An Oral Biography of Dylan Thomas


 

From our archive, an oral history of the poet’s youth and early years in Wales.

Source: An Oral Biography of Dylan Thomas

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High Street, Swansea, Wales, ca. 1930.

Today is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. Paul Ferris’s “Ink Is Wanted by Raving Brother: Dylan Thomas’s Swansea Years”—an oral history of the poet’s youth and early years in Wales—appeared in our Spring 2004 issue. The excerpt below explores Thomas’s brief, unhappy stint as a reporter.

In 1931, probably after the summer term, Dylan Thomas left school and went to work for the local newspaper, the South Wales Daily Post. He was sixteen years old. The paper was in fact an evening title, part of a London-based chain, and changed its name to Evening Post soon after. Its early editions circulated throughout southwest Wales, but the core readership was in the Swansea area. Local commerce and politics were featured to a degree unheard of in today’s vacuous local tabloids. The editor, J. D. Williams, assumed that his readers (some of them, at least) cared about music, theater, and poetry.

CHARLES FISHER (A lifelong friend of Thomas’s, and a fellow reporter.): His father probably got the job on the paper for him through J. D. Williams, as my father got me mine—he was head machinist there, he ran the rotary press. And since I had some talent for writing simple sentences, it was thought I could become a reporter. No one challenged that idea. I followed Dylan as a reader’s boy, a copyholder, and took that vacancy created when he moved on to be a junior reporter. I copyheld for about six months, then I was promoted to the newsroom. We wrote everything up in a strange, constricting, old-fashioned prose that really belonged to reporting at the start of the century. No one thought of treating news any other way. But our image of ourselves was a Chicago newsroom, the black hat turned down, the knowing look, the cigarette never removed once lit—which was a habit Dylan kept to the end.

ERIC HUGHES (A journalist, older than Thomas, and never very fond of his younger colleague.): I think Dylan was on the Post less than a year. I was a sub-editor, and when you saw his copy, it was appalling, with many lacunae. Nor was he reliable. To my knowledge, he wrote a crit of the Messiah at one of the St. Thomas chapels, to which he didn’t bother to go. Half his time was spent in the David Evans Café where they gave you a free State Express cigarette with your coffee.

CHARLES FISHER: Our journalism was intended to be flattering. One flattered the local grocers, the local tea importer, the local coal merchant. Nothing was done with any intense concentration. It was a very kindly, welcoming town. People realized in those days you had to make due. People weren’t captious. They weren’t critical of the fact that a man had to turn a shirt inside out to get cuffs that were clean on the outside, or that the man who appeared in the evening dress would be carrying his dancing shoes in a paper bag. Swansea at that time was classless. It wasn’t pretending to be democratic, it was indeed democratic. People had no compunction about talking to everyone. It was a very close community.

CHARLES FISHER: Work life blended into social life seamlessly. When you were a young reporter you could go anywhere, like your little grandchild can toddle anywhere without reproof. Dylan had free admission to the cinemas, to the variety shows at the Empire. Heaven knows, I was able to go to enough dinners, free dinners, at the expense of hearing a lot of speeches afterwards. The Oddfellows, the Piscatorial Society. There were Scottish associations and Irish associations. They all had dinners. It was an occasion, the toasts to distinguished visitors, to the king. It was a town where people loved the sounds of their own voices.

April or May 1932. Dylan, then aged seventeen and still at the Evening Post, wrote to Percy Smart from the newsroom. Killay is a rural suburb west of Swansea, Landore an industrial suburb to the east.

[…] For the 1000th time this morning the telephone bell rings. Is this Mr. —? No, this is Joan of Arc. Can’t you hear me sizzling. Is this Mr. —? No he is away at the moment, sprinkling [illegible] over his grandmother, who is a staunch Tory. For the 100th time I hear the noise of the engines, I hear the voices of men I loathe & distrust, I feel them breathe upon my cheek, I am called here, I am called there, there is an accident in Landore, there is a marriage in Killay, there is a newly dug grave in garden & Mother has bought me a razor blade, & razor blade, to cut my throat so early.

For the 100th time I say to myself “I am dying.”

CHARLES FISHER: In the evening when I’d finished I’d go to cafés like the Plaza and Lovell’s, meet people I knew. Dylan would do the same but usually in pubs. Or he was in the Little Theatre, rehearsing for a play. I went to a lot of dances. Not Dylan. He would have felt constrained in a whole evening of dancing. He asked me, I think at the Mermaid Tavern in the Mumbles, “Charles, do you like beer?” I said, “Not really.” “I like it,” he said. “I like the taste of it.” Already that formed how he spent his time.

[…] It was obvious he didn’t relate to the things he was expected to do—calling on the hospital, coroner, fire station, et cetera. No opportunities for Dylan there, though he did write articles for the Herald of Wales, the companion weekly, which were far above the usual standard. He did one series on neglected Welsh poets. Encouraged by J. D. Williams, I should think, the one person who would know he could write. His articles were wittier and better than mine, but the inducement was the same, ten schillings and sixpence. It wasn’t because he was such a bad reporter that he left. We were all bad reporters. I never knew the circumstances. I’m inclined to think they were the same as the circumstances in which he gave up trying to learn mathematics at the Grammar School. He simply stopped attending classes—there was agreement by mutual consent, as it were. His life was bohemian already. He dyed his suit green.

GWEN WATKINS (An author in her own right, and the wife of the other Swansea poet, Vernon Watkins, a close friend of Thomas. Her recollections belong to later years, but she knew his background from Vernon, who died before he could publish his own memoir of his friend.): You cannot overestimate the part that Swansea of the twenties and thirties played with him. With people he knew later, he was amusing, funny, nice, but always this slight anxiety. “Am I performing all right?” He remained the Swansea boy, the provincial. That boy was always there, the one who shocked the girls in the Mumbles when he was fourteen and fifteen by whistling at them and saying, “That’s a pretty pair of knockers.” What he was always looking for was the Swansea gang.

Read more in Issue 169, available for purchase here.

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