My father looked up from his Daily Express and said to my mother, ‘Dylan Thomas is dead.’ Why he announced this and why I took any notice and remember it now, I don’t know. I was only 8 and the name meant nothing to me. I don’t believe my father read any poetry, but back in 1953 Dylan Thomas was about as famous as a contemporary poet could be in the twentieth century.
He died young, at 39, but it is clear from biographies that much of the work for which he became famous was completed or partially drafted before he was 25. His childhood and youth were the source – and subject – of all his work and his account of those extraordinary early years appears in a collection of stories, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, published in 1940. It is still an astonishingly fresh book: a precise, sometimes very funny account of a boy growing up in South Wales during the late 1920s and early 1930s, in prose that is lucid, full of striking images, quick witted dialogue and verbal play, but mercifully free of that over-egged, multi-epitheted style of some of his later broadcasts.
The life it describes, in semi-fictional form, began on 27 October 1914 at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in a newly built four-bedroom villa on the western edge of Swansea. Though others may have seen him as the image of the wild Celtic bard, Dylan Thomas was very much a child of the suburbs. His ancestors on his father’s side included ministers and teachers; on his mother’s small farmers and labourers. He went to a private school, then to Swansea Grammar School, and elocution lessons eradicated all but the faintest trace of a Welsh accent. He left school at 17, served for a brief whileon a local newspaper, and departed Swansea for good at 19.
The stories in the Portrait are arranged in roughly chronological order, but it is the second story in the book, ‘Patricia, Edith, and Arnold’, that presents the youngest Dylan, at the age of 5 or 6, playing in th
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