Born in Uplands, Swansea
Famed the world over for his prose and outrageous drunken behaviour, Dylan Thomas is the better known of Swansea's 'Kardomah Boys'. The Kardomah Cafe of prewar Castle Street in Swansea, became the rendezvous for a group of young talented artists/writers during the early 1930's. Among their number were Dylan Thomas, the composers Daniel Jones and Thomas Warner, the artists Fred Janes and Mervyn Levy, broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, fellow poet Vernon Watkins and writers John Prichard and Charles Fisher. Over coffee, this circle of artists and writers enthusiastically discussed and argued the virtues of art and the modern media.
Dylan Thomas was born on October 27, 1914, at his parents semi-detached house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in the Uplands area of Swansea. The house, which was also built in 1914, faced a playing field and the nearby Cwmdonkin Park, where young Dylan would play with his friends. Cwmdonkin Park was to feature in Dylan's poems 'Cwmdonkin' and 'The Hunchback in the Park'.
Dylan's early boyhood experiences, however, were often confined to his bed as his lungs were very weak and it was here that Dylan gained an appetite for reading from his father's impressive collection of books. Dylan's father had also wanted to be a poet but instead became senior English master at Swansea Grammar School where, from the age of ten, Dylan was allowed to study English and not much besides. The original building of Swansea Grammar School now forms a part of Swansea Institute of Higher Education on the right side of the steep hill towards Townhill at Mount Pleasant.
When he left school at the age of sixteen, with no qualifications except English, Dylan was given a job at the South Wales Daily Post. Here, he was a proof-reader for 15 months before he was promoted as Junior Reporter. Finding his job both tedious and boring, he paid little diligence to his reports of local news and events, instead creating time for his other interests.
During this period of his life, he would often be found frequenting the many pubs along Wind Street, such as the No Sign Bar (the oldest pub in Swansea) and the Singleton Hotel. It was during this time that Dylan developed a serious drinking habit which was to control much of his life.
Many of Dylan's other favourite watering-holes have long since disappeared, either due to the war as in the case of The Three Lamps of Temple Street, or change; the Number 10 of Union Street is now a health food shop. The Bush Inn on High Street looks very different from Dylan's day; it closed a few years back and is currently a gay bar called Bar Creation.
Dylan's short career as a reporter ended in December 1932; he then joined the amateur dramatics group Swansea's Little Theatre, situated conveniently between two pubs, the Antelope and the Mermaid, in Mumbles. During this time he learned how to project his voice, which he later employed in his radio broadcasting work for the BBC and also gained him a certain notoriety at social functions where he rowdily became centre of attention. Today, Swansea's Little Theatre has relocated to the Dylan Thomas Theatre in Swansea's Maritime Quarter.
During this time, Dylan had also been experimenting with poetry, which he jotted down in notebooks. But it was not until he later joined a local writers' circle that he was encouraged to develop his poetry for publication. Between 1933 and 1935, seven of Dylan's poems were published by Victor Neuberg for the 'Poets Corner' of the London Sunday Referee. Dylan's new career had begun and it was not long before the bright lights of London beckoned him. 1934 saw Dylan move to the capital with his Kardomah Cafe contemporary Fred Janes. However, London only fuelled his excesses rather than inspired his writing:
When I do come to town, bang go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and clothes over the doorsteps and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London.
- D.Thomas, 1936.
It was during this time that Dylan met Caitlin Macnamara and entered into an affair with her which eventually led her to leave her older partner, the painter Augustus John, to marry Dylan the following summer. The couple briefly stayed in Swansea, but Dylan's mother disapproved of his wife, so they moved to Caitlin's mother's house in Hampshire before finally settling in Laugharne. Mounting debts saw them struggle financially with the birth of their first child, Llewelyn, and the couple would regularly drown their worries together in the local pub.
World War II broke out in 1939, to Dylan's dismay. The idea of fighting horrified the poet and he sought many ways to escape his conscription, to the point of considering registering himself as a conscientious objector. As it transpired, Dylan escaped the draft when he was diagnosed with acute asthma by army medical examiners, his weak boyhood lungs no doubt worsened by his habitual smoking since the age of 11. During the war years, Dylan gained employment by commuting to London where he wrote documentary scripts and provided voice-overs for the film company 'Strand Films'. His poetry again suffered with the distractions of London, but by the end of the war he and his family moved to the small Welsh seaside town of New Quay, which became the inspiration for his novel 'Under Milk Wood'.
The years following the war saw a period where Dylan strived to emigrate to America. Symptomatic of a lifetime seeing the grass greener elsewhere, his departure from Swansea, "a dingy hell", for the freedom of London only highlighted his fondness for this "ugly, lovely town". The war had left Swansea a mere shell of its former self and this undoubtedly upset Dylan. After the raids of Swansea's "Three Nights Blitz" he surveyed the still-smoking town centre with his literary friend Bert Trick and proclaimed, clearly distressed, "Our Swansea is dead". His nostalgia for the town he had turned his back on was later explored in his auto-biographical short story "Return Journey". In 1990, this tale was made into a film directed by Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Although Dylan was becoming increasingly well-known for his poetry and frequent BBC broadcasts, he never seemed to earn enough money to support his family, or pay his crippling debt to Her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes - who had discovered by 1948 that Dylan had never made a single tax return. Looking, as always, for a place for him and his family to settle, it is rumoured that Dylan had considered renting the Old Rectory house at Rhossili, but due to financial pressure he finally accepted the gift of the Boat House at Laugharne from his friend Margaret Taylor.
Dylan's first trip to America was fuelled by the invitation of Irish poet and critic John Malcolm Brinnin to give lectures on poetry. The tour was a success but Dylan again succumbed to the heady world of liquor and women. Whilst in New York he met a woman with whom he entered a year long affair. Dylan's wife, Caitlin, though discovering the affair, saw her marriage through to the bitter end, but the trust was never to return to their relationship. The following years saw a repeat of this scenario. Dylan toured America, drinking himself into oblivion, made a social spectacle of himself and pursued women until he was forced to return to Laugharne to recuperate. His health was becoming increasingly undermined and the trips to the US were certainly not helping. Unfortunately, Dylan's debts forced him to take advantage of the money he could earn touring. Dylan's final stay in Swansea was in October 1953, where he resided at The Bush Inn. From here, he traveled to London and then to America to direct the rehearsals for an enlarged version of 'Under Milk Wood'. During this visit he suffered terrible blackouts and trembling episodes caused by the damage to his body by alcohol. After a final drinking binge on the night of 3 November, in the New York's tavern The White Horse, Dylan fell into a coma which was to end his life on 9 November. Caitlin returned his body to Laugharne where he was laid to rest.
Despite Dylan's often shady life, he was also a great man and arguably Wales finest poet and author - a man whose literary stature in the world seems to increase with each passing year. To honour Dylan, Swansea has kept the poet's memory alive outside of his books with a plethora of statues and commemorative works and even a entire centre devoted to him - The Dylan Thomas Centre in Somerset Place Swansea.