Swansea Pictorial History
Dylan Thomas - a personal memory.
By W.T. (Bill) Henry
Bill Henry was a reporter with the Daily Post (now the Evening Post) when Dylan Thomas joined as a cub reporter in 1931. These are his memories of a young Dylan, from his early days on the Post, then as an actor with the Swansea Little Theatre, and finally on his "Return Journey" in 1948.
More pictures of Dylan can be found here.
It was in 1953 that Dylan Thomas died, tragically yet spectacularly, in America, during a poetry reading tour of universities and ‘poetry centres’ in America. Dylan had been widely acclaimed by an enthusiastic following in the States. At that time, poetry was on a higher plane there than in this country, so much so that soon after Dylan’s death, a number of literary students, all admirers of his, made a journey to this country in his memory. They came on a sort of pilgrimage for one who had made a definite impact on modern poetry and achieved a world wide reputation during his short life which ended when he was 39.
Swansea, being Dylan’s birthplace, was one of the main places on their itinerary. It was where he had gone to school, got his first job, lived the first 20 years or so of his life and written some of his finest poems.
I came into the picture with these “Pilgrims” because I had been a reporter on the ‘Daily Post,’ now the ‘Evening Post’, when Dylan was first appointed as a junior reporter on the staff in 1931. These pilgrims were particularly interested in his literary development, during these early days on the paper.
These pilgrims came from all parts of the world, but mainly from the U.S.A and then Japan. One asked me whether Dylan had revealed his literary gifts whilst writing his reports. This made me realise that I was the only reporter left in Swansea Town who had been with Dylan on the Post, and if I did not write about it, no one would.
So I started to write not only about Dylan in his early days but also later on his "Return Journey".
DYLAN ON THE ‘POST’
In 1931, Dylan was appointed as a junior reporter on the ‘Post,’ which was printed in Swansea and circulated in South-West Wales. As soon as I saw him in the reporters’ room, I recognised him as a youngster whom I had seen a number of times before, visiting the sub-editors room collecting ‘subbed’ or edited copy and returning with it later in the form of printers’ proofs.
He was small and frail-looking, with a mop of golden- brown wavy hair, the face of a cherub, soft, and with a gentle expression. His voice mirrored the mood of what he was saying, a bawdy story was told in the appropriate language, and some involving the upper class were in a high falutin accent. He was a born mimic.
In Dylan’s story ‘Return Journey’, he describes himself when he was a reporter as:-
"A bombastic adolescent provincial Bohemian, with a thick-knotted artist’s tie made out of his sisters scarf, and a cricket shirt dyed bottle green; a gabbing, ambitious, mock, tough, pretentious young man, and a moley too."
At first, he showed plenty of initiative, and as a ‘sub’ Dylan performed his task without speaking. The Chief Sub -
‘Von-Herschel’ - presided over about half a dozen subs, and allowed no unnecessary talking, so Dylan and I exchanged silent greetings across the room.
We passed an opinion as to how Herschel got the prefix ‘Von’. Besides having a German name, he had fair hair and complexion, clipped speech and military bearing, and was a strict disciplinarian, all of which helped to justify his nickname, though it was never used in front of him.
Dylan was very popular with members of the staff, whom he would frequently join for pre-lunch drinks at the near-by ‘Three Lamps.’ Halves were then the order of the day. Dylan looked so young that some of his colleagues said he was under-age for drinking. It was understood however, that Dylan was 19.
When Dylan arrived in the reporters’ room, the Chief Reporter, Edward Job, a six-foot Cornishman who never smoked, drank, nor swore, took charge of him, and told him he was being marked for ‘calls.’ Job explained what they were, and deputed another reporter to take him around to introduce him. In a few days Dylan was capable of acting on his own and showed diligence in doing his duties. In his initial enthusiasm Dylan took to learning shorthand, which at this time was considered a ‘must’ for the job. He did so having being advised by Charles Fisher who, like Dylan, was a product of Swansea Grammar School.
