/ "I'll never forget that dinner in Hong Kong.") And whilst the drowned sailors of Llareggub open Milk Wood, Burton's programme ends with the drowned sailors of New Quay, in "cemeteries of empty graves" because "the whole world is the grave-yard of this little village."
Gwen Watkins has noted that the "germ...of the earliest idea" of the play was conceived in New Quay. Theodora FitzGibbon has described how Dylan had told her in 1944 that he was writing a radio play "peopled with what he called 'a good cross-section of Welsh characters.'" Her husband, Constantine FitzGibbon, has also written in his biography that Dylan started to write Under Milk Wood in New Quay. This is confirmed by Jack Patrick Evans of the Black Lion, who notes in his Edwards interview that Dylan was working on Milk Wood in New Quay. And one of Dylan's closest friends and confidante, Ivy Williams of Brown's Hotel, Laugharne, has said " Of course, it wasn’t really written in Laugharne at all. It was written in New Quay, most of it." [xiii]
Writing in January 1954, just days before the first BBC broadcast of the play, its producer Douglas Cleverdon has also drawn attention to Dylan's work at New Quay: "He wrote the first half within a few months; then his inspiration seemed to fail him when he left New Quay, Cardiganshire, and came to live in London." [xiv]
The most extended description of the progress of Dylan's work on Milk Wood at New Quay comes from the writer and academic, Dan Davin. In the spring or summer of 1945, he went with Dylan to a gathering at a flat in Riding House Street, off Langham Place, in London. There Dylan recited
"some rather bawdy songs and verses he had lately been writing, things he seemed to regard as written for fun rather than in earnest. They were a sort of vers de société, except that the society was Welsh and humble, people from a village which Dylan said was called Laugharne but which in the verses he named Llareggub. The verses, quatrains for the most part, were rich in affection, humour, compassion, and vivifying detail, and their effect was somehow medieval in the intimacy of the alliance between the poet and the people he was describing...I remember my admiration and enjoyment being infiltrated and spoilt by a feeling of dismal envy for the remarkable flow of metaphor and fantasy which came so easily to the man - came from him, rather, as water pours from a fountain." [xv]
Dylan and Caitlin left Majoda at the end of July 1945 to stay with his parents at Blaencwm in August and September. By early 1946, they were living in Oxford, and there wrote the other six radio scripts, including Return Journey, that are recognised as milestones on the road to Llareggub. In April 1947, Dylan and family went to Italy. He intended to write a radio play there, as his letters home make clear.[xvi]
Dylan ended his holiday on Elba, staying in Rio Marina, a town, like New Quay, of steep streets, quarries and harbour. It's possible that Rio reminded Dylan of summer in New Quay, packed with South Wales miners, for he arrived at the beginning of the iron miners' holiday. They regarded him with "curiosity and simpatia", the Elba historian Gianfranco Vanagolli told me. Dylan drank with them, and with Pierino the anarchist, the most powerful miners' leader on Elba. Through these friendships, Dylan "perceived the soul of the community…as he was Welsh and the mine was in his blood."
Staying in the same hotel as Dylan was the Florence intellectual, Augusto Livi, who wrote:
"…in the village of steep houses and stone stairs, the small reddish dogs used to stop at the corners when the poet Dylan Thomas passed by, with his Bacchus head and his two colour clothes, green trousers and pink shirt…[looking] like an archbishop, with his white cap and the long shirt out of his trousers." (1949)
Dylan was solitary and introspective, Livi told Colin Edwards in 1969. There were long, silent walks along the coast when Dylan was "preoccupied by poetical activity." Rio had a "very kind and human atmosphere...Dylan loved this atmosphere… I think that he saw in the landscape, the naked landscape, a souvenir of the Galles, of Wales." Both Livi and Luzi describe how Dylan was busy writing during his stay in Rio Marina. Luzi told Edwards:
"On the island of Elba, he managed to get started again, to break his silence, resuming the typical lilt of his poetry but at the same time renewing it. I think it was actually in Elba that he wrote Under Milk Wood, if I’m not mistaken. I think that’s the composition that he at least started in Elba."
Dylan's letters from Rio mention the "fishers and miners" and "webfooted waterboys" who we later find as the "fishers" and "webfoot cocklewomen" of the first page of Milk Wood. The "sunblack" and "fly-black" adjectives of Italy would be re-worked as the "crowblack" and "bible-black" descriptions of Llareggub. Alfred Pomeroy Jones, sea-lawyer, "died of blisters", and so, almost, did Dylan and family as he vividly describes in his letter of August 3 1947. And in time, Rio's "blister-biting blimp-blue bakehouse sea" would appear as Llareggub's "slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea." [xvii]
On their return in August 1947, the Thomas family moved to South Leigh outside Oxford, living in the Manor House, a dilapidated cottage, with a caravan provided for Dylan's writing. Phyllis Broome's books describe the village at the time. Rob Brown, who lived near the Manor House, told me that Dylan "worked very hard writing in the caravan." In a 1963 BBC interview, Betty Green of the village shop said that Dylan:
"used to go into the caravan so as to do his poets and he used to be there all day long…he used to write all day long. Dylan was never still, but he must do his poets first, but if he could do his poets, he could go and have a drink. But unless he had done that, he couldn't." [xviii]
It was here that Dylan continued work on the play, as he told his parents he would in his letter of July 19 1947: “I want very much to write a full-length - hour to hour & a half - broadcast play; & hope to do it, in South Leigh, this autumn.” Philip Burton encouraged Dylan to build upon the success of Return Journey. He has recalled a meeting in the Café Royal in 1947, when they discussed the play:
"…he was telling me an idea he had for…The Village of the Mad…a coastal town in south Wales which was on trial because they felt it was a disaster to have a community living in that way…For instance, the organist in the choir in the church played with only the dog to listen to him…A man and a woman were in love with each other but they never met.…they wrote to each other every day…And he had the idea that the narrator should be like the listener, blind.…" (1953 and recorded talk)
Dylan continued with the play in 1948, as he mentioned in his March letter to John Ormond from South Leigh: "A radio play I am writing has Laugharne, though not by name, as its setting."
John Davenport has confirmed that Dylan worked on the play at South Leigh, observing that Milk Wood "took six years to make." [xix] In his interview with Colin Edwards, Harry Locke, a good friend of Dylan's and a neighbour in the village, comments that Dylan wrote a substantial part of the first half at South Leigh. Talking about Dylan's time in the village, the following exchange occurs:
Joan Locke: He'd written a great deal of Under Milk Wood at that time, hadn't he?
Harry Locke: Oh yes, he worked on Under Milk Wood for about six years but he finished it off at 260 [Kings Street, Hammersmith, Locke's home]…he finished most of it in the pub. In the Ravenscourt Arms.
A few miles from South Leigh was a German POW camp, whose inmates were waiting to be re-settled. They chopped wood for Caitlin, looked after the garden and worked on the neighbouring farms. Perhaps the camp was, for Dylan, a daily reminder of the plot about the mad village, which he described to FitzGibbon as having barbed wire "strung about it and patrolled by sentries." [xx]
The time at South Leigh was a key period in the writing of Milk Wood, building on the work that had been done at New Quay. Distractions were few in early 1948; there were no poems on the go, only a handful of radio broadcasts and the new round of film scripts had only just begun. In one of these South Leigh films (Three Weird Sisters), we find the familiar Llareggub names of Daddy Waldo and Polly Probert.
Dylan travelled from South Leigh to Prague in March 1949 to a Congress of the Writers' Union. The visit is often used as an example of Dylan's political naivety. But he had personal reasons for going. In wartime London, he had got to know Jirí Mucha, who had been part of the group in London around John Lehmann, and had translated Czech poets for the periodical New Writing.
On March 7, Dylan went to a party in the suburb of Horní Krč to meet the leading Czech poet, Vladimír Holan. The host Jan Grossman remembers that
"The evening began with the help of those of us who could speak English….Holan crushed glasses of red wine with sculptor's hands and Thomas…lit cigarette after cigarette to go with the wine; the ash fell on his suit lapels, then onto his lap, and from his lap onto the parquet floor which he systematically ground in with his shoes. The night came on rapidly, the poets' conversation became more agitated, but the interpreters were no longer necessary. Holan and Thomas began to communicate in a language which was born on the spot, which formed its experience and rules, was built on verbal and mimetic gesture, and insisted on being listened to and reacted to through its intonation and the melody of its sentences…in a moment a world appeared which could be entered into just with a look, with a look of the eye and the soul. And this night lasted until morning. After it there were memories and poems, even those which the master of the house insisted Holan write in his Guest Book: 'Devil take these books,/but he won't take them.../they are immortal, they live on eternally/ and so my name here quickly too!' The night ended late. When we accompanied both poets out an orange sun rose above the frosty morning." (Justl,1988)
It is the first known public airing of the play. In her memoir, Jiřina Hauková, who was Dylan's guide and interpreter, recalls that Dylan "narrated the first version of his radio play Under Milk Wood." She describes how he outlined the plot about a town that was declared insane, and then portrayed the predicament of the eccentric organist and the baker with two wives. A government official arrives with evidence of the insanity of the town:
"He said that the document, which had proofs of their insanity, was too voluminous, so he would only read some of the proofs at random. “In this community they play the organ for goats and sheep.” The citizens were angered by this and called on the organist. He says: “One evening I went to church to play the organ, I left the gate open and the goats and sheep came into the church and I played for them.” “In your city there is also a baker who has two wives.” The people protested again. But two women at the assembly stood up and said: “Yes, we both live with the baker and we all like each other." [xxi]
In their interviews with Colin Edwards, Grossman also said that Dylan "spoke about Milk Wood, the radio play, and he quoted some parts of it…." And Josef Nesvadba who, like Grossman, had been educated at the English school in Prague, was another at the party who remembered Dylan referring to the mad town plot, as well as the Voices in the play.[xxii]
This testimony from Prague, when taken with that of Burton about the meeting in the Café Royal in 1947, indicates that many of the characters of the play were already in place by March 1949: the organist, the two lovers who never met but wrote to each other, the baker with two wives, the blind narrator and the Voices.
Laugharne: dreaming of America
In May 1949, the Thomases moved to the Boat House in Laugharne. Just four months later, on September 23, Dylan met with his agent David Higham, who sent a letter summarising their discussion:
"Your own radio play nearly finished hasn't been taken into account in the above, but I imagine it may finish itself before you go to the USA. We have noted that P.H. Burton of Cardiff knows all about it, and will eventually want to do it."[xxiii]
We know now that “nearly finished” was an exaggeration, and only the first half was close to completion. Yet it tells us that substantial progress had been made on the play.
Of great interest, too, is an article by the poet Allen Curnow in the NZ Listener, in which he writes about visiting Dylan in Laugharne in October 1949. Curnow describes being taken to the writing shed. Dylan "fished out a draft to show me of the unfinished Under Milk Wood" that was, says Curnow, titled The Town That Was Mad. The draft was fished, not from Dylan's "littered desk" where he was working on Vanity Fair, but from a chest of drawers.
But could this draft, which was undoubtedly the "nearly finished" play described by Higham a month earlier, have been written at the Boat House between May and September 1949? This is wholly improbable. It conflicts with the evidence from New Quay, South Leigh and Prague. There is nothing in his letters, or in any documentary or biographical source, to suggest that Dylan was working on the play in these first months in Laugharne. Most writers stress the other things on Dylan's mind, including writing Living in Wales and "Over Sir John's hill", and making a start on Vanity Fair. There was, too, the birth of Colm, as well as broadcasts, debts, illnesses and a summons to contend with. Curnow has also mentioned that he found Dylan busy preparing himself "very seriously" for the forthcoming American trip, choosing and rehearsing poems for his readings.
Furthermore, the "nearly finished" script had been discussed with Philip Burton some time before the meeting with Higham. A letter from Jean LeRoy of Highams in March 1950 to Caitlin tells us that Dylan's meeting with Burton had taken place in 1949.[xxiv] They may have met around July 29 when Dylan was in Cardiff for a BBC programme, or even earlier. This further reduces the possibility that Dylan had written the script in the first few months at the Boat House.
Higham had been optimistic in thinking the play might "finish itself". Dylan worked on his poetry for the rest of the year, finishing the first draft of "In the White Giant's Thigh" and starting "Poem on His Birthday". But it was hard going; he was "tangled in hack work", Caitlin was ill, and the Laugharne traders were snapping at his heels for money.[xxv]
Dylan did not read from the play in Cardiff in October or Tenby in November 1949, nor is it mentioned in his letters about his forthcoming American trip.[xxvi] At the turn of the year, he was preoccupied with the arrangements for travelling, his father's serious illness and broadcasting in London. It was, he said, "hard to sit down every day in peace...and write..."
It seems unlikely that Dylan did any work on the play in the early part of 1950. His first American visit, a tour of twelve thousand miles and thirty-nine readings, began in February. There is no record that Dylan read from the script or did any writing there. In her March letter to Caitlin, LeRoy asks if Dylan had made any progress in finishing the play. Caitlin replied that she couldn't find the script, but didn't think that Dylan had got very far with it.
Dylan returned in June. The next three months were spent in Laugharne, with trips to London to broadcast. He completed "In the White Giant's Thigh" and worked on "In Country Heaven". He planned a piece on America for Vogue and the BBC agreed to take Letter to America, but he failed to write either.
September was not a month for writing. The first two weeks were in London with Pearl Kazin and John Malcolm Brinnin, who makes no mention of the play in his account of this time together. Indeed, Brinnin did not hear about “Llareggub Hill” until 1951. It appears that Kazin, too, did not hear of the play either in America or in London. She told me that she has never heard of the title The Town that was Mad: “The only early title I knew of for UMW was Llareggub…”
Caitlin soon found out about Pearl and the marriage was plunged further into crisis. Dylan extricated himself, and in mid-September he went back with Caitlin to London, where she was to have an abortion. He spent a good deal of the next five weeks there, some of it ill with pleurisy. He met with Douglas Cleverdon, who wrote on October 20 1950 to say that the BBC "have agreed to take the Town that was Mad." Later that month, Dylan sent Cleverdon thirty-five handwritten pages of the first half, a script that contained most of the places, people and topography of Llareggub, and which ended with the line "Organ Morgan's at it early…" [xxvii]
I conclude from all this evidence that most of the first half of Milk Wood was first written in New Quay and South Leigh, with probably some work done in Rio Marina, as well as later revisions and additions done in America in 1953. The work at South Leigh was completed within three years of Dylan's leaving New Quay, presumably with memories still fresh and Cardiganshire notebooks to hand.
The Chase Begins
The half-script sent to Cleverdon in October 1950 was wholly in the manner of the play as we know it today, and Dylan's plan was to develop the mad town plot in the second half. He did write some pages of mad town script, which are reproduced in Davies and Maud (ppxix-xx), and he also outlined the way in which he would write about the mad town and its trial in the town hall - this is also helpfully reproduced in Davies and Maud. We do not know how much more, if any, of the mad town plot Dylan actually wrote, but the poet Heath-Stubbs has recalled Dylan
"one evening in the Wheatsheaf reciting parts of Under Milk Wood, which was in the process of composition. This included some scenes which did not find a place in the final version. One of these was set in the town hall where alarming messages were coming through on the ticker tape such as 'The fish have declared war!' and 'Anti-Christ has reached Caernarvon.'" (p146)
Cleverdon's job now was to get this second half script from Dylan. In the meantime, he had the first half of the manuscript typed and returned in November: "Let me urge you to press on with it with all speed...June and Angela adored typing it, and are both looking forward eagerly to the next instalment." By December 1950, Cleverdon was sending the first of many letters exhorting Dylan to complete the play: "I am frightfully anxious to get the programme on the air...moreover, I can get the whole thing paid for immediately the script is approved." He advised Dylan to drop the idea of a plot about a mad town, and to write the second half in the same lyrical vein as the first. This, says Cleverdon, "seemed to relieve him considerably; but even so he couldn't get going." [xxviii]
Cleverdon chased Dylan through 1951 but to no avail. Dylan was in Iran in the early part of the year. On his return, the play was "temporarily shelved", as he put it in his letter of July 18 to Princess Caetani, while he worked hard on poems. Nothing afterwards matched this brief period of creativity; in the next two years, Dylan completed only one poem and a handful of prose pieces at the Boat House.
In August 1951, Dylan wrote to Donald Taylor: "I am writing a plotless radio play, first thought of as a film." If he had resumed work on the play, he said nothing to Cleverdon about it who wrote from the BBC in September "I long to see the rest of it. By all that you hold most holy in Wales, do try and finish it." In October, Dylan sent the uncompleted script to Botteghe Oscure as "the first half of this piece" - it only went "up to a certain moment of the morning", as Dylan put it in his covering letter to Princess Caetani. It was virtually the same as that given to the BBC a year before, except that he removed some eighty-six lines that had been in the BBC version. These were the exchanges between Mr and Mrs Cherry Owen, and the scene in which Willy Nilly does his rounds. Botteghe Oscure published the shortened script the following year.
In an October 1951 notebook, now in Texas, Dylan lists nine new scenes to be written for the play. Between this point and the first cast reading in May 1953, he wrote most, but not all, of the second half. He also re-instated the eighty-six lines from the 1950 BBC script and wrote over a hundred lines of new text for the first half, including the section "In Butcher Beynon's" to "My foxy darling." But when was all this work done?
Dylan's letters indicate that little progress was made in 1952, the year of his second trip to America, although he made two small changes to the Botteghe version for the reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in May. FitzGibbon noted that Dylan was working on the play only
"sporadically and very slowly…Under Milk Wood progressed with almost incredible slowness. He was a sick, unhappy man, and very tired."
By late summer 1952, the BBC still had only the first part of the play which, as internal memos suggest, amounted to no more than the script received in 1950.[xxix] Cleverdon has confirmed this, writing that "nothing more emerged, other than the first half which he had given me earlier." (1954b) Dylan wrote to Cleverdon in August, claiming that "I want, myself, to finish it more than anything else. I'm longing to get to work on it again." He could, he said, finish it in six weeks if he were able to work on it every day ("I write very slowly when I'm very much enjoying it") but hack work to raise money was getting in the way. If the BBC were to pay him a weekly sum, then "I could shove all other small jobs aside & work on 'Llareggub' only".
Rejecting Dylan's request for a weekly wage, the BBC tempted him with five guineas for every thousand words he produced. Dylan accepted but sent nothing. In October, Dylan wrote to Cleverdon promising "to start work on Llareggub today." Cleverdon went to Laugharne a week later but returned empty-handed. Dylan resolved to finish the play in sixteen days of solid work, but nothing came of it.[xxx]
The same month Dylan met with Brinnin in London. In the back of a taxi en route to Waterloo Station, Brinnin suggested that the title of Llareggub "would be too thick and forbidding to attract American audiences. 'What about Under Milk Wood?' he said, and I said 'Fine,' and the new work was christened on the spot." [xxxi]
Botteghe Oscure still had only a "half-play", and in November, Dylan wrote to explain why he hadn't been able to "finish the second half of my piece for you". He had failed shamefully, he said, to add to "my lonely half of a looney maybe-play", but promised the rest of the script by February.
