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On the Randy Again

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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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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 the back yard and eavesdropping on the family’s maid (even fairly modest but respectable households kept a maid or ‘girl’ in the 1920s). Patricia is talking over the garden wall to Edith, her counterpart next door:

He heard Patricia say: ‘Mrs T. won’t be back till six.’

And Edith next door replied: ‘Old Mrs L. has gone to Neath to look for Mr Robert.’

‘He’s on the randy again,’ Patricia whispered.

‘Randy, sandy, bandy,’ cried the boy out of the coal-hole.

‘You get your face dirty, I’ll kill you’, Patricia said absentmindedly.

This ‘Dylan’ is the curly-headed angelic little boy of the early photographs, clearly spoilt and adored by Patricia. She takes him with her on an outing with Edith. The boy doesn’t understand what they are all doing in the snow-filled local park, but the two girls have come to meet a young man, Arnold. They have just realized that Arnold has been writing love letters to them both and taking each one out on her day off. They sit in the bandstand while Dylan plays in the snow, but all the time he is listening and watching; ‘He notices everything,’ Patricia whispers warningly to Edith. They compare Arnold’s letters:

‘He told me that too,’ she said, ‘that I was his star.’

‘Did he begin: “Dear Heart?”’

‘Always: “Dear Heart.”’

Edith broke into real loud tears. With a snowball in his hand, he watched her sway on the seat and hide her face in Patricia’s snowy coat. Patricia said, patting and calming Edith, rocking her head: ‘I’ll give him a piece of my mind when he comes!’ When who comes? He threw the snowball high into the silently driving fall . . .
Inevitably when Arnold does arrive both girls tear into him and both reject him. When they get home, Dylan’s frozen hands hurt in front of the fire, and Patricia comforts him, ending the story with ‘Now we’ve all had a good cry today.’ No ordinary little boy this, then, and growing in complexity and knowingness in ‘The Peaches’, which shows Dylan at 11 or 12. He has come to stay at Gorsehill, the farmhouse of his Uncle Jim and Aunt Annie. The story opens with Dylan in the back of a horse-drawn cart left in an alley between two pubs. Uncle Jim has gone into The Pure Drop. He will, he assures the boy, only be two minutes. Dylan looks, fascinated, through the windows of both pubs at the drinkers. The next morning he explores the farm with his older cousin, Gwilym, girl-mad and obsessed with religion. But Dylan is expecting a friend from town, Jack, son of rich Mrs Williams. They arrive in a Daimler in the afternoon; Mrs Williams refuses the proffered tea and tinned peaches. Jack and Dylan have a high old time that day. Hiding from Gwilym, Dylan recalls, ‘my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent . . . the blood racing, the memory around and within flying, jumping, swimming and waiting to pounce. There, playing Indians in the evening, I was aware of me myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventures and my name.’ ‘The Fight’ finds Dylan, nearly 15 now, striking up a friendship with another boy, Dan Jenkyn (literally so – they begin their friendship with a fight, like Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations); while a new and disturbing element of girls and sex is introduced in ‘Just Like Little Dogs’ which tells of an odd meeting at night, when a lonely Dylan is standing under a railway arch, sheltering from the rain. Dylan, who later gained a reputation as an inveterate if not always competent womanizer, is shown as the shy outsider with girls, both in this story and when, in ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, he meets a girl on a trip to the seaside, only to have her stolen away by an older and bigger boy. But he is still very young, though leaving boyhood behind, in ‘Who Do You Wish Was with Us’. This again concerns a trip to the sea: a hike with Ray, a friend who is ten years older and whose parents and brother are dead. It is a ghost story in a way: while Dylan wishes that all the most comic or grotesque people he knows were with them, Ray can only wish for his dead brother. Death and maturity seem linked in Dylan Thomas’s mind. Heonce said that the only thing worse than an unhappy childhood was a too-happy one. In the last two stories of the book he enters the adult world, and it is not as forgiving to the young man as it was to the charming child. ‘Old Garbo’ introduces the element in Dylan’s life which made him famous to those who never read his poems – drink – and the final story, ‘One Warm Saturday’, is a farewell to his youth and the city in which he has spent it. Soon he is off to London and into a world of endless drink, unpaid debts, clumsy brawls and messy affairs, all of which went to create a legendary figure that friends from his youth could barely recognize. The end of his life was dreadful. A man in increasingly desperate financial straits, whose drinking had become uncontrollable, a normally robust man whose health had begun to give out, a poet whose work seemed to have reached a creative height from which it could only decline in the coming years, his death cut him away at one stroke from all of this and sent the tubby, unruly little man into immortality. Perhaps he got out just in time. One can hardly dare sketch a picture of possible later life for him without a sense of awful foreboding. The bad behaviour, the young doggery that had been amusing in a young man would have been ludicrous and pathetic in later years. An increasingly corpulent and balding Dylan Thomas sagging drunkenly in the corner of the pub would have become an object of pity, if not outright derision. The closest we can come to the charming and talented young man who showed such enormous promise is preserved in the little book of stories he called, half-mockingly, his ‘autobiography’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © William Palmer 2011


About the contributor

William Palmer is a novelist and poet. He has recently completed a study of alcohol and its effect on writers and their work entitled Under the Influence. He reviews regularly for the Independent.

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