DYLAN AS A REPORTER
Dylan, whilst working in the Readers’ Room, was considered unsuited to this department since it was required of him to read aloud at speed, the original report, to a senior member who could check them and make any necessary alterations. It was said that he did not read fast enough. Words to Dylan were sacred, not to be garbled or hurried. His conversational voice was in impeccable English, which developed into magnificent delivery, so highly praised in later years. His voice was rich and clear and free from accent, he had what was called a BBC pronunciation. This was due to his father, D. J. Thomas, a Welsh speaking Welshman who had specialised in teaching English, who saw to it that his son was brought up on English only, and versed in the English classics. Dylan once said that his father read Shakespeare to him as a bed time story, when he was four.
It was in line with the tradition of the Post, that a newcomer should be put on calls, as good experience and useful training in the requirements of a paper. Dylan was regarded as an excellent man for the job, for his affability was such that he would be a welcome visitor at places, and people would go out of their way to help him. For calls to be done properly it would take the best part of a morning, since it would involve making personal visits and enquiries at the various municipal offices, police stations and at the various hospitals, institutions, and establishments which all provided information about different occurrences. These would go under the general title of ‘News’ and then following-up enquiries when necessary.
Dylan vividly describes doing ‘Calls’ in ‘Return Journey,’ where he writes about true occurrences that happened to himself, when some of the older reporters were taking the fun out of him at the Three Lamps.
First Reporter: “What have you been reporting today, young Thomas?”
Old Reporter (Cliff Williams): “Let’s have a deco at your notebook.”
‘Called at British Legion ……… Nothing’
‘Called at Hospital ……… One broken leg’
‘Auction at Metropole ……… Ring Mr. Beynon, re-Gymanfa Ganu’
‘Lunch ……… Pie and pasty at the ‘Singleton’ with Mrs. Giles’ (She was the Landlady of the Singleton Pub)
‘Bazaar at Bethesda Chapel’
‘Chimney on fire at Tontine Street’
‘Walters Road Sunday school outing’
‘Rehearsal of the Mikado at Skewen’
“All front page stuff!”
“Two typewriters Thomas. The ace news dick……….”
The notebook was a bit of journalistic licence; I never knew Dylan to carry one. Scraps of paper were quite satisfactory to him.
This gave Dylan a general idea of newspaper work, but it also provided him with early experience in carrying out interviews. This was no problem for Dylan; he had the affability of a successful insurance agent, a wealth of stories, mostly funny, and a fund of entertaining anecdotes. He quickly made friends with people on whom he called, and it was not unknown for one of them to ring up the office with information for Dylan, in case he forgot to call! This was the sort of office Dylan found himself in.
When Dylan first set out on calls, with his refined features he looked more fitted for some academic study, rather than to enter the hurley-burley of the newspaper world. He was not permitted to indulge in any flights of fancy in writing his reports, but was required, as had been all others before him, to write them in a straight-forward style known as ‘journalese.’
Afternoon calls would be on a reduced scale. Dylan found that he could cut down considerably on the man hours involved, by the judicious use of the telephone, which enabled him to spend an hour or so most mornings at the Kardomah café.
The Kardomah, a favourite haunt of literary, social, professional and business people, who formed quite a coterie in Swansea at the time. Some achieved fame in their various fields, in later years.
One day Job made one of his rare appearances at the Kardomah. He was not usually a morning coffee man, and was not one to indulge in small talk, he was far too busy. A cup of tea in the office at 11 a.m., would suit him fine. On the occasion of his visit he returned to the office chuckling (very unusual for him) saying,
“Who do you think I saw in the Kardomah? Thomas.”
“Doing his calls I suppose.”
Some reporters did not like calls, since they preferred specific assignments like meetings. A factor in favour of a newcomer doing calls, was that it was a ‘young man’s’ job, because of the amount of walking involved. It was therefore a welcome surprise when we learned that Dylan had been a champion mile runner at Grammar school sports, and was thus well qualified. The fact he had had a 100 yards start in the race did not matter.
Dylan was encouraged to call at the office, at convenient stages of his round and dispose of any items of news he had picked up, and not wait until he had finished his calls and had accumulated a lot of notes to write up. Job kept an eye on all copy being written, including Dylan’s, in case he could spot a ‘follow-up,’ which meant getting somebody to look into some point revealed in the report. This practice could yield worthwhile results, but these enquiries generally went to someone other that Dylan, in case it would interfere with his calls.
