Anyone who has followed the extraordinary after-death life of Dylan Thomas must blanch at the thought of another account of his career. We feel, justifiably or not, that we have been drowned in the minutiae of Thomas’s unsatisfactory behavior as social animal until we can hardly see the work for the man. So it says much for George Tremlett’s new biography that although he takes the reader over familiar terrain the book is never dull and is often moving and fresh in its insights and appreciations.
The reason for this is simple: Tremlett has enjoyed Thomas’s work for almost as long as he can remember and regards him as one of the major poets writing in the English language. After a political and writing career in London, Tremlett moved to that part of Wales where Thomas had lived and, helped by the sympathetic interpretation of his own wife, whose family came from the region, achieved a knowledge of Thomas’s background that must be almost unequalled.
In time, Tremlett became the friend of Thomas’s family and in 1986 helped to ghost the book which Caitlin Thomas, the poet’s widow, wrote about herself. This book, in some ways, was the final blow to Dylan Thomas’s reputation as husband and friend, and those biographers who had given Thomas the benefit of the doubt found that they had been upstaged by the widow. In her own words, quoted among the epigraphs, “Dylan was a shit.” That is ex cathedra; one might have thought there was no more to be said.
Yet Tremlett succeeds in convincing that all this mass of hostile material can be spaced, reduced in importance in view of the value of the work, and toned down. To do this, he has to go back to the first major book written about Thomas, John Malcolm Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America and destabilize the text’s authority. He takes the curious story of Brinnin’s relationship with Truman Capote to show by analogy that Brinnin exaggerated his role in Thomas’s life and reported at secondhand things which Thomas was supposed to have done or said. Was Brinnin in love with Thomas as Caitlin believed? Was his book hopelessly inaccurate and self-serving? Tremlett opens up the questions. It is important to his case that Brinnin’s book be seen as a distortion and a piece of cheap sensationalism because the Dylan Thomas legend as drunk, lecher, profligate, and opportunist, is, he claims, based on Brinnin’s witness.
Since then, of course, a shelf of books has added to the Thomas legend and, happily for the reader, Tremlett does not take issue with them except to say that since his and Caitlin’s book they all need revising, which is fair enough.
It is at least an open question whether there is much to salvage from Thomas’s life. At this stage who has the time to keep adding riders about atrocious and sneaky behaviour; the work is what matters and what should interest any serious reader is the way Thomas developed as a poet. The rest of the legend only provides evidence of what a creative person needs to do to defend his impulse and, if you like, enlarge his inspiration. Perfection of the life or of the work? It seems you can rarely have both.
Tremlett is very good on the early formative years and the essential relationship between Dylan Thomas and his father. He is equally strong on the (to the outsider) emotional apartheid that existed between the Welsh-speaking Thomas parents and the Anglicized suburb of Swansea in which they lived. The Thomases came from the Welsh-speaking countryside and returned there as often as they could. Life in their Swansea house was a form of voluntary exile from their real world. Few visitors called, and Dylan Thomas was not encouraged to bring his friends home.
In this strange country-in-town cocoon Thomas was the indulged only son (he had a sister) and was educated in the school where his father taught English. He received his literary education among the thousands of books at home. When Dylan began to write poetry, his father recognized at once the nature of his son’s powers and helped him in every way, even suggesting new words and metaphors.
Thomas was young at the period when interest in the Welsh language and Welsh culture was at a low ebb. Welsh-speaking parents refused to teach their children “yr hen iaith”—the old language—on the grounds that it had no commercial value. The Thomases were no exception, and there is little evidence to prove that Dylan Thomas knew more than a handful of Welsh words or showed any interest in the (Welsh) poetry which an ancestor whose name he bore (Marlais) had written.
Thomas’s relationship to his own country is never consistent In his early letters he nearly always speaks derisively of his native place, but later in life, settled in Laugharne, he wore his house and his town like a second skin.
These pages on Thomas’s Welsh origins and upbringing ought to be read by Hugh Kenner who made some especially fatuous observations on these points in his memorial for British letters A Sinking Island. He suggested Thomas knew nothing of rural Wales. The evidence in Tremlett’s book is that his parents had, in spirit, never left it, and there was no culture shock when Thomas went to stay with relatives on farms in nearby Carmarthenshire. One of his best-known poems, “Fern Hill” was inspired by early memories of such visits.
Tremlett is also very good at placing Thomas within the cultural context of his period, and notes that his genius flowered during what he calls the golden age of radio. In the few years between the end of World War II and the opening up of the British TV service, radio had a profound influence, and Thomas, with his natural storyteller’s voice and range of tone from organ to ham, made a reputation that is still living. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is rebroadcast regularly. It is a classic.