By this point in 1952, Dylan had been at the Boat House for three and a half years, but the half-play had made little progress since his South Leigh days. There is nothing here to support the view that the magic of Laugharne was at the heart of the Llareggub project. The town provided little in the way of inspiration or motivation as Dylan's failure to work effectively on the play clearly shows. Cold and damp Laugharne, which Caitlin grew so much to hate, was less a place of creativity than a burden, as the marriage crashed, debts mounted and the events of the wider world pressed in.
On December 16 1952, Dylan's father died. In the new year, Dylan wrote to Gwyn Jones saying "I've been terribly busy failing to write one word of a more or less play set in a Wales that I'm sad to say never was…" He wrote to Charles Fry in February, complaining that, apart from the 'Prologue' for Collected Poems, he had not been able to write anything for a whole year. A memo from Higham's office the same month noted tersely: "He hasn't made any progress on the Llareggub things."[xxxii]
On March 10, Dylan read a "chunk" of the play in Cardiff. The journalist Alan Road was a student at the time, and turned up in lecture room 103 at the university, gazing down across the steeply raked seating on the diminutive figure of the poet:
"I believe he was wearing a double breasted suit with a polo neck jumper. It was an odd combination in those more conventional times. The neck of the jumper sagged like a horse collar...he said he would give us a preview of a play for radio he was writing called Llareggub and he explained the origin of the name. He said the play's action happened in 24 hours. He had finished the day, he said and added with a stage leer that he was looking forward to the night. I do remember that the applause when he finished was tumultuous. Sufficient, I felt, for an encore, but when the noise had died down Thomas merely said 'Thank You' and vanished from the stage." [xxxiii]
Later that evening, Dylan lost the script. It took him seven days to write to his host, Charles Elliott, to ask him to find it: "It's very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string."
The Show Goes On
It may well be that Under Milk Wood - the "infernally eternally unfinished" play - would never have been completed had not Brinnin taken the risk of advertising performances in America for May 1953. This forced Dylan's hand, and he wrote on March 18 promising that the script (at that moment still unfound in Cardiff) would be ready by the date of his sailing. In New York, Brinnin was noting with satisfaction that "hundreds of tickets" had already been sold for the first performance on May 14 at the Poetry Center. Together with his assistant, Liz Reitell, he began assembling a cast, as Nancy Wickwire, one the of young actors has described:
"I was working in the Poetry Center, working the switchboard...and Liz Reitell came through one morning looking very distraught and said Dylan arrives in another week and one of his requests was for five actors because he's going to do a play for voices called Under Milk Wood. And she said 'Where do I get actors?' And you're looking at one, and I know right in this building you'll find anyone you need. I said first of all there's Sada Thompson who's teaching speech; that's an actress. Roy Poole who relieved me on the switchboard is an actor. Dion Allen who relieved Roy is also an actor. Al Collins, who is stage manager of the Kaufman Auditorium, is an actor. So there are your actors."[xxxiv]
On Dylan's arrival on April 21, Brinnin realised that the play "was still far from finished". If, as it seems, Dylan had arrived with little more than the 1950 BBC text, then some sixty percent of the play that we know today had yet to be written, including some first half material.[xxxv] Brinnin installed Dylan in his Boston apartment and set him to write:
"the unfinished part of his play was no longer merely a matter of scenes to be filled in and lines to be brushed up but a problem that would demand all of his creative resourcefulness. The making of Milk Wood had assumed the first proportions of a marathon…"
But Dylan had poetry readings to give along the East Coast and, according to Brinnin, Dylan worked on Milk Wood on only three days - April 26 and May 1 and 2. On the evening of May 3, Dylan was due to give a solo reading of the play at the Fogg Museum, Harvard. He worked on revisions and additions "from late morning until late afternoon", and then went to a party at the home of the portrait painter, Gardner Cox. The reading of the still unfinished play that evening was, according to Brinnin, "one of his memorable performances" but we do not know how incomplete the play was because no script or recording has ever surfaced. The only records from this event seems to be Gardner Cox's portrait done immediately afterwards, and the review of the play in The Boston Herald the next day.
This review contains details which provide some information on the state of the play at the May 3 reading. The reviewer mentions Mr Pugh's book about the lives of great poisoners, as well as Captain Cat's comments on Mrs Ogmore- Pritchard beeswaxing the lawn to make the birds slip. Both these indicate that Dylan had restored the section about Willy Nilly doing his postal rounds, which he had removed from the Botteghe Oscure version of 1951. The review also tells us that Mog Edwards' love letter written to Miss Price on his shop's stationary received its first known public airing at the May 3 reading - it was not in the 1950 BBC script nor in the Botteghe Oscure version.
Brinnin describes how the audience's enthusiastic response at the May 3 reading proved a turning point in the making of Milk Wood. Dylan's confidence in himself and in the play was boosted and "From that time on his concern for the success of Under Milk Wood was deep and constant...he seemed to have come upon a whole new regard for himself as a dramatic writer." (p207)
Rehearsals had already started for the first cast reading to be given on May 14th. Nancy Wickwire, has recalled that the script given to the actors ended with First Voice's description of Lord Cut-Glass' clocks. Another of the actors, Sada Thompson, confirmed that "we got about half of the script to begin with, and then we didn't have many rehearsals - there weren't more than half a dozen, if that." [xxxvi] The first cast rehearsal with Dylan was on May 8 and it was apparent to the actors that "Dylan had no experience of rehearsing." Wickwire commented that they
"Didn't know how we were going to do it...didn't know who was going to do what or how it was all going to turn out, and we were all reading rather tentatively because we didn't know what the play was about...Dylan, of course, didn't cast the play...there was no casting at all. I read the first woman that came along in the script, and if that part happened to be repeated then I would read it again; Sada took the next woman that came along...as far as I remember, once we had cast ourselves he made no changes at all."
After the rehearsal, Dylan immediately left for further poetry readings, ending up with Brinnin in Connecticut on the evening of May 13. Dylan was up at dawn the next day, scribbling, says Brinnin, "on the little pieces of scratch-paper that made up a good part of the script of the play." By rehearsal time, he "had completed a whole new series of scenes", most written on the train back to New York. He then wrote until seven in the evening, when he gave up exhausted, with the performance only ninety minutes away. Brinnin is clear that even at this late stage "the final third of the play was still unorganised and but partially written."
Threats to cancel the performance made Dylan buckle down, and he "finished up one scene after another." But the play still had no ending. Liz Reitell locked Dylan in a room in Rollie McKenna's apartment. In her interview with Edwards, McKenna comments: "We set up a card table for him in a room in the back of the house on the top floor and had two or three typists from the “Y” in the other room, and he’d get something done and they’d type it and then he’d work over it again." Despite Dylan's protests, Reitell squeezed the final part of the play out of him:
"The curtain was going to rise at 8.40. Well, at 8-10 Dylan was locked in the backroom with me. And no end to Under Milk Wood. He kept saying "I can't, I simply can't do this." I said "You can, the curtain is going to go up." Strangely enough, he wrote the very end of Under Milk Wood then and there, and he wrote the lead-up to it. He would scribble it down, I would copy it, print it so that the secretary could read it, hand it to John Brinnin, and hand it to the secretary, do six copies. We all jumped into a cab finally, and got over to the theatre at half-past eight and handed out the six copies to the actors..." [xxxvii]
Brinnin's account makes it clear that parts of the play were still being handed to the actors "as they applied their make-up, read their telegrams and tested their new accents on one another. Some lines of dialogue did not actually come into the hands of the readers until they were taking their places on stage." (p213) The reading, nevertheless, was rapturously received by the audience, and at the fifteenth curtain call "squat and boyish in his happily flustered modesty, Dylan stepped out alone."
Dylan added some forty new lines to the second half for the next reading on May 28. The play was now almost complete, and we can safely conclude that most of it had by this point been written in New Quay, South Leigh, Boston and New York.
Dylan came home from America in June, enthusiastic about the play and full of good intentions. He prepared lists of ideas for new passages to write. Work sheets at Texas show that Dylan thought about more songs and poems for the ending section.[xxxviii] Dylan also asked "What have I missed out?" and added "Poverty. Jealousy. Idiocy. Incest Greed Hate Envy Spite Malice...Look at the churchyard: remember the early mortalities & fatalities. Quote some epitaphs, briefly...STRESS THE FEAR OF SOME OF THE TOWN AFTER DARK." But his work that summer on the play was "desultory", as Davies and Maud have described it, and his output failed, as it always did in Laugharne, to match his intentions.[xxxix]
The script was sent to Dent, but the chief editor considered the play pornographic and referred it to Martin Dent, the proprietor. He thought it "a bit broad in places" but decided to publish because "it's too good, too authentic Dylan Thomas to let it go….to turn it down might be to lose the author." (Ferris, 2000)
On August 5, Dylan went to Porthcawl and read "almost all" of Milk Wood at a drama school being run by Thomas Taig, as Taig describes in his interview with Colin Edwards. This was the first full British reading. Dylan gave another on October 2 at the Tenby Arts Club. Raymond Garlick has given an extended description of the reading, and written a poem about it.[xl]
A few days later, Dylan travelled to London and stayed in Hammersmith with Harry Locke while he waited for his flight to New York. There was, Laurence Gilliam of the BBC told Edwards, a "frenzy" of writing for the next five days. Locke has recalled that Dylan
"completed the final version of Under Milk Wood night after night at my kitchen table. I'd come down in the morning to a bleary-eyed Dylan still writing, the table littered with paper, beer bottles and cigarette ends."
But whether at the Boat House or in Hammersmith, Dylan added only forty-nine lines to the second half, comprising Eli Jenkins' sunset poem, and Waldo's chimney sweep song. He also added some sixty lines to the first half, mostly through rewriting existing passages.
Dylan arranged to have lunch with Cleverdon at Simpson's in the Strand on October 12, when he promised he would hand over the manuscript but neither he, nor the manuscript, turned up. Three days later, on October 15, Dylan arrived at the BBC and gave the much-relieved Cleverdon the "finished" manuscript but "it was clearly not in its final form." The first part was hand-written as a fair copy, ending at "…and you snored all night like a brewery." It was on this section of the play that Dylan had mainly worked in Laugharne and Hammersmith. The rest was the typed script prepared in America for the May 14 performance, with many corrections added by hand for the May 28 production in New York and the October reading in Tenby. This typed part, says Cleverdon, was in "an extremely disordered state." Eli Jenkins' poem, and Waldo's song were only "working drafts written on leaves torn from an exercise book…" (1969, pp35-38)
It is evident from Cleverdon's description that neither the four months in Laugharne, nor the five days in Hammersmith, had given Dylan the time or inspiration to revise, or even make a fair copy of, the ill-starred second half of the play that had been so hurriedly written in America. Cleverdon took this in hand, and had the script typed onto duplicating stencils at the BBC. He gave the manuscript back to Dylan who promptly lost it. Cleverdon came to the rescue and three copies were made from the BBC stencils and, just before his plane left for America, the copies were delivered to Dylan. A few days later, Cleverdon found the manuscript in the Helvetia pub in Old Compton Street in Soho.
Dylan arrived in New York on October 20, and added another thirty-eight lines to the second half from "Dusk is drowned" to "where the old wizards made themselves a wife out of flowers." Some of these lines had been drafted at Laugharne, and they were incorporated in the script for the two performances of Milk Wood given on October 24 and 25.
Dylan continued to work on the script for the version that was to appear in Mademoiselle, and for the performance to be given at the 1020 Art Center in Chicago on November 13. In his unpublished memoir, Ruthven Todd has described how Dylan did much of this further work in the basement of his house in Bank Street, on the west side of Greenwich Village. Dylan would invariably turn up with a hangover but Todd describes how a single can of beer would last a whole morning while Dylan and Liz Reitell worked together on the play. With Reitell sitting at Todd's typewriter, Dylan would perch on his captain's chair ("adequate for the tubbiness he had gained around the backside") and
"Glowering at the world in general, and at the dismalness of my basement, he would take some sheets from Liz. Upon these she had marked his tentative suggestions. Growling, he would try out the new words and the revisions. While doing this he would alter, still dispiritedly, from one voice to another. Thus, according to the character, he might be Captain Cat speaking at one moment, or Rosie Probert, and then, quite suddenly, it might be Mrs Organ Morgan or Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard or, sadly, Polly Garter...Each emendation which he had made...had to be considered and weighed in his mouth. If it did not seem right, he would lean forward, his elbows on his knees, the cigarette drooping with the ash falling where it would. He would savour each phrase to the full, speaking slowly and seeming to taste the words. Then he would experiment with a succession of words until he found one which satisfied him, for the moment at least...If I said something was not clear or did not come over properly, he did not want me to make any suggestions for alteration. He, himself, would throw out different words or phrases, twisting them this way or that, until he found something that he wanted."
All this work was almost in vain for Dylan yet again lost the script. Todd received a frantic phone call from Reitell and he set off to search through Dylan's favourite bars. He was on the point of giving up when he decided, somewhat reluctantly, to enter Louie's Bar on Sheridan Square, a gloomy basement joint that Dylan seldom went to. The barman produced a briefcase and from it Todd pulled a dirty shirt, an unopened bottle of Old Grandad and the "rumpled, dogeared, but intact, the much corrected typescript."[xli]
There undoubtedly would have been further work done on the play for the Chicago reading but Dylan died on November 9. Later that month in London, Douglas Cleverdon continued work for the broadcasting of the play using the BBC script copies, as well as the revised script sent from New York by Ruthven Todd. Some small cuts were made - the "two tits and a bum" cuts - and the first broadcast of the play, produced by Cleverdon, was made on the BBC Third Programme on January 25 1954, and repeated two days later. But there was a complaint
"that reception of the Third Programme in Wales was so bad that few people had heard the broadcast…it had been virtually inaudible in Laugharne."
The Welsh Home Service, however, resisted attempts to broadcast the "lusty, Rabelaisian and uninhibited" play, which it thought unsuitable for
"family or home listening...Controller Wales reacts more strongly to it than I do, and his reasoning is only too sound in the context of this region as we know it." [xlii]
By the end of March, Controller Wales had relented and the sensitive listeners of Wales were allowed to hear their Milk Wood, a play about a Wales that never was written almost entirely in England and America. Over the next few years, the play was performed in Edinburgh, New York and Mexico but banned in Cardiff. By 1957, it had already been translated into German, French, Polish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese and Italian.
At most, only some three hundred lines, about seventeen percent, of the play had been written at Laugharne, and some of these could well have been done in London. Claims that all, half, most, or even much, of Milk Wood had been written at the Boat House are unfounded.
No script has survived that we can positively say is the "nearly finished" 1949 script mentioned in David Higham's letter. But I have identified a first-half script that predates the one Dylan gave to the BBC in October 1950. The manuscript of the first thirty five pages of this BBC script, provided for Walford Davies and Paul Ferris from the Texas archive, also includes a quantity of additional numbered work sheets. When these are separated out, they form a coherent sequence of pages, a single discrete text with no overlapping material or excess pages. The script has twenty-eight pages, five of which are missing. It is a working draft with many deletions and insertions, and the occasional instruction to improve the text.
The 28-page script, as I shall refer to it, ends with First Voice describing Beynon Butcher's shop, concluding with Mr Beynon's remark "He shd do Bess. It's his brother's." It then peters out with an unassigned sentence: "They grumble at the thought that maybe one day the Govt will make chapel compulsory for all children; will close the pubs; will conduct purges of immorality." This seems to be a note about how the play was to continue. In fact, Dylan changed the Beynons' "everymorning groan and grumble" of the 28-page script to their "everymorning hullabaloo" of the BBC script, and the scene takes the different, cat-eating turn that we know today.
There is no way of telling when the 28-page script was written out. But is it the text that Dylan discussed with Higham? It is only seven pages shorter than the 1950 BBC text, so it has sufficient length to correspond with Locke's comment that a "great deal" of the play had been written in 1947/48, and with the description that it was "nearly finished" in 1949. If it is not exactly the text discussed with Higham, then it must be very close to it and approximate to the body of work done at South Leigh.
The content of the 28-page script is substantially the same as that part of the play we know today, but without the section "In Butcher Beynon's" to "My foxy darling". It includes the two Voices, more than three-quarters of the cast list, and nearly all of the place, street and house names of the play, including Coronation Street, Milk Wood, Llareggub and the Dewi. If the first part was "nearly finished" at South Leigh in 1947/48, the inspiration for these people and names could not have come from Dylan's time at the Boat House. Ackerman's suggestion, for example, that the name Milk Wood was inspired by Dylan's view of Sir John's Hill from the Boat House now seems implausible.
The 28-page script includes lines that Dylan then crossed out. The Voice of a Guide Book tells us that "The one pub, the Sailors Arms, is a beer house only and offers no accommodation." Mr Pritchard was a Photographer Elite before becoming a failed bookmaker. There are also some details that add to my account (Thomas 2000) of how Dylan drew on New Quay for the play. The Fourth Drowned sailor asks "Knock three times for Liz?" This recalls the libidinous Liz in Dylan's 1943 New Quay pub poem. The Rev. Eli Jenkins and his morning poem are already well developed in the 28-page script, so it's possible that Dylan was drawing on New Quay's own white-haired bard, the Rev. Orchwy Bowen. Like Eli Jenkins, he intricately rhymed in strict metres; he had published some poetry before moving to New Quay, where he was a regular competitor in county eisteddfodau.[xliii]
In preparing to send the half-script to the BBC in October 1950, Dylan did more work on the play, probably in Laugharne, though some may have been done in London. He deleted a number of lines from the 28-page script, and made other small changes. Only two new characters were added between the 28-page and the BBC scripts - the Old Man and Ocky Sailors. Dylan then wrote out the 28-page script as a fair copy, adding just over a hundred lines to it, which correspond broadly to "Oh, d'you hear that, Lily?" to Captain Cat's lines "Organ Morgan's at it early…" which end the first half (this addition included the section about Willy Nilly doing his rounds, which was not in the 28-page script where Willy Nilly had only one line - "Fishing for puffins.") Dylan also added four pages in which the mad town plot develops. These additions to the 28-page script have the appearance of a working draft, not a fair copy.
Finally, it might to helpful to note the names that were not in the 28-page and BBC scripts, and which first appear in the script for the performance on May 14 1953. They were Salt Lake Farm, Mr and Mrs Utah Watkins, Gossamer Beynon, Mrs Willy Nilly, Mae Rose Cottage, Mrs Organ Morgan, Evans the Death, Bessie Bighead and Ocky Sailors became Sinbad Sailors.
Writing Under Milk Wood: A Chronology
1933 Dylan reads an embryonic UMW in Bert Trick's Caswell Bay bungalow
1939 Suggests a play about Laugharne to Richard Hughes
1943 Outlines mad town plot to Hughes and later to FitzGibbon
1944/45 New Quay: Dylan writes Quite Early One Morning; makes a start on UMW.