On one occasion Dylan, whilst doing calls, ‘missed’ the death of the matron of Swansea hospital, having called there, which caused a smirk in the office. He had also written a piece for the weekly edition, in which he referred to a local poet, as ‘the late’ and the man in question called into the office to demonstrate the report was wrong.
While laudable in itself, this policy served to restrict Dylan to calls, which produced news that was mainly sombre and categorised by journalists as ‘bread ‘n’ butter stuff.’ Its lack of glamour gave it the lowest rating.
Dylan had started well, but slowly had become indifferent and unreliable. As a reporter, Dylan was a joke, which was not surprising for the job was a joke to him, and it was the only job he ever had. Job never marked him for anything of importance, what he had to do was very ordinary.
On one occasion Dylan had been out on calls and on returning to the office, Job asked Thomas if he had anything to report. Dylan thumbed through his notebook and informed Job that he “had been down to the Police Station and was informed that a milk float being pulled by a horse ended up in the window of a house in Oak St. The milkman, a Mr. Rhys. W Phillips, was only slightly injured whilst the milk float was badly damaged. The horse was put down.”
Dylan carries on saying that he had been down to the Port Authority where the Port Manager, who was very excited, informed him that they had found nine stowaways on board the SS Treherbet bringing grain from Australia.
Job passes this information on to Chief Reporter Cliff Williams, who leaves at once to go down to the docks.
The office carries on as usual when a little while latter Cliff Williams enters the office red in the face, very excited and shouts “STOP PRESS...STOP PRESS”. The office comes to a standstill; Job appears from his office, asking Williams “what have you got?”. Cliff very excitedly says that the lead he had from young Thomas about the nine stowaways was accurate - but they were all Welsh. It seems that they were stowaways from Australia. They had left Cardiff 3 years earlier to find work in Australia, they had used up all their money and could not find work and decided to return home - but the only way was to stow away.
DYLAN AND SWANSEA LITTLE THEATRE
Dylan’s sister Nancy was a member of the ‘Swansea Little Theatre,’ so Dylan, who had acted in some of the school plays, also joined. The Theatre was then at Southend, Mumbles, and run by a band of enthusiastic amateurs, who staged several plays each year.
Also in the group was Eric Hughes, a sub-editor on the ‘Post’, and a leading light in the Little Theatre. In 1929 Dylan played the part of Edward Stanton in "Abraham Lincoln" and in 1931 took the lead in Goldsworthy's “Strife”.
Dylan was a very enthusiastic member, and became very engrossed in the character he portrayed. In 1932 he appeared in Noel Cowards “Hay Fever” as Simon Bliss, followed by playing Count Bellair in the “Beaux Startagem”.
On one occasion in 1933, when he and Eric Hughes took the leading roles in H. F. Rubinstein’s ‘Peter and Paul,’ the papers editor Mr. J. D. Williams, attended the play as the paper’s drama critic, and wrote:
“One will not detract a tiny bit from the merits of Eric Hughes and Dylan Thomas, save to say that the latter might, with advantage, tone down a little of his acting in the first act.’However the Mumbles Press reported that “Dylan Thomas and Eric Hughes came through with flying colours. The Little Theatre is fortunate indeed to posess two very capable young men.”
In June 1934 Thomas was playing Witwood in "The Way of the World", giving a most impressive performance in the view of the theatre critics.
His last big part was that of Julian in Bernard’s "Martine", though he did not get as far as the first performance. During rehearsals it was custom for the younger men and women when not wanted on stage to nip out to the nearby hostelry “Chesse” for refreshments and when wanted on stage someone would be sent post haste to fetch them from the bar. Dylan on one night got into trouble at the little theatre rehearsals. When his cue was given, there was no answer. Dylan had stayed across the road to have one - and stayed - and did not go back to the theatre ever again.
Later he did consent to play The Kings Groom in "Richard II', but he did not turn up and the part was cut.
Eric Hughes, who was Dylan’s senior by about nine years, was one of the leading players with the theatre group, and his accomplished performances of many difficult roles gained him prestige among his colleagues. A close friend of Eric’s in the pre-war years was Jimmy McElroy, who can claim the distinction of having knocked Dylan down. Although some years older, he was no bigger than Dylan, and when Dylan insulted a third party, to which Jimmy took strong exception, he just clouted him once, and Dylan ended up on the floor.