Thomas’s major radio work “Under Milk Wood” is now established as a play for the orthodox theatre, but, in my view, it becomes something else than what Laurence Lerner called “the nearest thing we have to free pastoral” by being presented, as it were, in the flesh. There are many phrases in the play that come over as crude and brutal when spoken by conventional players, and even the limpid children’s songs, composed by Thomas’s old friend, Daniel Jones, lose when performed on the stage. What had been haunting and evocative, like something remembered in old age, becomes merely cute.
Tremlett dwells too long for me on Thomas’s last hours. Was he prescribed the wrong drugs after his collapse in New York? Could he have recovered? Tremlett seems to miss the fact that most dispassionate readers, remembering the catalogue of booze, cigarettes, late nights, punishing schedules and domestic confusion, would marvel that Thomas, never a physically powerful man, survived so long.
Tremlett, wearing another hat, has written many biographies of pop stars, and he sees Thomas as one of the early victims of the 20th-century phenomenon: men and women killed or driven to suicide because of the pressures of too much exposure, too much fame. The Thomases were as innocent as the rest of society. They knew that Dylan’s three first tours of the United States had been sensationally successful and that they brought in much-needed money, but they could not adjust to the phenomenon of being famous and famous in a specifically 20th-century way, where the enthusiasts and the fans treat the performer as the believer treats the sacred wafer in Holy Communion: a symbol of something beyond and above them and of which they have a powerful need. Few men or women can survive that sort of instant deification, and Thomas, although a man of many ruses, lies, and prevarications, succumbed.
After the death, the burial in Laugharne—and the trustees of the estate. In a moment of confusion Caitlin handed over the administration of her husband’s oeuvre to a legally constituted body which has managed the estate ever since—not always the same people, of course. Tremlett has heard much about the alleged iniquities of the trustees from Caitlin but, separately, has formed a poor opinion of them. He never suggests that they have been dishonest. His main charge is that they have been provincial in their judgements.
“Down in Wales, Dylan Thomas is still regarded as a ‘bit of a boyo’ rather than as a literary figure of world importance; they treat him as a useful tool of the tourist trade, quite unaware that he has outgrown them all.”
Tremlett believes the trustees have played down, probably by omission, the full extent of Thomas’s reputation as a world figure whose estate still earns more than $100, 000 a year. He also feels that in choosing Kingsley Amis, the novelist and Dylanophobe, as a trustee there has been a major misjudgment. It is true that Amis has never stopped making cruel, even vicious, attacks on Thomas as man and poet and on his family, so Tremlett has a good point when he wonders how Amis can be bothered to be involved in the affairs of a personality he finds so hateful.
Tremlett is plainly biding his time, for his book hints about sealed lips and facts that demand to be told—but will never be, presumably, while the people involved are still alive and the British libel laws remain what they are. So we can expect an update on this book. In the meantime, I would suggest to the trustees that they start writing their version of events, too.
The book also contains one other curiosity. This arises from the incident in March 1945 when Thomas and his family were living in a wood and asbestos bungalow on the cliffs near New Quay in West Wales. A woman friend, whose husband was serving in the army in Greece, lived nearby. Everybody spent a good deal of time in the local pubs, and when the army officer came home on leave he was plainly outraged that there were people on the home front still having a good time. He created a scene in one of the bars and said, addressing the company at large— which included film-makers from London—”You are nothing but a lot of egoists. You have not seen anything.” Later that evening he attacked the bungalow with a Sten gun and a dud grenade; and, although no one was hurt, he was arrested.
The case went to the local assizes, and Thomas gave evidence—he described the affair in a letter to his friend Vernon Watkins—but the officer was found not guilty and was greeted outside the court by an enthusiastic crowd. There is no doubt that at that period popular sympathy would have been with the serving soldier rather than with the civilians engaged in propaganda work but still having a good time in their free hours. This scary incident brought to an end one of Thomas’s great creative periods.
Since that time, the officer has been protected by biographers and editors. For example, in Paul Ferris’s edition of the letters, Thomas’s account of the incident to Vernon Watkins is censored. The officer’s name is replaced by asterisks. In Caitlin’s 1986 book he is referred to as Drunken Waistcoat. Tremlett maintains the tradition and avoids naming him. He does not say why. No doubt, one of these days, at one of the many conferences devoted to Thomas’s work, someone will give a paper on this subject and the mystery will be revealed. It will surely be more simple than the exegeses of some of Thomas’s more notoriously difficult poems.