Recites excerpts from the play at a party in Riding House Street, London
1946/47 Oxford: writes six of the other UMW milestones, including Return Journey;
visits Italy and resolves to write a "radio play"
1947/48 South Leigh: completes a draft of most of the first half of UMW
1949 March 7: reads extracts from the play at a party in Prague
May: moves to the Boat House, Laugharne
September: tells David Higham the play is "nearly finished"
October: shows incomplete draft of the play to Alan Curnow
1950 October: first half of UMW sent to the BBC as The Town That Was Mad
1951 July: John Malcolm Brinnin first hears of the play as Llareggub Hill
1952 April: Botteghe Oscure publishes shortened first half as Llareggub, A Piece for Radio Perhaps
May: Dylan reads part of the play at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
1953 March 10: Dylan reads part of the play in Cardiff
April 21: arrives in America with the first half script
April 26, May 1,2 and 3: works intermittently on the second half of script
May 3: reads an unfinished script, Fogg Museum, Harvard
May 8: first cast rehearsal with Dylan
May 14: completes second half of the script in time for the first cast performance of the play at the Poetry Center, New York
May 28: second cast performance at the Poetry Center
August 5: Dylan reads "almost all" the play, Porthcawl
October 2: a reading at the Tenby Arts Club
October 21-23: adds further lines to the script in New York
October 24/25: two more cast performances at the Poetry Center, New York
November 9: Dylan dies
A memorial performance of UMW is given in New York with Dylan's roles taken by Walter Abel
1954 January 24: twenty-five minute extract from UMW read at the Globe Theatre
January 25: first British cast performance, BBC Third Programme, with Richard Burton. Wins the Italia Prize
February: abridged versions appear in Mademoiselle and The Observer
BBC production released as an LP by Argo Record Company
Caedmon LP of the May 14 performance in New York
Dent publish Under Milk Wood, as do New Directions in America
September 28: first BBC Welsh Home Service broadcast
1955 Private matinée performance at RADA
1956 August 13: first British stage production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle
1957 May 9: a BBC television performance
1958 Dent publish the Acting Edition of the play
1968 Translated into Welsh as Dan Y Wenallt
1971 Film version with Richard Burton
1988 Musical version produced by George Martin, with Anthony Hopkins
1995 Davies and Maud's definitive edition published
2003 Musical version on CD by Guy Masterson, with music by Matt Clifford
First published in Dylan Remembered vol 2, Seren 2004
The Notes are on page 39
2. Conceiving Polly Garter
The name Polly was familiar to Dylan from early childhood - it was the family name of one his maternal aunts. The name later appeared in some of Dylan's writings, including the film script, Three Weird Sisters, and in Adventures in the Skin Trade. In the latter, Polly Dacey is "up to no good", as her mother puts it, in an upstairs bathroom, trying to pull a bottle off Samuel Bennet's finger, coaxing him to undress and getting him drunk on eau-de-cologne. Her dead lover, who "was ever so short", prefigures Polly Garter's dearly departed, little Willy Wee.
Colin Edwards was particularly interested in the development of Under Milk Wood. Several interviewees shared their opinions about the inspirations for some of the play's characters. It is hardly surprising that Polly Garter attracted special attention, and Jane Dark, for example, told Edwards that in Laugharne we
"had the sort of Polly Garter type...I can quite understand when he wrote this part about “when this person went past, people were quiet” – I mean, they were quiet!"
Edwards' search for the "original Polly", as he once put it, was doomed to failure because, unknown to him, Under Milk Wood was a play of two halves, two time periods and two countries. The development of the play's characters was thus exposed to a wide range of inspirations and circumstances. This is reflected in the role of Polly Garter. There are, in fact, two Polly Garters in Under Milk Wood: "mothering Polly" and "naughty Polly". Dylan pointed to both in his cast list for the play, when he described her as
"midwife. Loves children, loves loving, is loose and thoughtless, therefore has children." [xliv]
Dylan's idea of Polly as both a lover of children and a lover of men is also captured in a phrase he uses in the second half of the play, when he describes Polly's "naughty mothering arms and body." In their search for the original Polly, Edwards and his interviewees focussed only on the "naughty Polly." Any search for the original has to look for someone who fits the profile of both Pollys; alternatively, we must consider that there may have been more than one woman who inspired the part.
In the incomplete 28-page and 1950 BBC scripts, there is no sign of the "naughty Polly". These two scripts have only the "mothering Polly", a very small part with just four lines:
"me, Polly Garter, giving the breast in the garden to my new
bonny baby and listening to the voices in the voices of
the blooming birds who seem to say to me:" (followed by a children's song 'Polly, Love.') [xlv]
The role of Polly as baby bearer was confirmed by the following exchange between the Pughs:
"Mrs Pugh: He's going to arrest Polly Garter, mark my words
Mr Pugh: What for, my dear?
Mrs Pugh: For having babies."
There is nothing explicitly here about the woman who loves loving. However, in his October 1951 letter to Princess Caetani, publisher of the Botteghe Oscure, Dylan describes Polly in the following way: "And Polly Garter has many illegitimate babies because she loves babies but does not want only one man's." Even in this description, the emphasis is on Polly as "the lover of babies", and as someone who could just as easily be seen as rejecting monogamy rather than embracing casual sex - Polly as polyandrous not promiscuous.
When a version of the first half BBC script was published in Botteghe Oscure in May 1952, the idea of Polly just as "mother" had not been changed. In fact, Dylan made only one small alteration to Polly's four lines. The same month, he read the Botteghe version at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, with help from Bill MacAlpine and Harry Locke. He deleted "and listening to the voices of the blooming birds who seem to say to me" and added "Nothing grows in our garden 'cept washing and babies." [xlvi]
So by mid-1952 the first half Polly still had only four lines, and she was simply a bearer and lover of babies, at ease in her garden, enjoying the singing of the birds. She dreams only of babies, not lovers. It was this maternal Polly who was in the half-script that Dylan had with him when he arrived in America in April 1953. The "naughty Polly", or the wanton Polly as she is often referred to, emerged as a substantial part in the few weeks after Dylan's arrival. By the May 14 premiere, Polly had become a lover of men as well as of babies. She is a singer and cleaner, a scrubber of floors. She makes love out of doors, and wears garters without stockings. She dreams not of babies but of lovers. She is Saint Polly, martyred in Milk Wood by Mr Waldo; she is a woman "that can't say No even to midgets."
When Dylan turned to writing the second half for the May 14 performance, he decided to begin with Polly. Captain Cat's commentary on the women gossiping around the pump that ends the first half had been a mere six lines in the Botteghe version. Now Dylan greatly expanded it, bringing in Polly towards its conclusion ("giving her belly an airing, there should be a law,"). After a few words about Ocky Milkman, Dylan starts the second half with Polly approaching the pump, and clearly establishes the idea of the "naughty Polly". The women fall silent and Captain Cat wonders "Who cuddled you when? Which of their gandering hubbies moaned in Milk Wood for your naughty mothering arms and body like a wardrobe, love?"
This portrayal is quickly followed by the first of Polly's songs, about her lovers Tom, Dick, Harry, and little Willy Wee. In case we are left in any doubt, Dylan includes the couplet "Now men from every parish round/ Run after me and roll me on the ground" Not long after, we have Polly birdnesting in Milk Wood with Mr Waldo, with her dress over her head, and then lying in the arms of the "good bad boys from the lonely farms."
Dylan gave only one line ("Me, love.") to Polly in the second half of the play. Yet the part of Polly in the May 14 and subsequent versions of the script was far more prominent, not least because Dylan used Polly to begin and end the second half. He also gave her thirty-five lines of song, and enhanced her role as the object of comments made by other characters, including the two Voices.
The emergence of Polly in the May 14 script as a major role was due in large part to the way in which Dylan responded to the American actors who were rehearsing the parts. In an interview in 1967, two of the actors, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire, make clear that the development of the Polly Garter role took place between May 8, the date of the first rehearsal, and the first performance on May 14. The role was expanded largely because of the way Wickwire played it during the rehearsals. Thompson recalls that:
"He seemed to respond so excitedly to us - it was really wonderful for all of us...he told us that he was going to develop a number of the characters further as he went along, but he claimed at any rate that he developed a number of them because of hearing them read...I think he thought of Polly Garter as a relatively minor role, a charming role, but he really fell in love with Nancy's version of Polly and expanded it. And there were some other characters, too, that were fulfilled in the latter part of the play in perhaps quite a different way than if he'd just gone at it as a literary work entirely and hadn't heard it read by actors...certain choices were made to expand certain characters because he enjoyed the way actors were reading them." [xlvii]
Dylan did not provide Polly with so many lines of song because he admired Wickwire's voice. On the contrary:
"When we got to the part of the script where it says 'Polly scrubs,' I think it says, 'and sings.' there was a long thing written and I said 'Do you want me to sing?' and he said 'Yes.' And I said 'Well, what's the tune?' And he said 'Make something up.' So I said 'Right now?' He said 'No, next rehearsal.' So I guess it was the next day or whenever it was. I don't write songs; I don't know how to write songs, but I made something up which is rather reminiscent, I think, of 'Mary had a little lamb'...and he loved it. So he said 'Keep it.'"
After the May 14 performance, Dylan made one final revision of Polly Garter. This was to expand the "Me, Polly Garter..." first half monologue, which had consisted of only three lines.
Now that Polly had an established position in the second half, Dylan seems to have felt the need to give her a bigger introduction in the first half, as the interview with Wickwire and Thompson confirms:
"...when we did it six months later, there were certain additions; he added certain things of Polly Garter...in the 'Me' section of the very beginning he wanted to introduce her, and so that was added."
Dylan handled this introduction by removing any doubt about the ascendancy of the "naughty Polly" over the maternal, and this is the passage that we know today:
"Me, Polly Garter, under the washing line, giving the
breast in the garden to my bonny new baby. Nothing
grows in our garden, only washing. And babies.
And where's their fathers live, my love? Over the
hills and far away. You're looking up at me now. I
know what you're thinking, you poor little milky
creature. You're thinking, you're no better than you
should be, Polly, and that's good enough for me.
Oh, isn't life a terrible thing, thank God?"
Interestingly, the work sheets of this monologue, now in the Texas archive, suggest that the loss of the maternal Polly was something that Dylan had struggled with. The drafts contain a number of unused lines about the "naughty Polly", but there are even more lines in which Polly talks lovingly to her children. Moreover, the eight children are given names - Molly, Mary, Winnie, Flo, Mildred, Millicent, Ernie and Sidney. Had these lines been used, their overall effect would have been to strengthen the image of the maternal Polly.
Llareggub and its Milk Wood are places of love and loving, of both sex and fertility. The fecundity of its people are brought home to us through Polly's children and Mr Waldo's paternity summonses. The text is also awash with general references to babies, twins and children; we also find quite specific references to "babies singing opera", or "the snuggeries of babies". We have, particularly in the second half of the play, the prominence of the children's voices and their singing.
The details and imagery of fertility are re-enforced by further references to milk, buttermilk, milking cows, milk churns, milk cans, milk pails, dew-adulterated milk and even milk stout. The Third Boy runs home "howling for his milky mum", Polly describes her baby as a "milky creature", and Mae Rose Cottage goes "young and milking". Nature, too, gets its share of milky references, including "that milkmaid whispering water" and Spring "with its breasts full of rivering May-milk". And who, asks the Fourth Drowned, "milks the cows in Maesgwyn?" [xlviii]
Maesgwyn Farm: A Fertile Snuggery
New Quay's Maesgwyn stood on Brongwyn Lane, on the left-hand side in the descent to the beach. At one time, the lane went most of the way to Majoda, and it was one of Dylan's routes into the Black Lion - today it is part of the Dylan Thomas Trail that runs through Ceredigion and ends in New Quay.
'Maesgwyn' means 'white or blessed field'. The white, two-storied farmhouse faced north towards Majoda. Its stone outbuildings were also whitewashed, and for most of the year white geraniums grew in pots along the window-sills and in the yard. There was also a large and distinctive white stone marking the entrance to the farm, with a white wall surrounding the front garden, which was, as we shall see, usually full of washing and babies.
Sometime in the early 1900s, a woman called Sarah Evans moved into Maesgwyn. She had come to New Quay from the Rhondda, travelling in a horse and cart with her furniture piled in behind her. For the first few years, Sarah ran the Sailor's Home Arms (later, the Commercial) and then went to Maesgwyn with her husband, Evan Evans.
The farm sold milk to the residents of upper New Quay, who also used its seafields to air and beat their rugs, and to play football in. Secluded and leafy Brongwyn Lane was a favourite walk both for locals and visitors alike. One of Evan and Sarah's great-grandchildren remembers being told about one particular visitor calling for milk:
"...my great-grandmother sold milk because she had a drawer in a chest - in an old family chest of drawers - that my mother called the Milk Drawer and the milk money used to go in there, and it stood in the hallway of Maesgwyn...my mother said that Dylan Thomas had a mug of milk at Maesgwyn but when that was I don't know as Dylan visited New Quay before 1945."
Maesgwyn also had babies galore, a veritable seaside snuggery. Two of Sarah's children came with her from the Rhondda: Thomas John Evans (b.1877) and Hannah Jane Thomas (b.1890). Hannah lived in Maesgwyn and had eight children. Thomas and his wife, also a Sarah, lived on the slope behind Maesgwyn in a house called Tanyfron, and they had six children. Another of Evan and Sarah's children, Mary Ann (b. 1876) married William Dare and had ten children. Although Mary Ann and William lived in Port Talbot, some of the children were born in Maesgwyn, and at least one, Blodwen, came to live there as a child.
As the Maesgwyn families grew larger, the parents and children moved out into other parts of New Quay. When Evan died in 1932, Sarah went to live in Rock Street, with her grand-daughter, Blodwen Dare. She died there in 1937, and a newspaper report of her funeral notes that she had five children, twenty-nine grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren.[xlix]
Thomas and Sarah moved into Maesgwyn in 1934, and carried on the farming. They were there in 1939, as the Register of Electors confirms. A grand-daughter remembers going there for tea in the early years of the War. Then Thomas and Sarah went to Llanarth in 1941 where they both died within a year. It is not clear if anyone moved into Maesgwyn after them, but it is unlikely because the sea was getting closer and closer.
By the time that Dylan first came to New Quay in the 1930s, most of Evan and Sarah's many grandchildren were young adults, and having babies themselves. Maesgwyn itself had become embedded in local folklore, partly because of its babies, and partly because of the threat posed by the encroaching sea.
Some of the six children of Thomas and Sarah Evans also helped to establish Maesgwyn in the folk culture of New Quay. Their eldest son was famously named Oliver Cromwell, two other sons went to Australia and one of them was murdered there by a fellow lumberjack. But it was Thomas and Sarah's eldest daughter, Phoebe, who was one of the town's real characters, and is still remembered affectionately in New Quay today. She was well-known to locals and visitors alike:
"She was quite chuffed to have known Dylan, she was always talking about him. She was adamant she was Polly Garter."
"Mam was proud of being Polly Garter. She said Dylan always had his little notebook, and he was writing all the time when he was having a drink."
"Phoebe was great friends with Caitlin."
"She used to babysit for them."
Phoebe is mentioned in the Botteghe Oscure draft of Under Milk Wood, giving her name to one of the boats that tilt and ride in the dab-filled sea: "the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Phoebe and Sally and Mary Ann, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales..." She also appears in Quite Early One Morning, Dylan's radio broadcast about New Quay:
"Do you hear that whistling? - It's me, I am Phoebe,
The maid at the King's Head, and I am whistling like a bird.
Someone spilt a tin of pepper in the tea.
There's twenty for breakfast and I'm not going to say a word."
There is no King's Head in New Quay, but Phoebe helped out as a general maid in the Penwig Hotel. Polly was a cleaner and scrubbed the steps of Llareggub's Welfare Hall; Phoebe, too, was a cleaner, "doing" for the sea captains and summer visitors, as well as cleaning Lloyds Bank and Towyn chapel. Dylan's cast list describes Polly as a midwife; Phoebe Evans had considerable experience of pregnancy and birth and she was often called upon to act as an unofficial midwife, her advice valued on difficult births and, later, difficult children. Like Polly, she brought praise for the Lord that the Welsh are a musical nation: "Oh, she could sing beautifully. She sang in the Hall at concerts, and in Towyn. At parties and functions, hymns often, duets with her son…people were always asking her to sing." Above all, Phoebe, like Polly, loved children and she may well have contributed to Dylan's conception of the mothering Polly Garter, written well before the naughty Polly appeared in the script in 1953.
After her marriage to Stanley Evans in 1922, Phoebe followed on in the Maesgwyn tradition and had nine children between 1923 and 1943. Phoebe and Stanley also brought up two of their grandchildren, and looked after other children in the wider Evans family in New Quay. Phoebe also earned extra money by babysitting:
"Phoebe was a motherly figure, very, very child-orientated. She always had children around her. Always."
"She just loved feeding children, and they didn't have two pennies to rub together. How the hell they managed to feed everyone - three cooked meals a day."
"She was like a honey pot - the children were always coming home to her. A wonderful mother."
"She really was well-loved, and really well-loved by her family...full of fun, always happy, always smiling, sparkling."
"I don't think she could have had a life without kids."
"If there'd been enough room, Mam would have filled the house with kids."
"A motherly figure, always in her apron, always doing something and then you'd see her out, and I can hear her walking - she went trit-trot, trit-trot, trit-trot. She was a small, dainty sort of person and I could hear the little footsteps coming."
"My mother was the most sacrificing, loving person I have ever known. I would never betray her trust, I know what they sacrificed. As a young adult, home was a special thing. I couldn't wait to get there. I never wanted to be anywhere else."
And when Phoebe went out with Stanley, "she dressed like a Queen, all bangles and rings. She really believed in dressing up." They preferred New Quay's quiet pubs and the Star of Wales in Aberaeron:
Up until the day she died, she was always wanting to go out. She loved people around her, she loved talking."
"She was a very strong character. She always attracted a crowd, she was never on her own. Funny thing, she attracted young men. I don't know how she did it! She had this magic. They used to listen to her, she always had a story to tell. She'd mix with the young and old. She could mix with anybody."
"Everybody was enthralled by her because she had that wonderful social personality that would come out. She was quite captivating."
"There was something about her that was different, and Dylan would have noticed that and liked it."
During the War years, Phoebe and Stanley lived within nappy throwing distance of Maesgwyn, in a small cottage called Gwynfa behind the police station. Stanley was away for much of the War, but returned on leave and sometimes had a pint with Dylan in the Black Lion. Like Dylan he had a passion for Westerns, and also wrote poetry, later having his verses published in the Cambrian News. Phoebe drank with Caitlin in the Dolau and with Dylan in the Commercial. She also knew Augustus John, who asked if he could paint her eldest daughter, Ray:
"He had had his eye on Ray for a while. She was just fifteen, and he asked if he could paint her. But Phoebe knew Augustus socially and she wouldn't have anything to do with it because she knew his reputation."
Phoebe continued throughout her life to befriend visiting celebrities such as the actors Rex Harrison and Paul Schofield - "She always wanted to be an actress, but in those days it wasn't the done thing." In New Quay, Phoebe became a legend in her own lifetime. She was a popular figure about the town, always willing to help out, despite the great demands on her time from her own family:
"She was a lovely person, always smiling and laughing, great fun. She was so loveable - and loyal."
"If anybody wanted any help, she'd give it. She wouldn't say 'No'. She couldn't say 'No.'"
"She never looked for the bad in people, she was one of the kinder people."
Phoebe was a devout chapel-goer, and played a full part in the life of the community. In her later years, she joined the Women's Institute and the British Legion and worked hard to raise money for the New Quay lifeboat. Just before her death in 1980, one of her children gave her a copy of Under Milk Wood inscribed "To Mam (The Polly Garter)", an affectionate acknowledgement of the part she surely played in Dylan's conception of the maternal, child-loving Polly.
First published in Dylan Remembered vol 2, Seren 2004
Notes begin on page 41
3. Dylan's New Quay: More Bombay Potato than Boiled Cabbage
It's a commonplace to say that Dylan Thomas worked best away from the temptations of London, in his "vegetabledom", as he once described New Quay. Caitlin continued the theme in Leftover Life to Kill:
"…it was only with our kind of purely vegetable background, which entailed months on end of isolated, stodgy dullness and drudgery for me, that he was flattened out enough to be able to concentrate…he was much better than me at contenting himself with the very simple, I might justly say, moronic life."
Both at New Quay and Laugharne, Dylan fitted comfortably into community life, drinking with locals, betting on the horses, and playing cards, darts and shove ha'penny. This "moronic" routine supported a concentrated period of writing when he would "bang into intensive scribbling, muttering, whispering, intoning, bellowing and juggling of words; till seven o'clock prompt." But this is only part of the story, for at New Quay Dylan had spice with his vegetables.[l] The stodgy menu of daily life was flavoured with cultural richness, interesting company and eccentric characters.
Dylan first came to New Quay in the mid-1930s. He continued to visit over the next ten years, until coming to live in Majoda bungalow in 1944/45. FitzGibbon has described Dylan's time at Majoda as "a second flowering, a period of fertility that recalls the earliest days." Indeed, the nine months at the bungalow were as productive, if not more so, as the four and a half years at the Boat House: there was a "great outpouring of poems", as well as film and radio scripts (including Quite Early One Morning) and a start on Milk Wood.
A closer look at Dylan's New Quay provides a snapshot of the life of a small Welsh town in the days before home-centred entertainment and the loosening of community ties. It leads to a more sensitive analysis of the relationship between a writer and his environment than that given by Caitlin. Dylan's "simple" life provided material which he used in Under Milk Wood. Today, an anthropologist might commend the way Dylan settled into New Quay as a participant observer, though his recording technique was hardly unobtrusive, as Jack Patrick of the Black Lion noted:
"He seemed to do his best writing among us local people - he was always with a pad on his knee during convivial hours. Always busy, making notes of any local characters who came in…He was interested in…the people themselves…listening to them and busy with his notes at all times…He just mixed with us all…It was just a matter of being with us, understanding us." [li]
New Quay was a pretty and beguiling seaside town; one visitor writing in The Lady in 1959 thought "it was like looking down on another Milk Wood." The puppeteer Walter Wilkinson, visiting in 1947, warned about being trapped by its "beautiful completeness". New Quay was
"a cunning contrivance for inveigling travellers into ceasing their travels. You are tipped into it from the hills, as a fly is tipped into a jar of syrup; you come to an edge, and over you go, down the slippery slope, through the three or four terraces of cottages on the hillside, by those narrow, steep streets…down to the hotel in the old sailmaker's works, down to the jetty and the two or three boats jigging on the green water…The farm fields still come down to the town, and as you walk from the baker to the draper you can talk to a donkey and a horse, poking their heads over a fence into the street."
New Quay, a small community of just under a thousand people, was often portrayed as one of life's backwaters. One popular guide said that "visitors will find the natives agreeable, courteous and obliging." [lii] But FitzGibbon found it "a considerably more sophisticated seaside town than Laugharne. It had always been something of a place to which middle-class people retired." During the war, the town also attracted those seeking to escape the cities, "smart evacuees," as Wilkinson called them, with new ideas and "war earnings."
Jack Patrick, both well-read and interested in art, made the Black Lion into a hotel to which painters and writers came during the summer months. The crachach also visited New Quay. In July 1943, the Welsh Gazette breathlessly reported that Admiral Errol Manners and Sir Alexander and Lady Rolands were on holiday in the town.
The house parties of Lord Howard de Walden, a major patron of the arts in Wales, brought a range of interesting people to New Quay, as did those of Alastair Graham. His visitors included royalty, writers, artists, fashion designers, spies and diplomats. If Graham's embroidery or conversation palled, there was always fishing and sailing, or carriage and horses to be had from the Penbryn Riding School. When the weather was bad, Graham's library was at hand, or that in the Black Lion, as well as books to be borrowed or bought from the Llysawel Bookshop down on the front.
Amongst Dylan's friends were Mrs Warfield-Darling, widow of a General, wife of a doctor, and on good terms with the American Rockefellers. Along the cliff from Majoda was Morfa Gwyn, the home of George Reid. He part-owned Reid and Sigrist, which made aviation instruments and military aircraft. Reid lived a "gracious" life in wartime New Quay, with a stream of house guests--one resident remembers "the Princess of Sarawak attired in a sari" walking around the town in 1947.
New Quay was accustomed to accommodating strangers. The town's Tutorial School had a lucrative sideline: it specialised in teaching English as a foreign language, and recruited students from several European countries. A large party of Belgium refugees arrived during the 1914-18 war. Overseas sailors crewing New Quay boats often came to the town, and some married local girls. And, of course, New Quay had its own Johnny Onions--Joseph Olivier of Mecheroux, Brittany, who cut his reeds at the Cilie farm, and who was most certainly the onion seller in Isofel's poem Shoni Winwns (Adeg Rhyfel).
Every summer, workers from South Wales came to the town for their annual holiday, and on most fine evenings they held impromptu concerts on the pier. There was a special connection with Dowlais: there had been several marriages with New Quay girls in the late nineteenth century, and New Quay men had gone to Dowlais for work. Dylan's friend, Evan Joshua James, had been an overseer there, and had encouraged the outings of Dowlais families to New Quay.[liii] Such was the relationship between the two towns that when St. Mair's Church in Dowlais was demolished in 1963, its bell was given to New Quay's parish church. No wonder Dylan had the tenors of Dowlais in Llaregubb.
But there was more to New Quay's relative sophistication than this. Its sailors (and often their wives with them) had travelled the world. Daniel Parry-Jones noted in 1948 that New Quay was unmistakably Welsh[liv] with its own Welsh dialect, but also cosmopolitan:
"A blasé, sophisticated visitor from one of our bigger cities might strut down its narrow streets with a contemptuous superior air, but here were dozens of lads who knew intimately the life and ways of all the great maritime cities of the world."
In the 1930s, one in five of New Quay's men aged twenty and over were master mariners, either retired or serving. Like those of Llareggub, who brought back parrots and shawls, the sea captains of New Quay returned with clothes and costumes from other countries, in which the town's children dressed up on special occasions. There were also spices and teas, banjos and ukeleles, kimonos and erotica, scent from Algiers, and crates of dates and Dresden china. New Quay homes were:
"well-laden with curios, paintings, rugs, teak and mahogany furniture, including items with inlaid ivory…the occasional wild animal pelt, saw-fish 'bills', spears and shields. Canaries and parrots were popular. The few primates brought home rarely survived. New Quay gardens had palm trees and monkey puzzle trees...almost every New Quay home had paintings of ships in their hallways, made by Italian artists at ports of call like Naples..."
If trade opened up the world to New Quay, so did hardship and ambition. Many of its farmers, shopkeepers and young scholars went away to England in search of a better life. But they maintained close links, returning for the Easter and summer seasons. Indeed, the Welsh Gazette often listed the surgeons, lawyers, military men and other professionals who were "back in town".
All these experiences helped to make New Quay more worldly, leavening the parochialism one might expect to find in a small, chapel-going Welsh town. "We were," one resident told me, "so cosmopolitan we wouldn't have noticed people like Dylan and Augustus John." By the time of the 1939 war, said another, "New Quay was really quite sophisticated." [lv] Wilkinson was also clear that New Quay was no "quaint back number", yet its distinction was that
"History has stood still, or even gone backwards...it has no railway station, and does not exhibit pictures of itself on hoardings...It has the merit of not being up-to-date...it would seem that the last hundred years have hardly touched the place."
But what had touched New Quay, Wilkinson noted, was the sea; it had claimed the lives of many of its seafarers, and had "nibbled" at the land: "where, as a child, you might have walked across the fields, and among the cows, you would now walk on wet sand." The cows were those of Maesgwyn Farm, which Dylan mentions in Under Milk Wood. Indeed, there was once a little community up on the cliffs between Majoda and New Quay; it was called Pentre Siswrn, but it, two roads and about sixty acres of good farmland had been lost to the sea. It is these drowned houses and fields, as well as the town's drowned sailors, that inspired "the imaginative and poetic truth" of Milk Wood, as Ackerman has put it, as much as the lost village of nearby Llanina.[lvi]
If one pillar of New Quay life was the sea, then another was creative endeavour. This was reflected in the lives of its men and women, but it was also a divide within many families, as New Quay resident Barbara Cassini has described:
"One side of the family were seafarers, captains of the fine old windjammers who rounded the Horn. Strong men with powerful personalities and a talent for strong drink and music… on the other side, are poets, spartan and intellectual."
One of the centres of cultural life in the town was the Memorial Hall. It had seating for eight hundred, as well as rooms for meetings, billiards and reading. It was the venue for concerts and plays, the props for which were borrowed from neighbouring houses. Rogues and Vagabonds, the touring company of Countess Barcynska (Caradoc Evans' wife) put on weekly plays in the Hall during the summer. With the cheapest seats a shilling, the Countess brought London's West End to New Quay, including plays by Noel Coward and Somerset Maughan.
Barcynska's tours ended in 1939, but other companies continued to come, including Cwmni Drama'r Pwll from Llanelli. The Hall was also used by the chapels, who had their own drama groups, and by the government's Mobile Film Unit. Educational and political events were staged in the Hall; Jack Jones of the Rhondda, for example, delivered a rousing speech in March 1942. The chapels also brought people together to discuss the issues of the day. Towyn had a Young People's Society, and in February 1938, it debated the question "Can War be Justified?" It's answer was "No" and the youngsters added that "the private manufacture of armaments was in a large measure a cause of war." Towyn also hosted a Debating Society, discussion groups and lectures.
There was more than enough music making in New Quay to fill the "sixpenny hops" of Jack Black's nightmares. The town had a pop group, called the Nautical Boys, and a dance band, though it rarely played during the war years. Jack Patrick encouraged music in the Black Lion: there was often a gramaphone playing in the bar, and a spinet in the lounge that was regularly played by guests. The Commercial had a piano; Jon Meirion Jones, the biographer of the Cilie poets, remembers Dill Jones playing there in early summer1946.[lvii] Dylan was at the next table, on a return visit to the town he had left in July 1945.[lviii]
Llareggub has a glee party, and vegetables "who make love above the tenors." New Quay had neither, but glee parties often came from other areas, especially Brynamman. Visiting concert parties also came regularly to the Memorial Hall. Their performances were often used, together with Patriotic Concerts, to raise money for the Spitfire Fund or "for sending comforts to our boys". By 1944, Welcome Home concerts had begun.
Part-singing was the norm in the town, taught in the chapels and schools. Throughout the war, New Quay had a Ladies Choir, an Operatic Society, and a Juvenile Operatic Party, which may have inspired Dylan to write about Llareggub's "babies singing opera." The town also boasted the New Quay Orchestra, and the Dorian Trio. There was no "crwth or pibgorn", but penillion were popular, and were a regular item of entertainment at the Women's Institute.
Madam Clara Tawe Jenkins, the "old contralto" of Quite Early One Morning, had her real life counterparts in New Quay. Amongst the best was Mrs Harries Davies Awelon, a fine contralto who had sung with the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir. "New Quay," said the Welsh Gazette in March 1944, "has the reputation of being the home of good vocalists…" The town may have prided itself on its master mariners, but, as far as its women were concerned, it was as importantly a town of talented singers, instrumentalists, music teachers and concert organisers.
The chapels, of course, were at the forefront of cultural activities. There was barely a week without an operetta, eisteddfod, gymanfa ganu, Band of Hope concert, temperance festival or visiting choir. There were, too, the annual pwnc (catechism) and Sunday school festivals, and the concerts of the New Quay and district methodist churches. New Quay also hosted Cardiganshire eisteddfodau such as those of the Urdd, the Women's Institute and the WVS.
New Quay's music making was also nurtured in the church, which had its own choir and Girls' Friendly Society. The Tutorial School also developed its girls' skills in performance. The Women's Institute held concerts and drama competitions and, such was the interest in improving standards, that in late 1945 it sent two members on "a special course of lectures" in Aberystwyth to prepare for a Music and Drama Festival. Musical events often attracted distinguished outsiders as guest conductors: Professor John Morgan Lloyd came from Cardiff to conduct the gymanfas at Tabernacle. Even earlier, Watcyn Wyn had been a regular visitor, staying in the Black Lion, where he composed one of the best-known Welsh hymns, Rwy'n gweld o bell y dydd yn dod.
Dylan would certainly have known some of what was going on in New Quay. He liked chatting with locals on his daily walk about the town, and "gossiped for hours" with the retired sailors in Glanmor Rees' cobbler's shop.[lix] Most of Dylan's New Quay friends were Welsh-speaking, and some participated in the concerts and shows. The Women's Institute actively sought audiences for its events, calling at every house. Dylan and Caitlin would have been amongst those visited in April 1945 by Mrs Phillips Treflys, assigned the Majoda district to sell tickets for Distinguished Gathering by the Cardigan Dramatic Society at the Memorial Hall.
Dylan would also have heard New Quay: Towyn, Bethel, Tabernacle and the Memorial Hall are clustered snugly together at the top of the town, close to the Black Lion and Commercial (now the Seahorse). As he walked in the black-out from pub to pub, the sounds of rehearsals and performances would have filled the night air, just like Llareggub where the "music of the spheres is heard distinctly over Milk Wood." Gwen Bonner Roberts certainly had this experience in "story-book" New Quay in 1953. As she climbed the hill out of the town, Tabernacle's music was all around her:
"I heard singing…the full-throated sympathetic singing of Welsh hymns…hundreds of Welsh people were singing with warmth and fervour, sending the harmony of voices and the music of old familiar words challenging across the tide."
The sound of music over the town was especially pronounced on Sundays because the three chapels and the church started their evening and morning services at the same time.
But in New Quay the pen flourished as much as the baton. Foremost amongst the town's writers was Elizabeth Mary Jones (Moelona). She came to New Quay in the late 1930s and lived there until her death in 1953. She published widely, including books for children, school text books, translations of Daudet's stories, and novels which demonstrated her commitment to feminism and Welsh nationhood.
During the early 1940s, Gwasg Gomer published two collections by local poet, Jack H. Davies, written with his brother Jacob. Jack's satire on New Quay's evacuees, Y Wraig Drws Nesa, was a success at the Rhos National Eisteddfod in 1945. Fighter pilot Ira Jones--"the stuttering ace", as Dylan called him--had published two books in the 1930s, and his most well known--Tiger Squadron--was issued in 1954. Other published New Quay writers included Nesta Gillies and Myra Evans, who knew Dylan during the time he was at Majoda. She was a local historian and artist, and had also written a children's operetta.
Dewi Emrys was another New Quay poet and winner of the Chair (four times) at the National Eisteddfod. Born in New Quay, he then went to London but returned to live in nearby Talgarreg. Like Dylan, he was part of the drinking and reading circle round Alastair Graham. Dewi Emrys was active throughout the war years, preaching in New Quay and its surrounding villages. In 1948, he set up the Fforddolion Ceredigion, a society of literati in the county.
In seeking inspiration for Eli Jenkins, Dylan may have drawn on the Rev. Orchwy Bowen of Towyn chapel. Formerly a collier, he came to New Quay in 1923. He was "a saintly character, unworldly," recalled one of his congregation, "a Nationalist before it was fashionable to be one, and a pacifist." Bowen was a familiar figure around New Quay, with "a shock of long white hair, like Lloyd George's, with intense blue eyes, and the blue scars of a miner." His son Geriant was brought up in New Quay, and won the Chair in the National Eisteddfod of 1946; the town council, reported the Welsh Gazette, "immediately sent out the Town Crier with an appeal to the inhabitants to decorate their houses with flags and bunting."
Like Eli Jenkins, Orchwy Bowen wrote in strict metre; he had published a collection of poetry, and won several Chairs in Cardiganshire eisteddfodau. Bowen was a bardd gwlad, one of many in the county, the most renowned being the Cilie family, whose farm was a few miles outside New Quay near the village of Llwyndafydd. The Dewi flows through the village on its way to the sea, passing the Crown pub, the Cilie's local where they went to sing folk songs and recite verses. The Crown was also a popular excursion for New Quay people, including Jack Patrick of the Black Lion, and for Dylan's Welsh-speaking friend, Thomas Herbert.
The Cilie family played an important part in the cultural and social life of New Quay, as both poets and singers. They attended the gymanfa ganu at Towyn, and met regularly with Orchwy Bowen to "compare and discuss literary milestones and publications as well as bardic laurels." Alun Jones, the youngest of the Cilie children, sang baritone at the Towyn gymanfas, and in recitation groups and quartets at the Memorial Hall. He also composed stanzas and lyrics for weddings, baptisms and funerals in the town. The verses of Dafydd Jones (Isfoel) were in great demand for reading or singing in concerts, and were prominent in events to welcome home troops from the war. Isfoel's poems would sometimes appear in the local press or nailed to a telegraph pole near a hall or chapel.
The fame of the Cilie poets was not confined to Cardiganshire: when Simon Jones won the Chair in the 1936 National Eisteddfod at Fishguard, which Dylan visited, the Western Mail described the Cilie family as a "centre of Welsh culture." Dylan would undoubtedly have heard about the Cilie poets, most certainly from Thomas Herbert, who once wrote of Dylan: "I was surprised at his knowledge of early Welsh poetry, but he had also spent time in the company of contemporary Welsh writers." Herbert used to take Dylan to Llangrannog to visit the Ship Inn, where he may have met some of the Cilie poets. The other pub in the village, the Pentre Arms, was kept by Tom Jones of Cilie, and Dylan had called there in 1942/43 with Ira Jones.[lx]
The sea-washed Pentre Arms was a favourite subject for visiting painters. So, too, were New Quay's terraces, "snow-white against their dark background of cliff," wrote one contributor to the Welsh Gazette, "with the morning sun flash-lighting the hillside and pinpointing even the windows." The town's sharp light and clear air had always attracted artists. In her book, Myra Evans recalls Goscombe John sketching in Park Street on a visit in the 1890s. Fifty years later, a major focus for art in this town of "done-by-hand water-colours", as Dylan put it, was the Black Lion. It became an informal gallery for the arlunwyr gwlad, local artists such as Emlyn Sayce, Ieuan Jones Adpar and Dylan's friend, Captain John Davies, who made a modest living by selling his water colours to visitors.[lxi] Just after the war, Jan Orpen, a friend of the comedian Tommy Cooper, exhibited and sold his wood carvings.
Augustus John hung his paintings in the Black Lion, as did Grant Murray, the Principal of the Swansea School of Art. Murray's paintings were also displayed in Manchester House, the draper's on Stryd Bethel, where they were raffled for the war effort. John Piper visited New Quay in the late 1930s on his west Wales trip, when he did his chapel drawings and Aberaeron collages. Also about at this time was painter Kenneth Hancock, who came to Aberystwyth in 1936 as an art lecturer. He and Dylan had been good friends in Swansea, where Hancock was born and attended art school.[lxii]
In Quite Early One Morning, Dylan made fun of "man-dressed women with shooting-sticks and sketch-books and voices like macaws" who came from outside to paint the town's "natives". But it was New Quay's own women who stood out as talented painters. Cissie Phillips (Mrs Sarah Pierard) exhibited successfully in the fourth exhibition of arts and sciences in Brussels in 1938. When war broke out, she helped Jews and others to escape from France, and returned to live in New Quay. Margaret 'Peggy' Rhydderch, born just a few years before Dylan, lived and painted in New Quay all her life; her daugher Lilwen, and her daughter-in-law Angharad, trained as artists, the latter at the Central St. Martin's College of Art as a contemporary of David Hockney. Several of Peggy Rhydderch's grandchildren are prominent today in Welsh writing and the visual arts.
There were many women in New Quay in the 1930s and 1940s who were accomplished painters, musicians, writers and performance organisers. They often had the money and, more importantly, the time to develop their talents. Many were married to (or were widows of) master mariners who were at sea for long periods. Some had their children away at boarding school. Thus they had the personal space to pursue their interests, and make a substantial contribution to the cultural life of the town.
Women played a central role in community service, often through the Women's Institute. It also developed organising skills, as well as knowledge of public affairs. Amongst the demonstrations of slipper making and pickling, there were improving lectures, such as the one on the new Education Bill given in February 1945. Hardly surprising, since the President, Mrs Stanley Evans, had a clear vision "that after the war women would take a greater interest in the political life of the country."
New Quay's "gently swilling", "maudlin" and "miscellaneous retired" sea captains, as Dylan variously referred to them, helped set the tone in civic affairs. The town abounded with them, noted Wilkinson after his visit: "address any gentleman, not an obvious visitor, as captain, and you will be safe." In fact, there were over thirty-five retired, ocean-going captains living in New Quay during Dylan's time there, a wonderful gallery of Captain Cats to inspire a writer's imagination. They had their own daily meeting place, Cnwc Y Glap, opposite the Blue Bell, one of Dylan's favourite pubs, where he drank with the young Richard Burton.
New Quay was no cultural island; most of the villages in its hinterland had a choir or drama society, and many attracted visiting companies as well. The New Quay resident could also venture further afield to Aberaeron. Here there was baseball and greyhound racing, as well as "proper" films (eg The Return of the Cisco Kid) of the kind that Dylan relished, put on by D.C. Lloyd Watchmaker, who in 1941 "had gone to great expense to procure first-class apparatus." There were also Sunday night concerts (thought by some to be "unclean", because they "are mostly made up by crooners."), as well as shows put on by the soldiers based in camps around Aberaeron.
Nearby Lampeter also offered music and drama both from town and gown, though its main attraction for clothes-conscious New Quay was fashion-house B.J. Jones which, before the war, put on exhibitions of
"Fashions when the Latest Creations of the Leading British and French Manufacturers will be shown. Mannequin Parade (4 London Mannequins)"
If New Quay was cultured and worldly-wise, it was also colourful and bizarre, a town that was surreal as well as sophisticated. Eccentricity and anarchy, which some see as a defining characteristic of Under Milk Wood, were found in full measure here. This "mad town" is vividly portrayed in Quite Early One Morning, and in a number of Dylan's comic letters and poems about New Quay. It was a town full of Welsh "characters", as Walter Wilkinson noted:
"…the people of New Quay are evidently alive, and not turned out all the same, like so many sausages…remember that she has a Crowned Bard of the National Eisteddfod; Welsh nationalists sufficiently ardent, expressive, and distinguished enough to merit imprisonment; preachers, artists, visiting poets who shoot up the town occasionally, and the late Lord Howard de Walden sat at the feet of the town's philosophic cobbler."
Wilkinson could also have mentioned the sailors in the Blue Bell, who played a version of shove ha'penny with their penises to win a Christmas turkey. Then there was the flamboyant Phoebe Evans, picked out by name in Quite Early One Morning, and in early drafts of Under Milk Wood, who was, like Polly Garter, a scrubber of floors and bearer of babies, but was one of the most observant of chapel-goers; Jack Patrick who rode his horse into the bar of the Black Lion and whose donkey, Maisie, regularly got drunk in the Blue Bell; Daniel the Electric who climbed his own lamp posts to watch women undressing; Dai Fred the dildo maker; Johns the aquatic stunt man; Rees the drag artist; Norman London House the accomplished, all-round no-gooder - a no good fighter, lazy fisherman and hopeless shopkeeper, up to no good in the bedrooms of the Penwig Hotel; and Hell Fire Jones the butcher, who with cleaver in hand, chased children, not corgis, down New Quay's toppling streets.
As his visit came to an end, Wilkinson walked to Cwmtydu. He strolled down the valley, following the Dewi "singing, bubbling, gurgling, gluggity-glugging its way under the ferns and nut-bushes." He sat on the beach watching the seals until a "passing youth with a soft voice and more poetry than his appearance suggested" urged him to return by the cliffs.
Coming into New Quay, Wilkinson found an old inn. It was a fine evening, with "a large, lustrous sky over a bright-coloured earth and sea, the whole works still spinning in a cloud of fire…" He drank stout, and gloomily contemplated his trudge northwards the next day to Aberaeron. He was, he concluded, "completely demoralised" by New Quay, "in which I was lazy enough to want to stay for ever among the Lotus-eaters."
J. Ackerman (1998) Welsh Dylan, Seren
O. Bowen (1915) Cwpanau'r Gwlith: Caniadau a Thelynegion, J. Davies
P. Burton (1959) A Cardiganshire Camp, in The Lady, April
S. Campbell-Passmore (1992) Farmers and Figureheads: the Port of New Quay and its Hinterland, Dyfed C.C.
E. B. Davies (1933) The Story of New Quay, Llysawel Bookshop, New Quay
J. J. Glanmor Davies (1934) Rhai o Eiriau Llafar Ceinewydd a'r Cylch, Bulletin of Celtic Studies, November, and further articles on New Quay's dialect in the 1935 and 1936 issues
G. Davies (c1936) New Quay: The Official Guide
M. Evans (1961) Atgofion Ceinewydd, Cymdeithas Llyfrau Ceredigion
C. FitzGibbon (1965) The Life of Dylan Thomas, Little, Brown
G. Griffths (1987) Goodbye, Johnny Onions, Dyllansow Truran
D. Jenkins (1987) Cardiff Tramps, Cardi Crews: Cardiganshire Shipowners and Seamen in Cardiff c1870-1950 in Ceredigion, 10
T. James Jones (2001) Llareggub's Cyfarwydd in New Welsh Review, Autumn
J. M. Jones, (1999) Teulu'r Cilie, Cyhoeddiadau Barddas
W.J. Lewis (1988) New Quay and Llanarth
D. Parry-Jones (1948) Welsh Country Upbringing, Batsford
G. B. Roberts (1953) A Changeless Spirit in the story-book town of New Quay, Western Mail, May 7th
D. M. Thomas (1946) Quite Early One Morning, in Wales, Autumn
D. N. Thomas (2002) The Dylan Thomas Trail, Y Lolfa
W. Wilkinson (1948) Puppets in Wales, Bles
N. Wourm (2001) Illuminations of the Mind: an interview with S. W Rhydderch, in New Welsh Review, Autumn
A Guide to New Quay. Being a Short Description of New Quay as a Watering Place, 1895, The Welsh Press
The Sue Passmore New Quay Collection, The Ceredigion Archive, Aberystwyth
The Colin Edwards Archive, National Library of Wales
New Quay Women's Institute Minutes 1938-46
Dylan Thomas Archive, Texas
Welsh Gazette, Cambrian News and Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, 1935-45. The Welsh Gazette usually carried a weekly report on New Quay. From the 1930s, it also published articles on the town.
I am especially grateful for the extensive help provided by Phyllis Cosmo-Jones, Keith Davies, Griff Jenkins, Sue Passmore and Samantha Wynne Rhydderch; thanks also to Barbara Cassini, Ieuan Williams, Jennifer Davies, Margaret Evans, Katie Gramich, Jon Meirion Jones, Nell Highet, Eleanor Lister, Gwyn Griffiths, Francesca Rhydderch, John Sayce, Kay Pascoe, Edwina Barney, Cynthia Roberts of Dowlais Library, and, as ever, the marvellous staff of the National Library of Wales.
First published in New Welsh Review, Summer 2002
Notes for Dylan’s New Quay are on page 41
The Birth of Under Milk Wood
[i] Ferris, 1977 and 1999 p2. Stephens 2000 p108. Ackerman 1998 Part IV and Davies 2000 p113 both seem to suggest that most of the play was written at the Boathouse.
[ii] Tremlett 1993, pxxv; and "Laugharne and Under Milk Wood" in Dylan Remembered - Laugharne Festival Programme, 2003. Tremlett is also mistaken in his Chronology (1993, xxv) in dating the writing of the first half to 1951- the first half was sent to the BBC in late 1950.
[iii] News Chronicle, November 25 1953
[iv] Daily Express May 26 1978 and Western Mail November 4 1978. It was also the tourism authorities that helped to pay for a memorial plaque (a replica of the one in Westminster Abbey) that was erected in St Martin's Church, Laugharne, in October 1982.
[v] Reading of parts of the play in London in 1945 - see Davin below; and letters to John Ormond March 6 1948 and Princess Caetani October 1951.
[vi] Letters to Pryce-Jones November 21 1952; Gwyn Jones January 6 1953; and David Higham July 6 1953; Brinnin: p132; May 3 introduction: draft on a work sheet at Texas.
[vii] Review of Under Milk Wood, Sunday Times, March 7 1954.
[viii] Denzil Davies, letter in the New Welsh Review, 51
[ix] The Texas archive has a list of people from June 1953 that Dylan intended to write to, including Rymer. And see Thomas 2002 p102 for Dylan's return visits to New Quay after 1945.
[x] The work sheet note on Willy Nilly reads: "Nobody minds him opening the letters and acting as [a] kind of town-crier. How else could they know the news?" - quoted in Davies and Maud, 1999, pxxxvi. It is this note, together with our knowledge that Dylan knew Jack Lloyd, that provides the sure link between Willy Nilly and Jack Lloyd. There may, however, have been another influence at work: the idea of a postman reading people's correspondence also appeared in Wishing Well, a play written by Eynon Evans, and published in 1946 i.e. before Dylan wrote Willy Nilly's rounds into the 1950 BBC script. In Wishing Well, the postman is Amos Parry: "Two letters for Henry, and one from Portsmouth and the other from Llangynidir. A letter for you John, pension book back I think, and a postcard for you Delith, it's from Sally Jones. She says she likes her new place, her mistress is very good to her, she's met a nice boy working in a bakery, her appendix is worrying her again and she'll have to have it out, and the weather's lovely." There is a further point to make about Jack Lloyd the Post: in his letter to Margaret Taylor of August 29 1946, Dylan describes the scandal of Mrs Lloyd's double bigamy, and the Llareggubian spectacle of all her husbands appearing in court to give evidence of her good character. No doubt this scandal in particular, and New Quay's active and varied sex life in general, inspired some of the bigamous arrangements and lusty couplings of Under Milk Wood.
[xi] Information on the master mariner's of New Quay was provided by Griff Jenkins, Keith Davies, Sue Passmore and Kelly's Trade Directories.
[xii] Quoted in Davies and Maud, 1999, p100.
[xiii] Gwen Watkins: letters to Douglas Cleverdon, February 9 and 18 1968, and quoted in Cleverdon 1969, p5; Theodore FitzGibbon, p156; Constantine FitzGibbon, p267. Ivy Williams: interview with Colin Edwards.
[xiv] January 22 1954 in the Radio Times. It has to be said that Cleverdon is not consistent in his dating of work on the play. This reference in January 1954 to New Quay is part of Cleverdon's first article on the subject, and it is closest in time to the events he describes. But in the Radio Times on June 28 1957, he noted that Dylan "conceived Under Milk Wood in 1947...he wrote the first half within a few months" i.e. Cleverdon here presumably has South Leigh in mind. On December 16 1966, he seems to confirm this in the Weekend Telegraph when he writes that "it took seven years to extract Under Milk Wood" from Dylan. But by the time of his 1969 book, Cleverdon thought it "unlikely" that Dylan had written much of the play at South Leigh. He then went on to conjecture that the first part "seems" mostly to have been written at the Boat House in Laugharne. By the time of Cleverdon's 1972 Introduction to the play, South Leigh and New Quay had been forgotten.
[xv] Davin, 1985, p126. Davin writes that after the party he returned to his home in Notting Hill Gate. Davin dates the party as happening before the autumn of 1945. This means before September 30, the day on which he and his family moved from Notting Hill Gate to London. Dylan's letters tell us he made visits to London from New Quay in January, May and June and from Blaencwm in August and September. The use of quatrains, probably much like those that conclude Quite Early One Morning, was largely to be abandoned as the play developed.
[xvi] See the letters of May 24, May 29, June 5 and July 19.
[xvii] The webfooted cocklewomen also appear in Dylan's letter to Margaret Taylor written in South Leigh in October 1948.
[xviii] 'Dylan Thomas', a programme transmitted on November 9 1963.
[xix] Davenport's comment was in his pre-broadcast interview for Dylan Thomas, BBC Third Programme, 9/11/1963. He makes the same point in an article amongst his papers in the National Library of Wales.
[xx] There was also an Italian POW working at Waunfforte farm opposite Blaencwm - see Dylan's letter to Oscar Williams of July 30 1945.
[xxi] Organ Morgan playing for nobody (Burton, 1947) and playing for sheep (Hauková, 1949) are both found in a passage at the end of the Davies and Maud definitive version of the play: "Organ Morgan goes to chapel to play the organ. He plays alone at night to anyone who will listen: lovers, revellers, the silent dead, tramps or sheep." (p61)
[xxii] Haukova in a letter to FitzGibbon, 1965 p304; Nesvadba also in letters to David Thomas.
[xxiii] David Higham archive, Texas.
[xxiv] David Higham archive, Texas.
[xxv] The "awful" and "wretched" script of his autumn 1949 letters is now considered to be Vanity Fair (Ferris, 2000)
[xxvi] Tenby Arts Club; in Cardiff, to the English Society at the university on October, as noted in its Minute Book (letter to David Thomas on June 19 2001 from Charles Elliott, secretary of the Society at the time.)
[xxvii] Philip Burton left Cardiff and producing in October 1949 when he was made Chief Instructor at the BBC training school in London. Douglas Cleverdon then took over responsibility of getting Under Milk Wood finished and produced.
[xxviii] The first two Cleverdon quotes in this paragraph are from the BBC archives, and the third from Cleverdon (1954b).
[xxix] See in particular Head of Copyright's memo of September 2 1952 to A/CTP about the "half-written programme" and Cleverdon's memo of August 26 1952 to Mrs Gray in Copyright about having only the first half of the script.( BBC Archives, Caversham.)
[xxx] The resolution was in an engagements book - see the footnote to his October 9 1952 letter to Cleverdon.
[xxxi] All quotes from Brinnin are from his book Dylan in America (1955) pp186-227
[xxxii] David Higham archive, Texas.
[xxxiii] Note to David Thomas April 8 2001.
[xxxiv] Interview, NET series, Colin Edwards archive, interviewer not known but could have been Edwards
[xxxv] Notably the section "In Butcher Beynon's" to "My foxy darling" and forty-six lines added to the passage "Oh, d'you hear that, Lily?" to "Organ Morgan's at it early…"
[xxxvi] Interview, NET series, Colin Edwards archive, interviewer not known but could have been Edwards.
[xxxvii] BBC 1963 programme on Dylan.
[xxxviii] for example, mother-song for Evans the death, nightmare poem for Lord Cut-Glass, Eli Jenkins' poem to a swan.
[xxxix] Davies and Maud, p82. In his July 6 letter to David Higham, Dylan had written: "Now, however, I am paying as much attention to the evening as, say, to the morning; & I hope to improve 'Milk Wood' very much structurally by this."
[xl] The article is in Planet, February/March 1995, and the poem, "Dylan Thomas in Tenby", is in Raymond Garlick Collected Poems.
[xli] The revised script was given to Mademoiselle in the week beginning November 26, as a note at the end of the text in the magazine confirms. A copy of the script with the revisions made in Todd's basement after the readings of October 24 and 25 was sent by Todd to Cleverdon after Dylan's death. See Cleverdon, 1969, p42.
[xlii] BBC archives, Caversham.
[xliii] Bowen's sons, Geraint and Euros, were winners of the Chair and Crown in post-war National Eisteddfodau.
[xlv] The children's song, "Polly, Love", was deleted for the May 14 New York performance, at the insistence of the producer, Elizabeth Reitell. It was never re-instated. Dylan also deleted "Nothing grows in our garden 'cept washing and babies." These two deletions are significant because they diminish the portrayal of Polly as a mother and lover of babies.
[xlvi] I am grateful to Walford Davies for the information about the changes and to Robert Williams for the that about Bill MacAlpine and Harry Locke.
[xlvii] NET Festival series interviews, Edwards archive, NLW.
[xlviii] Some of these references to babies and milk appear in the script given to the BBC in 1950, but many more, particularly the children's voices and singing, were added between April and October 1953, most when Dylan was in America preparing for the first full reading on May 14th.
[xlix] Cambrian News, May 7 1937. Interestingly, the Maesgwyn family were twice related through marriage to Thomas Davies, who was the tenant farmer at Plas Gelli, Talsarn, at the time that Dylan and Caitlin were staying there between 1941 and 1943.
Dylan’s New Quay
[l] Perhaps literally so: Jenkins (1987) has written that, because of its use at sea, "curry was a popular dish in the coastal villages long before Indian take-aways first appeared in west Wales."
[li] Interviewed by Colin Edwards
[lii] This was The Welsh Press' A Short Description of New Quay as a Watering Place, reminding us of Voice of a Guide Book's description of Llareggub as a "watering-place", as well as the Voice's use of the word "natives". In the broadcast version of Quite Early One Morning, Dylan refers to New Quay's "sturdy and critical natives", recalling the Welsh Press' observation that the "natives are considered refined, brave, industrious, and hardy…"
[liii] Evan Joshua had also worked in Swansea until 1917; he lived in the St Thomas district, and came to know Dylan's maternal relatives there. The links between St Thomas and New Quay are described in Thomas, 2002.
[liv] Almost eighty percent of the town's population spoke both Welsh and English (1931 census)
[lv] Cosmopolitan but also clean - it was very much Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's town: The Welsh Press guide noted that "The place has the reputation of being amongst the cleanest in the Principality. The Houses, inside and out, the Streets and Terraces and everything without exception, are kept in a state of spotless cleanliness and high polish."
[lvi] See Closer, S.W. Rhydderch's poem about the gnawing New Quay tide. In Rockclimbing in Silk, Seren 2001
[lvii] Dill Jones (1923-84), the renowned jazz pianist, is usually claimed as a New Quay boy, though he was born in Newcastle Emlyn and brought up in Llandovery. Jones' grand-parents and father were from New Quay.
[lviii] Dylan kept up his New Quay contacts - he returned again in 1948, and was corresponding with Skipper Rymer, who once ran the Dolau pub, in June 1953 - see Thomas, 2002.
[lix] Rees also sold vegetables and hired shrimping nets in the shop. Customers often had to serve themselves because Rees was reluctant to leave the "tobacco parliament" over which he presided in the backroom of his shop.
[lx] Both were thrown out for helping themselves to beer (Jon Meirion Jones). T. James Jones (2001) has also noted that "poetry sessions and informal tutorials for aspiring poets in 'Cynghanedd' were frequently held at the Pentre Arms."
[lxi] Examples of Ieuan Adpar's drawings can be seen in The Dragon during the 1920s eg March 26 1926. Four of John Davies' watercolours of New Quay are reproduced in the December 1947 issue of Wales.
[lxii] Hancock became Principal of the Swansea School of Art in 1946, and the friendship with Dylan continued. Cardiganshire painter Aneurin Jones remembers Dylan modelling for the students in the Thursday evening art classes in the early 1950s.
4. Striding Dill Jones: Jazz with Black Hwyl
When we mark the fiftieth anniversary next year of Dylan Thomas' death, let's remember that it's also the eightieth anniversary of the birth of Dillwyn Jones, one of the most accomplished and versatile of jazz pianists. Dill was very much influenced by Dyl, whom he once described as "one of my favourite poets and people." Although one critic described him as Dylan Thomas at the piano, Jones' own self-deprecating definition of his playing was "barrelhouse with poetry." The Gorsedd demurred, posthumously making him a white-robed member in 1984, as "one of the leading jazz pianists of the world."
Dillwyn Owen Paton Jones was born on 19 August1923 in Sunnyside, Newcastle Emlyn, though he was brought up in Talgarth and Llandovery, where his father, Islwyn, was the manager of Lloyds Bank. Islwyn Jones had been raised in New Quay, where his own father, D.O. Jones, (once a Methodist minister) was a photographer, publishing a series of views of the town. The family retained a strong affection for New Quay, always returning there for summer holidays and other family occasions.
Dill Jones was first taught piano by his mother Lavinia Bevan, an accomplished amateur pianist, and by Llandeilo teacher Emlyn Evans, and at the age of seven he was playing Rubinstein. One of the strongest influences on the young Jones was chapel music: the bank and family home in Llandovery stood bounded by two chapels. The symbolism of Mammon corralled firmly by the deaconate would not have unnerved Jones' father. He was, unusually for a country bank manager of the time, a freethinking, and often vocal, atheist.
The influence of the two chapels on the young Jones came far more from their music, as the sound of their combined organs and singing came flooding through the walls of Bank House. Even more potent were the services and gymanfa ganu at Tabernacle chapel, New Quay, where Jones' formidable aunt, Isawel Jones, played the organ, and also gave him lessons:
"Choral music and church singing were part of my background and moved me profoundly as a very young child - the feeling of hwyl...is akin to what black Americans call 'soul' - and I think this later influenced my jazz playing..."
Jones' sister, Barbara Cassini, herself a talented pianist, remembers that New Quay "was so alive...I thought I was entering a magic place…music was a powerful drug in the town." One of the most exciting highs came from the South Wales miners singing on the pier during the summer months, "surrounded by sea like blood with the sun setting on it. Very, very dramatic." Cassini counts the sea as an enduring influence on Jones' music: "So many of his forbears were seafarers, Cape Horners...the holidays in New Quay, when we were in the water all the time or sailing across it, and later, of course, the navy and the Cunard liners..."
Jones entered Llandovery College as a day pupil in 1935, and emerged with his School Certificate. The College journal also records a Latin prize in the third form, a certificate in the Officer Training Corps practical examination, and his rank as a cadet lance-corporal. Cassini remembers that it was while Jones was at the College that the interest in jazz burgeoned:
"He'd had years of music, passed all his exams, very good classical work done, and then it was jazz, all we heard was jazz, and of a very high quality...his friends would come and gravitate towards the piano. Dill would sit there as if he had been there from birth, strong hands poised over the piano. Wonderful harmonising from the start, perfect pitch...he worked hard at it..."
It was often a lonely interest: the Welsh, said Jones, "are steeped in music but don't have too much rhythmical feeling, and in those days to find another person who shared the same feeling and enthusiasm for jazz was very rare." There was no music department in the College, and the staff were hardly encouraging: "He'll come to no good," warned the Headmaster when he found Jones playing jazz on one of the school's battered uprights. By this time, the teenage Jones (now also a competent boxer) was firmly under the influence of Fats Waller, who featured regularly on BBC radio broadcasts. Waller toured Britain in 1938, following on Louis Armstrong's successful 1934 tour, which included a week in May at the Swansea Empire.
On leaving school in 1940, Jones worked for a bank in Llandeilo, but "I soon found out that bank clerking and jazz didn't really go together. No use trying to balance the books with Bud Freeman's choruses on "The Eel" going through your head." He joined the Royal Navy in April 1942, and was stationed in Britain until June 1945, when he sailed for India.
Life in the Navy broadened Jones' experience of both the world and music. Whilst in Portsmouth in 1943, he took lessons from blind pianist Bill Cole. He met Lennie Felix in Ceylon, and they broadcast piano duets on the British Forces Network. Jones returned to Chatham naval base in early 1946. He played at the Red Barn jazz club in Barnehurst, and in local pubs and dance halls. This was sometimes in a duo, with Cyril Ellis on trumpet, called Dai and Cy, and in a Gillingham band called The Melody Mariners. Here he met up with Tommy Whittle, Alan McDonald, Arthur Greenslade and Ronnie Verrell, all of whom were later to feature prominently in British jazz and dance music.
Jones was de-mobbed as an acting leading seaman in June 1946. He worked in Lloyds Bank, Westminster, and started gigging in London pubs, also appearing as a guest artist on the BBC, as the Welsh Gazette proudly noted:
"All his friends at New Quay were pleased to hear Dillwyn Jones give a pianoforte broadcast on Saturday evening as a guest artiste of the Radio Rhythm Club"
Banking soon palled, as it had done before, and Jones enrolled at Trinity College of Music, where he studied piano and organ until 1948. Jones left the course early: his tutors disapproved of his extra-mural jazz playing. When one of them found him playing Saint Louis Blues to a group of fellow students she exclaimed "What is this music? We can't have this music here."
The period at Trinity helped to consolidate Jones' earlier classical training, and being in London also exposed him to new influences: Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Lester Young and Jess Stacy, though, said Jones, "Ravel, Debussy, Beethoven, Mozart and Poulenc were strong influences too - the latter's Mouvement Perpetuel was a favourite..."
Jones began his jazz career with Carlo Krahmer and Humphrey Lyttelton, making his first recording with Krahmer's Chicagoans in May 1947. He performed at the first Nice jazz festival in 1948, where he heard Louis Armstrong ("reducing me to tears of happiness"). He also sat in with Jack Teagarden and played Caution Blues for Earl Hines. The following year, he was at the Paris Festival with the Vic Lewis orchestra, and was "electrified" by the playing of Charlie Parker. Jones also joined up with Wales' only jazz band, led by Harry Parry, and toured the Low Countries and the Middle East.
Jones recorded with the BBC Jazz Club band in 1949, introducing the programme on radio and television throughout the 1950s. He was recruited to play on board the Queen Mary, and joined a quartet in tourist class; on each trip he had two days in New York to visit the jazz clubs, particularly Eddie Condon's, where he was soon invited to sit in. Jones also briefly, but unproductively, studied with the cultish Lennie Tristano. But Wales also continued to pull him: his parents retired to New Quay in 1955, and he became a frequent visitor to the town, whenever circumstances allowed, as Alun Morgan remembers:
"I went to Dill's flat in London in August 1952...we had arranged to record Dill and some other musicians at the flat, which was in Westbourne Terrace, a stone's throw from Paddington Station, presumably so that Dill could fling himself on a train heading for Wales if he got homesick."
Amongst the other musicians in the flat was Tony Kinsey; not long after, Jones became a member of Kinsey's group, and established himself as one of Britain's best jazz pianists. Jones, however, was still eager to learn: he extended his classical training by studying with his brother-in-law, the celebrated concert pianist Leonard Cassini. Jones' ambition was now becoming clearer:
"Elevate jazz to the concert platform, and you elevate the music and the people who play it. Jazz is an important art socially as well as musically. It is the only international folk music."
Jones made his first solo recordings in 1953 and the next two years were his most prolific in recording and broadcasting, largely with Tommy Whittle and Tony Kinsey. When Whittle disbanded his quintet in 1955, Jones set up a trio, and recorded with Polygon and Columbia. The trio was one of only two bands (the other was George Melly's) which played at the first Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1956. Jones also played on the same bill as Louis Armstrong at the Royal Festival Hall at the concert for the Hungarian Relief Fund:
"That entailed hanging around with Louis for three or four days for rehearsal. We played Leonard Bernstein's setting for Saint Louis Blues...then we did a series of spirituals and songs associated with Louis."
Not surprisingly, Jones was voted top British pianist in the Melody Maker jazz poll for four successive years. The word most used to describe him was 'eclectic', for he was able to encompass both traditional and mainstream jazz, as well as emerging modern idioms. He was admired for his broad musical tastes "at a time when tunnel vision was splitting the jazz scene into warring factions." Nevertheless, the late fifties were a comparatively barren and difficult period. A succession of other groups followed the trio, including the Dill Jones All Stars, the Dill Jones Orchestra and the Dill Jones Dixieland All Stars but nothing settled emerged, and recordings dwindled to a handful a year. Jones found comfort in his passion for gliding.
British jazz was predominantly white, another source of frustration for Jones, who preferred soul jazz, drawing on gospel music, to white cool and its aspiration to fuse with European classical music. He had experienced black jazz on his earlier trips to New York, even substituting once for James P. Johnson at the Stuyvesant Casino. By the second half of the 1950s, black musicians were coming to Britain. Armstrong, of course, but also Big Bill Broonzy and Joe Harriott, with both of whom Dill recorded. Chris Barber brought people like Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to the London clubs, as well as recordings of black musicians he had made in New York.
Jones courageously decided his future lay in America, "to explore black hwyl...he didn't go to the States to meet Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw." He also saw the threat of rock and roll to British jazz, and there also "seemed greater possibilities in the States to learn and less restricted outlines for my music." Jones settled in New York in October 1961, and soon found "every kind of ethnic music imaginable which appeals to me very much." He went to Harlem to take lessons with the legendary stride player, Luckey Roberts, who later said he was the best white pianist he had ever heard.*
But getting to play with black musicians proved difficult, and Jones found himself again in white jazz, teaming up with people such as Jimmy McPartland and Max Kaminsky, and playing at Condon's once more. He augmented his earnings by working in Macy's department store, giving music lessons and by singing at the piano, sometimes as part of a double act called The Dragon and the Harp. It was only when he started to play with the Gene Krupa Quartet in 1966, that his reputation in America began to build.
Jones had also visited and played in New Orleans that year but his cross-over to playing with black musicians really began in the 1967 and subsequent Manassas jazz festivals. He found himself alongside several men he would work with for the rest of his life: Oliver Jackson, Bill Pemberton, Budd Johnson and Clyde Bernhardt. He recorded stride piano duets in 1969 with Willie "the Lion" Smith, and the same year he was invited to join the JPJ Quartet to replace Earl Hines, who had been a major influence on the development of Jones' stride playing. The other JPJ members were Johnson, Jackson and Pemberton; they needed a pianist, of course, but Jones was partly recruited for his ability to write and arrange music. They played together for several years, doing many tours, concerts and recordings, notably Montreux '71. They also ran jazz seminars, including workshops for over seventy thousand children in high schools across America. But a major recording contract eluded Jones, and he made few recordings in the United States until 1977, most of which were done with Bernhardt's Harlem Blues and Jazz Band.
Jones proved an accomplished crosser of boundaries. Just as he had moved easily between traditional and mainstream jazz, and between London and west Wales, he moved comfortably between the worlds of black and white jazz, borrowing from both and playing in each. This capacity to cross boundaries came, of course, from his musical ability, and his life-long appetite to learn and experiment. But he was also helped by his enjoyment of good company, and his skills as a raconteur - "he had the gift of a great speaking voice, he was just a marvellous guy, full of fun."
Llanelli clarinettist Wyn Lodwick first played with Jones in 1966, at a New Quay Yacht Club dance held in land-locked Llanybydder. Lodwick recalls not just Jones' willingness to learn but also his humility:
"Dill was such a fine player, and such a humble person, and I think that humility is the thing that got him accepted so well in the United States...he got on well with people and I think they liked Dill as a person."
It also helped that Jones was also good-natured, helping out people with money, and frequently providing free coaching to young musicians. Above all, he was a team player, jazz's selfless fly-half, enabling others to score: "his ability always to produce such helpful accompaniment meant that soloists were often inspired to play above themselves."
Jones left the JPJ Quartet in 1973, and for the next eleven years of his life he worked as a soloist, regularly appearing at the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center, and at wealthy New England homes. But Jones also continued to play with the Countsmen and the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. The 1970s was a period in which Jones further developed his stride style of playing, reflecting the influence of Art Tatum, James P. Johnson and of Luckey Roberts' tuition in particular. At the same time, he began to draw once again on his classical training, as Pug Wilber noted:
"Dill had a great love of the same classical music that Bix [Beiderbecke] loved - the impressionists, people like Debussey, Delius, Ravel, and his playing was a combination of this marvellous harmonic sophistication and barrelhouse music..."
Stride had grown out of east coast ragtime, but it had always been influenced by classical music: some of the Harlem pianists, most notably James P. Johnson, had been trained in the classical repertoire. Jones' own stride playing is shown at its best in his solo recordings, such as Little Rock Getaway, African Ripples and his version of Shim-me-sha-Wabble, played in April 1978 in Cardiff at the first Welsh Jazz Festival. The influence of his classical training is at its most profound in his album The Music of Bix Beiderbecke (1972)
Jones was also drawing more and more on his Welsh roots. His playing was Harlem stride spliced with classical discipline and hwyl. His Gorsedd citation acknowledged that "...a special aspect of his art as a musician was the way in which he was able to knit the folk tunes of Wales into his music." Record producer Hank O'Neal observed that:
"Dill revealed a wonderful compositional sense that was far beyond anything anyone gave him credit for in the United States. To me, Dill always sounded like a musical version of Dylan Thomas, the way he wrote his songs, they were gorgeous melodies, they flowed beautifully, and he interpreted them just marvellously...To my ears he plays piano the same as Dylan Thomas reads his poetry. And in Dill's case, it is his own songs he plays best, much the same as Thomas's finest readings were of his own work."
Jones returned to Wales and New Quay almost every year, usually to team up with friends like Wyn Lodwick for British and continental tours. Jones' accent remained Welsh, and on stage he assertively identified himself as being from Wales. He was determined to appear on Welsh language programmes in Wales (and did), taking Welsh books with him on long-distance gigs. At home in Port Washington, where he lived with Wendy Flenard, a New Quay childhood friend, he played records of Dylan Thomas reciting his poetry and prose; Return Journey was a particular favourite. Not surprisingly, middle-age brought longing:
"I shall always take pride in my heritage - the lovely landscape, the warmth and humour of the people, the rugby, the boxing, the song, and the pints in the tavern...I study my native language far more now than I did back in London, not for any silly pompous reasons but because it is so beautiful and stems back some fifteen centuries and so is well worth keeping alive."
But Jones had a deep well of inspiration, drawing far more widely than the classics and Welsh music. He took a great interest in American literature and in art. He frequently attended the Poetry Centre in New York, an easy walk from his 1970s base in the nearby Hotel Wales. He could write well, including poetry. His religion "was music, music, music and the sea...he was crazy about the sea." Politically, he was "all messed up - not analytical but very emotional", a socialist with "strong Welsh Nationalist overtones." Like Dylan, "he preferred the company of the common man. He hated the rich, especially when he was poor."
Jones' 1980 Chiaroscuro recording hints at the heaviness of the hiraeth upon him: the programme included Welsh Pearl, Blues Alone, New Quay News and There Are No Flowers in Tiger Bay. In 1981, he went to the Australian Jazz Convention, and admitted after singing that his throat was troubling him. He returned to New Quay in spring 1982 to visit his aunt Isawel, and then to a studio in nearby Llanrhystud to record with Wyn Lodwick. It was released on tape as Y Cyswllt Cymreig, and described as "a new sound: an amalgam of music rooted in Wales, including Welsh folk tunes, and Negro music." Jones later travelled to Berne, and there felt so ill that he went to see a doctor. His throat, he was told, was in fine shape.
Back in America, Jones sought the help of specialist John Horton, an accomplished amateur trombonist with whom he had played many times. The cancer in his larynx was finally diagnosed in late 1982. Escorted by Lodwick and clutching his X-rays, Jones returned to London. New Quay contacts in the medical world were mobilised, and Jones had surgery to remove his voice box - the mother tongue he had taken such pains to master was now lost to him.
Jones recuperated at the Lodwicks' house in Llanelli, and started playing again in their recording studio overlooking the Llwchwr estuary, with fine views of the cockling sands and the lording Gower beyond. After a sombre visit to New Quay to see Isawel, Jones returned to America. He continued to work sporadically throughout 1983, though he was hospitalised for a period in St. Vincent's, where Dylan had died thirty years earlier.
Dill Jones died on June 22 1984 in Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. One of his last major engagements had been in December 1983 at the Manassas Jazz Festival when he played Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone. It's a last request we should feel no remorse in denying.
Sources: With many thanks to Barbara Cassini, Wendy Flenard, David Griffiths, Griff Jenkins, Joe Klee, Wyn Lodwick, Alun Morgan, Roger Seal, J. Hugh Thomas, Sally-Ann Worsfold, Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, The Mississippi Rag, Llandovery College journal, Royal Navy records and the BBC. Griffiths' excellent Dill Jones: A Discography is published by Bielderman, 1996. Special thanks to Terry O'Neill and Jack Bradley for generously letting us use their photographs.
First published in Planet June/July 2002
5. Dylan Thomas' Carmarthenshire Roots
Radio journalist Colin Edwards was brought up in Gorseinon, but he had a number of Carmarthenshire connections, not least that his father's family had farmed Pentrewyn near Llanybri. These local links greatly helped Edwards in his ambitious scheme to interview as many of Dylan Thomas' family and friends as possible, in an attempt to discover the "real Dylan".
By the 1970s, Edwards had carried out over 150 interviews. More than half of these deal with Dylan's days in Swansea and his family holidays in Carmarthenshire i.e. the period up to 1934 when Dylan, aged twenty, left Cwmdonkin Drive to find fame, but no fortune, in London. Several of the interviews go into detail about life around Llangain and they contain much that will be valuable to Carmarthenshire historians.
After Edwards' death, the tapes of his interviews were deposited in the National Library of Wales. For the last four years, I have been editing these tapes, as well as examining official records both to verify and extend the genealogical material that Edwards had gathered from Dylan's relations. The publication of this data is timely - 2003 is the fiftieth anniversary of Dylan's death, and 2004 the ninetieth of his birth.
The Williams Branch of Dylan's Family Tree
Dylan's maternal great-great grandparents were John Williams (1784-1846) and his wife, Anna (1774-1860).[lxii] They first farmed at Lambstone, Llangynog (SN335.159), and then, from the 1820s, at Pen-y-coed, on the border with Llangain parish. They had two children:
· Thomas (1816-1890) who married Anne Thomas (1815-1902). They were Dylan's great-grandparents.
· Sarah (1818-1882) who married William Thomas (1824-1886) of Plas Isaf, Llangynog (SN332.177), on November 18 1851. Sarah and William took over Pen-y-coed about this time and brought up three daughters.[lxii]
Dylan's grandmother, Anna, was Thomas and Anne Williams' third child.[lxii] She was born on March 19 1840 at Pencelly Isaf farm where her parents had lived from at least 1836. Within months of Anna's birth, the family moved to neighbouring Waunfwlchan. At that time, it was a much larger farm of 150 acres, just off the main road from Llangain to Llansteffan. We know nothing of Anna's childhood on the farm but on September 15 1860, at Lammas Street chapel, she married George Williams (1838-1905), an agricultural labourer who had been born at Alltycnap, Llanllwch.
In 1865, George had a liaison with one of Anna's younger sisters who gave birth to a girl the following year. The ensuing scandal was probably the reason why George and Anna left for St Thomas, Swansea. Here, at 29, Delhi Street, were born the last six of their nine children, including Dylan's mother, Florence, in 1882. By now, George was putting his amorous escapade behind him, eventually becoming Chief Shipping Inspector with the GWR, a deacon of Canaan Congregational Church and superintendent of its Sunday School.[lxii]
The young Florence and her siblings came on holidays to Waunfwlchan until Thomas Williams' death in 1890. Then Llwyngwyn, which lay on the opposite side of the lane, became the focus of family visits. This was the farm of Thomas Williams' son, Evan (1838-1897) who, in February 1871 at Union Street chapel, married his much younger, and pregnant, cousin Anne, the daughter of his father's sister, Sarah. This was an astute marriage, strengthening the link between the Williamses and Pen-y-coed with its 124 acres.
Evan and Anne had spent their early married life in Tirbach, where four of their six children - Florence's first cousins - were born.[lxii] About 1886, they moved to Llwyngwyn and farmed 190 acres, a large holding during a period when most Carmarthenshire farms were fifty acres or less. The Llwyngwyn influence was then augmented by a series of advantageous marriages by Evan and Anne's children - their daughters Sarah and Annie married into neighbouring families at Maesgwyn (132 acres) and Pencelly Uchaf (93 acres), whilst in 1929 their youngest child, Thomas John, married Mary Ann Davies, whose parents, Evan and Sarah, had taken over Pen-y-coed. As significantly, Thomas John's marriage linked the Williamses to Mary Ann's siblings who farmed Plas Isaf and Llwynon at Llanybri and Ffald at Llangynog. Another sibling married Daniel Evans, the blacksmith at Brook Forge on the Llansteffan road, where the young Dylan, on evening forays from Fernhill, created mischief.
On September 16 1893, Florence's sister, Annie (1862-1933), had married 'Gentleman Jim' Jones (1864-1942), the eldest son of Richard and Rachel Jones of Pentrewyman farm. This marriage linked the Williams family to Jim's sister, Rachel, who had taken over Pentrewyman and its 110 acres, and to Jim's half-siblings, David and Mary, who worked 111 acres at Dolaumeinion and Pwntan-bach (today called Greenacres). This represented a powerful family network - by 1929, the various Joneses and Williamses farmed over 800 acres of Llangain countryside, and much of this stayed in their hands until the 1950s.[lxii]
Annie and Jim Jones moved into Tirbach, where their son Idris was born on April 24 1897. But the farm's fifty-nine acres proved too small for Jim's grand plans and by 1901 they had left for Pentowyn on the estuary, where they rented 200 acres, a cook, a housemaid and three farm workers. Nine years later they were living as tenants in very reduced circumstances at Fernhill with just fifteen acres, and ended their days in poverty in Mount Pleasant, a landless cottage with just a kitchen and one bedroom.
The Williams square mile was further strengthened when Florence's siblings, Bob and Polly, retired from Swansea in 1927 and 1928 and moved into 1, Blaencwm, just down the road from Llwyngwyn. In 1933, another sibling, Theodosia, also came from Swansea to live in 2, Blaencwm with her husband, David Rees. The two cottages, and Mount Pleasant as well, had been owned by the Waunfwlchan Williamses since at least the early 1900s.
Most of Dylan's Llangain relatives continued to prosper, as they had done since the early days of Thomas and Anne Williams at Waunfwlchan. In fact, Thomas and Anne's great-granddaughter - Dylan's second cousin - still runs Llwyngwyn, and neighbouring Maesgwyn as well, some four hundred acres of the Williams square mile intact today, with close family still up the road in Pen-y-coed, as they have been since the 1820s.
The Thomas Branch
The Thomas 'ancestral seat' was Gelli Grin (SN517.318), a hundred-acre holding just outside Brechfa, farmed by David and Hannah Thomas, Dylan's paternal great-great grandparents. They had six children, including William, born in 1804, who married Anne Jones, said to have been related to the Llwyncelyn family of Abergorlech. William and Anne worked forty acres at Glan-rhyd-y-gwiail, Brechfa (SN558.323). There were five children:
· Evan (1832-1911), Dylan's grandfather, who worked in the mines and then on the railways. In December 1858, Evan married Anne (1835-1917), the daughter of William Lewis, a gardener of Lime Grove, Carmarthen, and they lived at The Poplars, Johnstown. They had eight children, five of whom survived infancy: (i) Jane Ann, who married William Greville, a Cross Hands grocer, alderman and JP, and had four daughters; (ii) Lizzie; (iii) William; (iv) Arthur Lewis; and (v) David John (1876-1952), known as 'DJ'.
After serving as a pupil-teacher at the Model School, Carmarthen, DJ went to Aberystwyth, where he studied English and helped run the Musical Society. He took a First, and started work as an English teacher at Swansea Grammar School, from where he retired in 1936. In December 1903, he married Florence Williams, a seamstress, and there were two children: Nancy Marles, (1906-1953), and Dylan Marlais, (1914-1953). Nancy married Haydn Taylor and then Gordon Summersby - there were no children. Dylan married Caitlin Macnamara, and had three children, Llewelyn (1939), Aeron (1943) and Colm (1949).
· William (1834-1879), better known as Gwilym Marles, a Unitarian preacher, headmaster, poet and radical leader. His school was at Llandysul and his chapels at Rhydowen and Bwlch-y-fadfa. He married twice, and had eleven children. His second wife, Mary Williams, ran her own school for "young ladies" in Carmarthen. She was also secretary of the British Women's Liberal Association, and was an "eloquent speaker." She died in 1903.[lxii]
· Simon, born 1838, about whom I have no information.
· Hannah, born in 1848, who lived at Glan-rhyd-y-gwiail and Nantpoeth, Brechfa. She helped to organise hunt balls and fishing parties for the big houses. Hannah brought up seven children, some of whom are thought by her descendants to have been the offspring of the local gentry. All but two of her children worked farms around Brechfa and Llanybydder, as did many of her grandchildren. Hannah ended her days in poverty at Pant-maenog, Llanfihangel Rhos-y-corn (SN547.335), and died sometime after the birth of her daughter in 1897.
· Thomas, born 1851, who lived at 185, Aldersgate Street, London. He became manager of the National Provincial bank in Aldersgate, London. He was alive in 1905, and is acknowledged for the help he gave O. M. Edwards in his book published that year about Gwilym Marles.
There was no significant settlement of DJ's relations around Johnstown, or that part of Carmarthenshire. There would have been few of them, if any, for DJ to visit with the young Dylan - DJ's brothers were in Port Talbot and London, his sisters were dead by 1903, and his parents by 1917. His four Greville nieces - Dylan's first cousins - were brought up in coal mining Cross Hands in the east of the county, and continued to live there for many years. However, DJ did return often to Johnstown to see his schoolboy friends. These included Emyr 'Evie' Lloyd, the carpenter and undertaker, and Dan Jones the Tailor who made DJ's clothes and who appears in Dylan's story, A Visit to Grandpa's.
There is no note in the Edwards archive about DJ's relationships with Gwilym Marles' family. It seems unlikely that Dylan, or DJ for that matter, had much contact with Marles' children, DJ's first cousins. Three of the children died young, and another during the First World War. By the end of 1934, only three of the children were still alive, and one of these later recorded that she had not seen DJ after 1897, and had never met Dylan, largely because she had lived in India.
The Brechfa connection remained live, however, and there was some contact with three of the children of DJ's paternal aunt, Hannah Thomas. Her eldest child, Annie, married William Righton, a Ship Runner. They lived in Burman Street, Swansea, not far from Cwmdonkin Drive, and there were weekly visits by Annie's children and grandchildren to the Thomases, as Barbara Treacher recounted in her interview with Edwards:
"my mother and my grandmother used to take me up as a child, also my sister, and we used to play with Dylan and Nancy, and go up every Friday, and ransack Uncle Jack’s study and get into trouble. Auntie Florrie used to make us lovely home-made cakes...tea was always laid when we arrived. Then we used to go into the study, have our pens and pencils with Dylan and he used to do little poetrys, and we didn’t realise then what he was doing, but we always had a little poem, as I say, in our pockets...we used to go to the bug-house, the Uplands Cinema...we were a little older then, I should think about eight, nine maybe, and we’d go on Saturday morning, used to wear our blazers, and often I’d come home and find just a simple little poem...we’d go in our pockets, there’d be a little poem...just the simplest little poem – we’d come home, pick it up, 'Oh look, he’s been at it again!'”
Hannah's two other daughters also kept in touch: Margaret had married John Evans, and DJ, Florence and Dylan sometimes visited them at their farm, Ty'r-cwm (SN538.344), near Llanfihangel Rhos-y-corn. Their son, Glanville, was the same age as Dylan, and there is a photograph of the Evanses with Dylan as a boy, probably taken at Ty'r-cwm. Glanville and his sister Bessie also used to go for tea with Florence when she lived in Laugharne. Finally, Hannah's youngest daughter, Rachel, was brought up on farms around Brechfa. Rachel lived in Wellfield Road, Carmarthen, and in the 1950s she helped to look after Florence Thomas, and was a beneficiary of her Will.
There is also another interesting connection with Hannah: her great-granddaughter, Sarah Mary (whose parents, David and Eira Thomas, farmed Rhiwsaithpren, Brechfa, SN525.334), married Ralph Tucker, who was instrumental in establishing the triennial production of Under Milk Wood in Laugharne, commencing in 1958, and took part in performances. He was a bearer at Florence Thomas' funeral.
Dylan appears to have visited Brechfa in 1949: in a letter to John Davenport of October 11, he writes that "I've been getting on with my script, broadcasting from Swansea...and being a pest up in the wilds here, Mydrim, Brechfa, & Marble Town." It was during this period that Dylan would meet up in the Drovers' Arms, Carmarthen, with Eynon Lloyd Hughes, an amateur local historian and writer of short stories. Eynon was married to Dylan's third cousin, Megan, the great-great-granddaughter of David and Hannah Thomas of Gelli Grin.
Dylan's roots were deeply bedded in Carmarthenshire farming families. But his first holidays as a young child were not on any of the farms but at Rose Cottage, Llansteffan, where he and his parent's regularly stayed with Florence's half-sister, Anne Williams. The Llansteffan Shaving Saloon was run by Ocky Owen who recalled that Dylan
"used to come here every summer, and father and mother - and his sister...Dylan used to come every day, with his little curly hair, pale little face, for an ounce of tobacco and a box of matches...a box of Swan, and I think it was Westward Ho tobacco...they stayed here – for about three weeks or a month...he came here, as I say, for many years, probably visiting Fernhill and places from here...Dylan didn’t live on the farm, he lived here...buckets and spades on the sands. Spent the day as every other child spent it...didn’t seem to possess any special gifts beyond the ordinary child, you know." [lxii]
These visits to Llansteffan continued to Anne's death in 1922, and then for the next seven years Dylan's holidays were spent at Fernhill, where he heard stories about the hangman, Robert Ricketts Evans, and his eloping daughter, Frances. These tales have been regarded as local tittle-tattle but public records, and Evans' own diaries, confirm his involvement in executions, as well as Frances' elopement in 1865 with a Hungarian doctor called Blumberg.[lxii]
In 1929, Annie and Jim Jones moved into Mount Pleasant so Blaencwm soon became the teenage Dylan's Carmarthenshire base, an escape from the rages of his father, where he was thoroughly spoiled by his aunt Polly. But it was no idyllic rural retreat, for living conditions were poor and cramped. The 1945 Carmarthenshire Rural Housing Inspection Report describes 1, Blaencwm as a "fairly old" semi-detached cottage, comprising a kitchen, living room and three bedrooms. The living room was only three yards by four, as was the largest bedroom. Cooking and lighting were by paraffin, and food was stored in safes outside, there being no internal larder. Water was carried in a pail from a spring at Dyffryn Tawel, the next cottage. The toilet was an earth closet in the garden. The report notes that there was "extensive rising and penetrating dampness in all rooms."
Despite its privations, Blaencwm was a place where Dylan could write. Some Notebook poems were written at the cottages in September and October 1933 e.g. 'Before I knocked', 'Not forever shall the lord', 'Before we mothernaked fall', 'The sun burns the morning', 'My hero bares his nerves', 'In the beginning', and 'Here lie the beasts of man'. Many of these were in 18 Poems. Perhaps others had been written in the time Dylan had spent here since 1927 - when Florence was clearing out cupboards at Blaencwm after his death, she found seven poems written by her young son.
Dylan worked on 'Vision and Prayer' and 'Poem in October' in August 1944 at Blaencwm, though both had been started much earlier. In August and September 1945 at the cottages, he revised 'Unluckily for a death', and completed 'Fern Hill', 'In my craft or sullen art', and the radio talk, Memories of Christmas. He also worked on the proofs of Deaths and Entrances.
The adult Dylan was a frequent visitor to Blaencwm, especially between 1941 and 1948 when his parents lived there. Even when living in Laugharne, Dylan journeyed across to the pubs in Llansteffan, particularly the Edwinsford which had been run until 1937 by Thomas and Catherine Thomas, who were related to Florence. Then there was the Farmers' Arms at Llanybri where the landlady, Sarah Ann Evans (formerly Vaughan), was bemused at Dylan's bohemian ways, though she thought him
"a nice man...I liked Dylan...oh, Dylan was a proper gentleman. He was real farmer in his way, you know, talking to you...he used to like to have Llangain people there. Some of the boys from Llangain, and talking to those always." [lxii]
In September 1953, Dylan took two American friends on a tour of Williams country. They called at Capel Newydd, Llanybri:
"The sun was low in the sea now, and the music of the hymns from the evening service floated over the windless hill-top. This was the burial place of all of Dylan's maternal ancestors. When we left the car and walked toward the crowded gravestones, Dylan and his mother went ahead. Proceeding slowly on her canes, she paid respects to one grave after another, pointing out to Dylan names he had probably forgotten...Mrs Thomas moved staunchly yet laboriously, her eyes wet as she now and then looked away from a grave into the yellowing distance, her words to Dylan merely informative, betraying little of what we could tell she was feeling. In the cool evening sun, each with his own thoughts, we stood in a glassy silence." (J. M. Brinnin, Dylan in America,1965)
Dylan also took the Americans to Fernhill, Llwyngwyn and finally to uncle Bob at Blaencwm. Although it was Dylan's last known visit to the family cottages, it was not quite his last visit to the Williams square mile - the day before he left for London to make his final journey to America, he and Florence took tea with the Rev. Hopkin Evans, the minister at Capel Newydd.[lxii] A few weeks later, on November 9 1953, Dylan died in St Vincent's Hospital, New York, his death precipitated not by alcohol abuse, but by injections of cortisone and morphine administered by his own doctor.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the help of Terry Wells of the Carmarthenshire Archives Service and Gaynor Davies at the Carmarthen Register Office. A number of Williams and Thomas descendants have generously shared material with me: I am particularly grateful to Susan Deacon and Elwyn Thomas, and to Eleri Bearne, Richard E. Huws and Haulwen Morris. And, for their advice and support, many thanks to Eiluned Rees, Edna Dale-Jones, Joan Miller, John Edwards, and Iestyn Hughes and Dafydd Pritchard at the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales at the National Library of Wales.
First published in The Carmarthenshire Antiquary 2003
There is an extensive description of Dylan’s family tree in Dylan Remembered vol 1 (Seren 2003)
6. Severed Heads: Oloff de Wet’s Bust of Dylan
I'd often heard stories about a bronze bust of Dylan Thomas hidden away on a neglected farm in the Aeron valley. Sometimes the bust was in a patch of nettles, or lolling on the back seat of a rusting Austin Seven, or perched on the roof of a pig sty. I saw it for the first time at a reading in the Black Lion in New Quay. One of the poets called me across to a quiet corner, and showed me a photograph. Dylan, right enough, with the usual cigarette, shirt collar open and a face full of pain.
A few weeks later the phone rang. Would I like to see the bust? I was there ten minutes later, not a tumbledown farmhouse, but a modern bungalow with fine biographical views - to the north, the river Aeron running from Talsarn to the Welsh-speaking sea, New Quay to the west, and a few miles south the three chapels of Dylan's great-uncle, Gwilym Marles. I walked along the drive and found Tony Cross waiting at the door. We went inside past a George Chapman painting of three Rhondda colliers, and in my surprise I stumbled over a large and sharp-edged paint box.
Past another Chapman, hoping my shin wasn't dripping blood on the carpet, and there, suddenly, was Dylan, in a glass-walled backroom, gazing stoically out towards a field of periwigged Llanwennogs. I walked across and patted him on the cheek. He looked bronzed but he was really cold cast resin with a hollow head and empty eye sockets. I asked the name of the sculptor. "De Wet," Cross replied, pushing his hand up inside Dylan's skull to pull out a fistful of press cuttings. Sadly, they said nothing about de Wet.
A search of reference books, art libraries and the Internet yielded little information, and even de Wet's obituary in The Times was terse and uninformative. Here was an accomplished British sculptor (and a talented writer) much of whose life has remained a secret. The bust is a remarkable piece of portraiture of one of our greatest poets; yet, fifty years after it was made, very few people know about it, and even fewer have seen it - none of the major public collections in Wales and England have a copy.
Hugh Oloff de Wet was born in Jersey in April 1912, the son of a naval officer, and a descendant of both Christiaan Rudolf de Wet, the Boer general, and Jacabus de Wet, Court Painter to James I of England. He was educated at Monkton Combe and Bruges, before joining the RAF to train as a fighter pilot. During the 1930s, he worked in intelligence in Abyssinia, posing as a freelance reporter, and also served as a pilot in the war against Italy. De Wet then fought in the Spanish Civil War - he first offered his services to Franco, who turned him down, so he flew fighter planes for the Republicans instead. He wrote up his experiences in Cardboard Crucifix (1938), and then went off to Prague to spy for the French Deuxième Bureau, reporting on the movement of German troops.
De Wet and his wife were captured by the Gestapo in July 1939; she hanged herself in prison to escape interrogation, but de Wet was tortured for many months, as he vividly describes in his account of the ordeal, The Valley of the Shadow (1949). His interrogators chose methods of torture that would have been particularly distressing for a sculptor: de Wet's hands were burnt with cigarette stubs and his fingers broken. And, in what must have seemed a cruel parody of the sculptor's art, the Gestapo applied a
"little rubber mallet in the nape of my neck...very dexterously at precisely the same spot just below the base of the skull - making a dull thump in my ears, a quiver behind my knees, and inside the cranium an evil hurt that expands and contracts in time with the thuds..."
On January 13 1941, de Wet was taken to the People's Court in Berlin accused of High Treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. He was put on death row in Plötzensee prison and both there, and in Brandenburg prison, his cell window overlooked the guillotine area. He saw hundreds of men and women go to their death. Those chosen for execution were taken to the prison hospital the night before, and most of their blood drawn off, leaving them just enough to survive the next few hours - the plasma from the blood was used to treat German civilians and soldiers. The next morning the prisoners were taken to the guillotine. De Wet considered it was
"...pretty humane when it happens! After all, a sharp blade weighted with a hundred-odd pounds brooks no argument with the toughest of human necks: it goes clean through with only an instant of hesitation...and when it happens to be the neck of a woman or boy, it is not arrested in its plunge till the hydraulic buffers pull it up with a gentle hissing sound that merges with the whistle of air from the severed wind-pipe, and squirt of blood hitting the splash-panel. The head drops face first into the sawdust trough and...and that's that!"
De Wet tried to hang himself but his gaolers rescued him, and he was subsequently chained and manacled for the next two years. He was almost killed when Allied planes missed their factory targets and bombed the prison instead, destroying the guillotine. De Wet's cell block caught fire but the prisoners were safely escorted out. De Wet was found a new cell, but one hundred and eighty of his fellow inmates were hanged the next morning because there was nowhere to put them.
He was released from prison in April 1945, his hands damaged and his mind galleried with images of severed heads and dislocated necks. He made his way to London, and took up sculpting again, turning more and more to producing busts, like resurrections from the sawdust trough. We don't know when or where he met Dylan. Perhaps they were both at an artist's party - Dylan knew a great number of painters, an aspect of his life about which little has been written. He also knew several sculptors: Ronald Cour, of course, but also Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein.
Then again it's possible that Dylan and de Wet were brought together by their friends in the secret services - Dylan was on good terms with a number of people in the intelligence agencies, including Guy Burgess, Goronwy Rees and Constantine FitzGibbon. The Gargoyle may have been the club where Dylan and the hard-drinking de Wet were introduced, for it was a favourite haunt of artists, writers, broadcasters and spies.
Another bohemian institution that brought writers and artists together was the Court of Redonda, a fantasy kingdom whose courtiers met in Soho pubs, and to whose throne the writer John Gawsworth succeeded in February 1947. One of his first acts was to bestow on Dylan the title of "the Duke of Gweno"; a few years later, de Wet was also ennobled and it was he who later made Gawsworth's death mask.
Oloff De Wet made his busts very quickly - "You had finished when you began," Ezra Pound had once told him. He did not like people to pose; his usual method was to talk and relax with his subjects, sketch them and then return to his studio - "I try to capture their expressions in my mind. Often I prefer working on a head when my model is not there.". In Dylan's case, de Wet went to stay with him in 1951, as de Wet confirmed in a note to the bookseller J. Schwartz, to whom he sometimes sold busts when he needed ready cash to finance his playboy lifestyle - he was for some time expensively close to the actress Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston.
After sketching, de Wet would make a model from red clay, using a light carpenter's mallet to produce a rough semblance of the person's head. Then a glass of wine or two, a study of the sketches, and
"suddenly without further thought or hesitation released my hands to form and mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as they could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind."
De Wet took the clay sculpture of Dylan to his caster, Ron Dunton. A 1971 letter from Schwartz to the collector Stanley Noble suggests two bronze casts were made, though one sales catalogue in 1964 says three and another in 1971 implausibly claims ten. The mould was also used to make heads in cold cast resin, and the note from de Wet to Schwartz confirms an edition of eight. De Wet then made bronze miniatures three inches and five inches high - another note from de Wet refers to an edition of thirty, without specifying which size. The archive at the National Portrait Gallery also has an image of a six inch bust made in terracotta.
In 1957, the Royal Festival Hall acquired one of the bronze busts, and Dylan was put on display - it was the People's Bust, and almost certainly the first public showing of the only sculpture of Dylan to have been made from life. Some twenty years later, it was taken down after a spate of thefts at the Hall, and stored away in a basement, never to be seen again.
Of the cold cast resins, one ended up in the University of Texas at Austin, and another went to Ireland to a private collector, where it remains today. This Irish bust, the story goes, was originally destined for the National Library of Wales but the Library turned it down because of the cigarette hanging from Dylan's mouth, but there is no confirmation of this in the Library archives.
Oloff De Wet, the "swaggering" adventurer and "intellectual bohemian", went on to make a name for himself as "a portrait sculptor with a penchant for men of letters", enjoying a solo exhibition in Manchester in 1967. His busts included Ezra Pound, Brendan Behan, John Cowper Powys, Louis McNeice, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden. De Wet died in November 1975.
Some twenty years after casting the first Dylan bust, Ron Dunton was at a party in north London, an odd mixture of parents (including Tony Cross and his family) whose children were at Highgate School, and local celebrities such as Shirley Eaton, the Goldfinger actress. Dunton and Cross got into conversation. Dunton talked about his impending retirement, and Cross about his love for Wales and Dylan Thomas. Would he like a head of Dylan? asked Dunton.
Weeks later, Cross went to Dunton's workshop in Camden Town to collect the bust, handed over fifty pounds, and watched as Dunton broke the mould. Not long after, Cross moved with his family to their farm in the Aeron valley, bringing the Dylan bust with them.
It's the ninetieth anniversary of Dylan's birth next year, so there could hardly be a more appropriate time for the Festival Hall to rescue the People's Bust from storage and to put Dylan back where he belongs. Better still, they might consider finding a public collection in Wales -such as the National Library or the National Museum - and handing it over on permanent loan. Such an outcome might take a good deal of persuasion, and not a little time, but two de Wets in Wales, one bungalowed above the Aeron valley and the other on public display, would be worth going bust for.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the generous help given by Robert Williams, and for permission to reproduce de Wet's sketches, dated 1951, and to quote from de Wet's notes to J. Schwartz. Thanks also to Tony and Coral Cross for their help and kindness; and to Charles Burroughs, James A. Davies, Wendy Earle, Anne Grimes, John Harris, Roger Holloway and Jeff Towns; as well as Erika Ingham at the National Portrait Gallery, Dan O'Connor at the Tate Library, Richard E. Huws at the National Library of Wales, Stephen Miller at the Royal Festival Hall and Leslie Wearb-Hirsch at Texas. The description of de Wet's way of working is from his essay, A Visit to John Cowper Powys, 1974. There is further biographical data on de Wet in Javier Marias' Dark Back of Time, 2001. Catalogues: L. D. Feldman, Sixty Four, New York 1964, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; Paintings and Sculpture from the Dylan Thomas Country, Upper Grosvenor Galleries, 1971, courtesy of Jeff Towns; Oloff de Wet, City Art Gallery, Manchester, September 1967, courtesy of the Tate Library. De Wet's photograph and prison drawings are taken from The Valley of the Shadow - we acknowledge his Estate's copyright on these and the sketches.
First published in Planet June/July 2003
7. Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?
- Dylan Thomas died in New York on November 9 1953. The first rumours were of a brain haemorrhage, followed by reports that he’d been mugged. Soon came the stories about booze, that he had drunk himself to death. Later, there were speculations about drugs and diabetes.
- The truth is both more prosaic and shocking. Dylan died from neglect. His American agent knew he was sick but didn’t look after him properly. He was suffering from a very treatable illness, but his New York doctor failed to diagnose it. He should have been rushed to hospital but it took two hours to get him there.
· He died a needless death. Not surprisingly, a cover-up was put in place to protect those responsible. Even one of his American biographers agreed to conceal the truth. It’s a tragic tale of how a sick poet was exploited for financial gain and academic prestige.
Dylan was already ill when he arrived in New York to take part in Under Milk Wood at the city’s prestigious Poetry Center. He had a history of blackouts and chest problems, and was using an inhaler to help his breathing.
The director of the Center was John Brinnin. He was also Dylan’s tour agent, taking a hefty twenty-five percent fee. He was a neurotic, self-absorbed poet who got through the week on whisky, phenobarbitone and a bagful of other prescription drugs. He was also addicted to a playboy lifestyle that was well beyond his means. His life was driven by a constant search for money, begging and borrowing wherever he could.
Despite his duty of care, Brinnin stayed away from New York. Being Dylan’s agent had become boring and interfered with his other work. Getting rid of Dylan, as he put it with chilling ambiguity, had become an obsession which he acknowledged he was never able to curb.
Brinnin described his attitude as self-protective, declaring that he had come to pay little attention to Dylan’s habits or movements. This was a critical moment in a chain of neglect that would prove fatal.
Brinnin had also decided to resign from the Poetry Center to take up a university job. He was demob happy, and looking after Dylan was low on his list of priorities.
He remained at home in Boston and handed responsibility to his ambitious assistant, Liz Reitell, whose job was to produce Under Milk Wood. She met Dylan at Idlewild airport on October 20 and quickly realised he was a sick man. But determined to make the play a success, she worked him to death, as he struggled through four rehearsals and two performances of the play in just five days.
Brinnin eventually turned up to watch the final rehearsal and was shocked by Dylan’s appearance. He saw immediately there was something seriously wrong with him. Reitell also warned him that Dylan had collapsed at a previous rehearsal. This should have been Brinnin’s wake-up call to seek medical advice about cancelling the play’s performances.
But he desperately needed his cut of Dylan’s earnings. He was in serious financial trouble, facing a drop in salary, up to his ears in debt and being taken to court for not paying his income tax. Brinnin had also misappropriated $300 given to him by a friend for safekeeping. If he had cancelled Dylan’s engagements, he would have had no means of replacing the money.
So Brinnin ignored Dylan’s illness and returned to Boston. He didn’t see him again until he was lying in coma in hospital. Dylan battled on as best he could, a victim of Brinnin’s financial problems and extravagant habits.
Reitell was left alone to cope. But neither she nor Dylan could afford to pay for proper medical care, and the Poetry Center hadn’t provided any insurance for him. What was needed was a doctor who could get Dylan through his engagements, preferably one who adjusted his fees to suit the patient. She knew just the man.
Milton Feltenstein was Reitell’s family physician. She would later describe him as a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything. He went quickly to work with his needle, and Dylan made it through the two performances of Under Milk Wood, but collapsed straight afterwards.
October 27 was Dylan’s thirty-ninth birthday. In the evening, he went to a party in his honour but was so unwell that he returned to his hotel, where Reitell put him to bed. That was the lowest that she had ever seen him; his birthday party, she recalled, marked the beginning of the end.
Brinnin phoned from Boston to wish him happy birthday but Dylan barely responded. Brinnin sensed that he was either ill or had had too much to drink. He could have talked to Reitell to find out which was the case, but he chose not to, even though it was barely three days since he had seen for himself the seriousness of Dylan’s condition.
Here was the first opportunity lost for Brinnin to return to New York, take control of the situation and press for a second, or specialist, medical opinion. And he could so easily have returned; the next day, he finished his teaching at 2pm and could then have travelled to see Dylan, who was just some two hours drive away.
On October 29, Brinnin travelled to New York to work at the Poetry Center, and was in the city for eight hours. This should have been yet another opportunity to assess the deteriorating health of his charge but he didn’t bother to contact either Dylan or Reitell.
Dylan had now become dangerously debilitated and vulnerable to infection. A turning point came on November 2, when air pollution rose to levels that were a threat to those with chest problems. By the end of the month, over two hundred New Yorkers had died from the smog.
Reitell later recalled that in these last few days Dylan was “enormously ill”. In the early hours of November 4, he jumped out of bed, complaining that he needed fresh air. He went to the White Horse bar, had eight double whiskies, and returned to the hotel, boasting he had drunk eighteen.
He woke up at mid-day, and told Reitell he was suffocating. His voice was so low and hoarse that he sounded, said a friend, like Louis Armstrong. Dylan was now in the grip of a serious respiratory infection, which had started in his windpipe and spread down through the main airways into the lungs.
Feltenstein came to see him twice during the day, but failed to detect the chest disease. He also started a dangerous course of morphine injections. Reitell anxiously rang Brinnin, who yet again chose not to return to New York, just an hour away by plane. His inaction throughout the crisis seems astonishing, given that the most celebrated poet of the time was in his care.
That evening, Feltenstein came to see Dylan for a third time and decided, wrongly, that he had delirium tremens. Instead of sending him to hospital, Feltenstein injected 30mg of morphine, three times the normal dose for pain relief. He confided that Dylan might go into coma. This should have been yet another reason to send him to hospital but the good doctor left the hotel, merely advising Reitell that she needed help in looking after him.
Dylan was in serious trouble. His chest disease was already affecting his breathing, and now the morphine began to depress it even further. At midnight on November 4/5, he went into coma. His life could possibly have been saved if Reitell had called an ambulance. But she panicked and wasted valuable time trying to get hold of Feltenstein.
Two hours went by before Dylan reached nearby St Vincent’s, by which time he was profoundly comatose and brain damaged. The two junior doctors on duty tested for various causes of coma - meningitis, brain haemorrhage, diabetes and drugs – but the results were negative.
They listened to his chest and found bronchitis in all parts of the bronchial tree, both left and right sides. An X-ray showed pneumonia, and a raised white cell count confirmed the presence of an infection.
But Feltenstein, intent on covering his tracks, insisted that Dylan was in coma because of alcoholic brain damage. Amidst rumours of medical negligence, Ellen Borden Stevenson, ex-wife of Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, offered to pay for the best independent specialists to be brought in.
But her generous offer was turned own, prompting the British Embassy to phone Brinnin to complain that Dylan was being denied proper medical care. The hospital let the pneumonia run its course, and he died four days later on November 9.
Within hours of his death, the drink stories had started. Dylan’s American publisher, James Laughlin, wrote to his literary agent in London, telling him, even before the post-mortem had been done, that the cause of death was alcoholic poisoning of the brain. Such were the early beginnings of the story that Dylan Thomas had drunk himself into the grave.
Laughlin tossed a coin with Brinnin to see who would identify the body. Laughlin lost and went off to the morgue, whilst Brinnin busied himself with setting up a Memorial Fund. It was a noble inspiration but tainted with self-interest. He had already paid for some of Dylan’s hospital care; in doing so, he had fallen behind with his rent and the repayments on the loan for his car. He had also misappropriated even more of his friend’s money, but was hopeful of claiming it all back from the Fund.
At the post-mortem, the pathologist found no evidence that Dylan’s brain had been poisoned, damaged or changed in any way by alcohol. He issued a Notice of Death in which he said he was unable to confirm any diagnosis of alcoholic brain damage. Nor did he find any signs of alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis in the liver. The immediate cause of death was swelling of the brain, caused by the pneumonia reducing the supply of oxygen.
Brinnin and Feltenstein were now vulnerable to legal action for failure in their duty of care. Brinnin’s reputation, and that of the Poetry Center, was also on the line.
He and Reitell were not just colleagues, but close friends. Reitell was Dylan’s producer, but they were lovers, too, and she had been in bed with him on the night he collapsed. A letter left by Brinnin suggested that he and Dylan had also had sex together. It was all too incestuous, threatening a very juicy scandal in the prim-and-proper America of the early 1950s.
Any investigation into Dylan’s death could also expose Brinnin’s varied and hectic love life. He was in a long-term relationship with a fellow English scholar, Bill Read, but he had affairs with a number of other gay writers. He also enjoyed cruising downtown bars for young men, and even had a few romantic interludes with women, including Dylan’s close friend, the photographer Rollie McKenna.
Brinnin had a good deal to lose. A scandal would threaten the university post he was about to be offered, and possibly ruin the academic career he so badly wanted. Amidst growing concern that Dylan’s American friends had been responsible for his death, Brinnin launched his part of the cover-up strategy: Dylan had killed himself by drinking too much.
Just days after the post-mortem, he met with Caitlin and then with a group of Dylan’s friends who happened to be in New York, including Edith Sitwell and Wynford Vaughan Thomas. He reassured them all that Dylan had received the best possible care, and that alcohol had done for him.
Then Brinnin spent a weekend dispatching letters to several of his influential contacts, including T. S. Eliot. He told them that the only person to be blamed for the death was Dylan himself. The post-mortem, wrote Brinnin falsely, had confirmed that alcohol had damaged his brain. Everyone knew that the Welsh boyo liked his pint, so it wasn’t long before the alcohol story was doing the rounds of literary London, and rippling out thereafter.
Reitell was also doing her bit. She helped write a twelve-page letter to Louis MacNeice. It praised both Brinnin and Feltenstein, and assured MacNeice that morphine had played no part in Dylan’s death. The letter had the desired effect. MacNeice wrote immediately to warn Dylan’s Swansea solicitor that any rumours that Dylan had not been properly looked after should be spiked.
As usual, Brinnin was thinking about money. Just three days after the death, he went to a meeting at Mademoiselle magazine to put the finishing touches to a lucrative article about Dylan. The New York memorial service was held the very next day. Unwilling to lose any money, Brinnin declined to attend because it clashed with one of his teaching engagements.
He also wanted to write a book about Dylan, and he asked Edith Sitwell for advice. She suggested he write two accounts, the one discreet for immediate publication and the other truthful, to be issued after everyone was safely dead and buried. Brinnin duly obliged. Sustained by whisky and benzedrine, he hastily pounded out Dylan Thomas in America.
Published in 1955, it gave the discreet version of how Dylan had died. Brinnin candidly admitted he had placed himself in the best possible light. He made no criticisms of Feltenstein or Reitell, and lied about the two-hour delay in getting Dylan to hospital, claiming that he had been taken there quickly.
Brinnin repeated his falsehood that Dylan had died from alcoholic brain damage. He also made much of Dylan’s boast that he had drunk eighteen whiskies, though he later acknowledged that he knew this was untrue. No wonder one of his colleagues said the book had the scent of fraudulence.
But it was an instant bestseller, and the story that Dylan had drunk himself to death became firmly lodged in the public imagination. Every saloon bar in Britain soon boasted somebody who knew somebody else who had been with Dylan on the night he had drunk himself dead.
Brinnin’s book brought him money, though the writing of it took him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. He was overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, drinking himself into a stupor and falling into fits of uncontrollable weeping. He ended up on an analyst’s couch and then in a hospital, from which he emerged with what he described as a new appreciation and care for people. Unfortunately, it was just a little too late for Dylan.
Eight years later, in 1963, the cover-up looked as if it might fall apart. Constantine FitzGibbon was invited to write Dylan’s authorised biography. He was a former American intelligence officer, with a reputation for winkling out the truth.
A friendly doctor sent him a four-page summary of Dylan’s hospital notes, with details of his chest disease and an account of Feltenstein’s incompetence. This should have been a golden opportunity to dish the alcohol stories but FitzGibbon was persuaded not to write anything that might damage Feltenstein or the hospital.
FitzGibbon buried the doctor’s summary deep in his archive in the university of Texas, and it remained uncited by all of Dylan’s later biographers. By 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the death, the vital information that Dylan had pneumonia and bronchitis before entering hospital, and that Feltenstein had failed to diagnose this, had still not become public.
Nor was it ever revealed, until now, that Brinnin’s desperate need for money, and his demob-happy attitude, had played a crucial part in the neglect that had led to Dylan’s death. So the story of the eighteen whiskies lived on, nurtured by a romantic fantasy that this was a sexy way for a poet to die.
Ironically, just two years after Dylan’s death, Brinnin received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Poetry, and on the twenty-fifth anniversary he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He retired to Florida, whiling away his time playing poker on the beach with Leonard Bernstein. He died in 1998, leaving his own epitaph: “I think I am as well-known as I deserve to be.”
John Brinnin was well-known for many things. Yet somehow, he managed never to be known as the man who helped send a famous poet to an early and avoidable death, and made a lot of money from doing so.