The other occasion that I heard of when Dylan was knocked down, was in a dance in Laugharne. Here again, Dylan said something that caused one of the guests to give him a hefty punch on the jaw. According to Jack Jenkins who heard Dylan’s account of the incident – Dylan was proud rather than ashamed of it. He said afterwards
“I felt myself falling backwards and sliding along the floor, came to a stop flat on my back, but with my head propped up at 90 degrees against a partition. My first instinct was to get up and knock the man down. When I realised how big he was, only my iron will kept me down.”
A further fight that Dylan relates to is in his short story ‘The Fight,’ which was one of a number he wrote in the late 1930’s, when as a struggling poet in London, trying to earn some much needed money.
He describes the bout of fisticuffs between himself and another boy at school, in the lower yard, which resulted in a black eye of which he seems inordinately proud. He continues:
“On the road, a boy from an inferior school, where the boys did not have to pay anything, called me … ‘One Eye,’ in a harsh adult voice.”
Thus, Dylan not only reveals himself as a fee paying pupil, but he is proud of it, and glorifies the system at the expense of the free school which he calls ‘inferior.’
Dylan’s opponent in the fight was Daniel Jones, who subsequently became his best friend, and became a well-known musician and a professional composer of note. He was known in his circle as ‘Dr. Dan.’
A sentence in ‘The Fight’ refers to Dylan’s appearance in the class soon after the scrap. In it he states:
“The mathematics master said to the class, “I see that Mr. Thomas at the back of the class has been straining his eyesight, but it isn’t over his homework, is it, gentlemen?”
- indicating even then that he was poor at maths.
Dylan did not go to council primary school. He went to a sort of kindergarten school in a house in Mirador Crescent, run by a Mrs. Hole. He stayed there until he went to the grammar school at the age of 11. The children were looked after rather than prepared for any examinations, and Dylan is said to say that one of his subjects there was raffia work.
AN EARLY POET
Whilst on the ‘Post’ Dylan’s fame as a poet was not appreciated by myself or the other reporters. Poetry did not mean much to the general reporter, the ‘Daffodils’ or the ‘Brook’ being about as much as most of us knew. It was said that Dylan had written poems whilst at school and they had been published in the school magazine - of which he was editor. Cliff Williams commented:
“It’s a poor editor who can’t get his own stuff published.”
At no time did Dylan flaunt his poetry prowess on his colleagues (except for telling them he had been paid 10/- for a poem submitted to the Herald, when he was 10).
What was not realised was that while Dylan was on the paper, he was composing poetry destined to achieve fame when published in later years. His early writing, which included the few years following his departure from the ‘Post,’ was notable for some of his finest works and resulted in his being recognised by Edith Sitwell in 1939, from her Book of Poems of 1935. She wrote of him:
“I could not name one of his generation who shows so great a promise, and even so great an achievement.”
Two of his earlier poems, one written whilst in the 3rd form, and one published in the ‘Daily Post’, are as follows:
THE SOUND OF THE MISCHIEVIOUS DOG
There are many who say that a dog has its day,
And a cat has a number of lives;
There are others who think that a lobster is pink, and the bees never work in their hives.
There are fewer of course, who insist that a horse has a horn, and two humps on its head …….
(3A Swansea Grammar School)
Nobody cared a bit folks said
When the wicked old man at the gate lay dead.
He hath no kith and he has no kin.
And nobody cared his love to win;
Nobody thought of him kindly.
None for many a cruel, thing he’d done,
And many a bitter and angry word,
From those thin lips the neighbours heard.
He lived alone and died alone,
With never a friend he could call his own.
(D M. Thomas, Western Daily Post 1927)
DYLAN’S RETURN JOURNEY AND AMERICA.
During 1948, Dylan phoned me up saying he had been asked to do a broadcast, based on him making a return visit to Swansea after the war and his recollections of it before The Blitz, and ask me if I could get for him the names of all the bombed establishments.
I could have made a fair recollection of the old pre-blitz town; it was a favourite topic of conversation at the time.
