As the U.K. prepares for the centennial celebration of the LEGENDARY POET, a fan pays tribute with a visit to Thomas’ homeland.
During the Dylan Thomas Prize award dinner in November, I found myself sitting next to Hannah Ellis, his granddaughter. For someone who first discovered Thomas’ wordplay in high school, that was one of those “Why me?” moments. There I sat, two generations removed from one of the 20th century’s finest writers. To a bibliophile, conversing with Hannah was akin to a music lover asking Sean Lennon to please pass the salt.
For me, a writer with media-maven social credentials, Dylan Thomas occupies a rare double, as writing in the bucolic setting of Laugharne in Wales and tossing wit freely in the Browns Hotel pub at night is my idea of heaven. The city of Swansea celebrates its native son annually with the Dylan Thomas Festival, and 2014 marks the centennial of Thomas’ birth. The festival celebrating that milestone begins on Oct. 27, the poet’s birthday, and continues until Nov. 9, the date of his untimely death at a mere 39 years of age.
Unfairly known for his time in the pubs more than for his craft with the pen, Thomas wrote poetry that provides a perfect primer for me as I set out to tour Wales, this verdant country of castles and dragons, as my way to honor him in preparation for the centennial celebration. Thomas actually died in New York City during his fourth tour of America, where he was accorded rock-star status before there were rock stars. His sold-out tours featured recitations of his greatest hits, Under Milk Wood and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” among others, while filling gossip columns with outlandish tales of his eruptive lifestyle.
I schedule two days in Swansea in order to “begin at the beginning,” as Thomas writes in the opening of Under Milk Wood. Set against the expansive Swansea Bay, the birthplace the young poet described as a “lovely, ugly town,” is a dichotomy between gritty industrial port and bourgeois neighborhoods where a small child could walk to school and play unsupervised in the local park.
Though lacking Cardiff’s aesthetic charms, lovely Swansea trumps the ugly these days, a beneficiary of thoughtful reconstruction after German bombs leveled the city during World War II. The 5-mile Swansea Prom, lined with maritime-themed sculptures, parallels Swansea Bay’s broad, sandy swath, where men still stoop to extract bloodworms and families come to sun and swim. The Thomas family also spent many summer days here when Dylan’s father — a curmudgeonly schoolmaster at Swansea Grammar School named D.J. Thomas — took his summer holidays.