However, to make sure the facts were right, I met Dylan at the Station and together we walked through the devastated area, with snow lying heavily on the ground, and on down to the Guild Hall.
Standing amidst the devastation was the Evening Post building where Dylan had worked as a junior reporter. It had sustained only minor damage from the blitz as a result of a team of fire watchers on the roof, who had dealt with incendiary bombs said to be falling like hailstones while premises all around were going up in flames. The main street that Dylan knew so well and had walked daily in quests of Press information and releases, his old Grammar School, The Three Lamps, The Kardomah were no more and had become a series of mountains of debris.
Mr T B Bowen, the then town clerk at the Guild Hall, was pleased to meet Dylan, who I introduced as “The Poet”. Allowing the conversation to go on, I proceeded to copy out the list that Dylan wanted. It involved about half a dozen streets and took little time.
By the time I finished it was getting on for lunch, so Dylan and Mr Morgan bade each other goodbye and off we went. I accompanied Dylan on his next port of call which proved to be The Bush in High Street, where he met a number of his friends who had heard of his visit.
In his short story “Return Journey”, which he narrated in the BBC studio on Alexandra Road, Swansea, he mentions some of his old colleagues on the Post who used to meet in the pub called "The Three Lamps":
“And into Temple St. There the Three Lamps had stood, old Mac Magisterial in his corner and there the young Thomas who I was searching for used to stand at the counter on Friday pay night with Freddie Farr Half Hook, Bill Latham, Cliff Williams, Gareth Hughes, Eric Hughes, Glyn Lowery. A man among men, in that snug, smug, select Edwardian holy of best bitter holies.”
On recalling the “Kardomah days” he said:
“I wasn’t a reporter then, I just left the Grammar School. Me and Charlie Fisher, Tom Warner and Freddie James, drinking coffee dashes and arguing the toss.”
A very good friend of Dylan’s was Ralph “the books” Wishart, a well known book seller in Alexandra Road. It was always a port of call for Dylan both as a reporter and poet. Dylan kept in touch with Ralph after leaving The Post and going to London to become what he called a “Fleet Street freelance”. Ralph would always give him generous payments for the books which had been sent to him for the purpose of the review.
Dylan enjoyed watching cricket at St Helen’s, he would turn up to watch them and call at Ralphs on the way. Ralph says that Dylan spent much time in the shop sitting in the corner doodling with words and odd bits of paper or a cricket programme, with his friend, the composer Daniel Jones. They would reverse, transpose and do all sorts of tricks with the words. That was how they discovered “Llareggub” (bugger all) which become the setting for his famous play “Under Milk Wood”. After the initial performance the name was changed to “Llaragyb”.
Under Milk Wood was to be Dylan’s last work. It had its first production at the Lyric Cinema, Carmarthen on 8th October 1953. It was said Dylan gave a supreme virtuoso performance. He then travelled up to London, and on the 19th October, flew out to America.
There was no money to be made in poetry in this country, so he made his poetry reading visits to the States, it appeared to him as his El Dorado, and he made four visits, taking his wife Caitlin with him on one occasion, but each time he came back penniless.
Dylan was riding high; it was known Jimmy Carter, (later President Carter), was one of his fans. Dylan’s name had been linked with that of the composer Stravinsky, for whom he was to write the libretto for an opera for which there had already been a preliminary meeting in Boston. The road ahead leading to stardom was clear.
News of his illness reached us in Swansea, but no one was able to find out what was going on. However Dylan’s best friend, the composer, overcame the problem and he recalls this difficulty in getting hold of something definite from America. He writes:
“In the meantime, the news of Dylan’s condition continued to be vague. I sought the help of a journalistic friend, Jack Jenkins, whom I asked to telephone Dr Gutierrez Mahoney in the States on my behalf; I did this because I was unused to transatlantic calls, whilst he was accustomed to them....Jack acted as a kind of interpreter during this three sided conversation. It remained unsatisfactory until I mentioned Dylan’s drinking habits. The doctor had been hedging up to this point but now his attitude changed completely and when Jack put down the receiver he was able to give me the first solid piece of information”.
It was at this moment, when financial success beckoned, that he was struck down. Thomas, the poet, died tragically yet spectacularly in hospital in New York, aged only 39, during a poetry reading tour of universities and poetry “centres”.
He had been widely acclaimed by enthusiastic Americans, poetry being on a higher plane there than in this country, so much so that soon after his death a number of literary students, all admirers of his, made a journey to this country in his memory.
They made a sort of pilgrimage, for one who had made a definite impact on modern poetry and achieved a worldwide reputation during his short life. Everyone seemed to know what he was like in later life. The local press, sharing lurid details about his habits - drinking, carousing, writing begging letters as features of his bohemianism - while simultaneously praising him as a modern poet who would shut himself away from temptation in a garden shed and agonise over poetic lines, had seen to that.The pilgrims sought out Dylan's friends and former colleagues among the reporters on the local newspaper. The lack of information about his adolescent background and a desire to see people and places associated with him was their raison d'etre . Carefully researched biographies had then not been written and they wished to see things for themselves, some 20 years after the poet had left town.
Publicity followed through the English speaking world portraying the Poet, warts and all.
An ironic result of the publicity was that it aroused a new interest in his works, and a number of his earlier writings, practically all short stories, were reissued. This resulted in more royalties being paid into his estate than he had ever earned in his lifetime. From all over the world, followers of Dylan descended on Swansea, his birthplace, where he had gone to school, got his first job, lived his first twenty years or so of his life, and written poems, some of which were the finest he had ever written, even having the first published in the “Herald of Wales” when he was only twelve.
At this stage they also descended on me, seeking information on Dylan’s early days. I advised them to go and visit Dylan’s childhood haunts, which he had so well described in his short stories “Return Journey”, “Old Garbo”, “Just Like Little Dogs”, and “Reminiscences of Childhood”. I told them to go and visit these places him so described, to take his poems and stories with them and to read his portrayals of these places at the same time.
With commendable zeal they visited the house where he was born, to visit his kindergarten school, a private house in Mirador Crescent, Uplands, ran by Mrs. Hole. Amongst the pupils of the time was Miss. Margot Meager of Sketty, who recalled to the “Pilgrims” that Dylan as a boy “had a mop of curly hair that all the girls were jealous of” and that he could scoff the pastry faster than anyone else.
They visited the grammar school he had attended, which had been badly bombed during the war, the B.B.C. studio in Alexander road, the little Theatre, where he had bestrode the stage.
They visited Cwmdonkin Park where Dylan walked, talked and played, and as he wrote:
“And that park grew up with me as I discovered new refuges and ambushes in its miniature woods and jungles, hidden homes...for cowboys and Indians, and most sinister of all, for the race of the Mormons...”
Cwmdonkin Park also inspired him to write the poem “Hunchback in the Park”.
They also visited the sea front where he
“Used to doddle on half holidays along the bent and Devon facing seashore. Hoping for a corpse or gold watches or the skull of a sheep or a message in a bottle....”
Then there were places to see in Gower and Carmarthenshire to which reference had been made in some of Dylan’s early stories.
I also advised them to visit Ralph “the Books”. One of the “Pilgrims” who visited Ralph was an Italian writer, who asked Ralph if he had any correspondence or letters of Dylan’s. Ralph gave him a letter Dylan had written to him which he had just come across. Ralph's recollection of the letter was that it was a reply to Ralph’s letter in which he had called Dylan a “dirty dog” for not repaying the five pounds which he had lent him. In this letter Dylan proffered innumerable excuses and assured Ralph he would pay him next time he saw him...which he never did.
Ralph thought no more about the letter he had given the Italian but in due course he received a copy of a book from Italy which included Dylan’s letter.
They had better luck at the Old Boat House at Laugharne, for a considerable amount of preparatory work carried out by the poet was found there - exercise books full of poems, some completed, work sheets, outlines of projected work and also specimens of his doodling.
I finally mentioned to them that one of his works, very close to his heart, in praise of beer, was emblazoned on the tiled wall of a renovated pub. The quotation is from “Old Garbo” and reads:
“I liked the taste of beer. Its live, white lather, its brass right depth, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam on the corners.”Dylan probably wrote this among his early stories in 1932 when he was 18. Was there ever such a tribute to beer written by one so young? The very beer which eventually had such an effect on him?
And finally, a tribute from Igor Stravinsky: