Heritage: Hard drinking poet Dylan Thomas and the ‘house of horror’ years in Camden Town
- Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts Photo Library
In the latest of our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin delves into the booze-fuelled world of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who lived in a ‘house or horror’ in Camden Town
The campaign to install a memorial plaque to Dylan Thomas at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey began after an unlikely admirer, former US President Jimmy Carter, expressed his surprise that one didn’t already exist.
During the Second World War Thomas worked for the Ministry of Information, at Senate House – one of London’s only skyscrapers – which also employed the writers John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. He described it as a place “for all the shysters in London... all the half poets, the boiled newspaper men... trying to find a safe niche”. The building inspired Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Richard Burton also read Thomas’ poems, most famously Under Milk Wood, for recordings and called him “brilliant but uncomfortable... Only Dylan could read his own stuff”. A young Kingsley Amis was an audience member when the Welshman gave a masterclass in poetry reading.
Dame Edith Sitwell arranged a travelling scholarship and recommended Thomas seek inspiration in Italy. On one occasion when he had been drinking and talking freely for some time, he suddenly stopped and said, “Somebody’s boring me”. He continued, “I think it’s me” – which supported Sitwell’s claim that, “Everybody is somebody’s bore”.
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Wavy-haired, luminous eyed and with something of an angelic yet round face, Dylan Marlais Thomas (1914–1953), poet, was born on the eve of the First World War on October 27, at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea. His father, Jack, the son of a railwayman, was an intelligent bilingual and English was seen as the language of progress. Jack attained a first-class honours degree at University College, Aberystwyth, in English, and went on to teach at a local Swansea grammar school.
From an early age Dylan was being taught English prosody. His mother, Florence, preserved an early example of Thomas’s poetry where he rhymed “real” with “steel”. Jack annotated the manuscript, noting, “Real is two syllables and cannot rhyme with steel”.
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There were also Celtic influences and Jack named his son after a character in the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales. The forename, Dylan, was coined by his father and means “son of the sea”. It’s actually pronounced “Dullan” but as an adult Thomas preferred “Dillan”.
The family lived in the genteel suburb of Uplands, about a mile west of the city centre. Thomas had an outspoken older sister, Nancy Marles (1906–1953), who outshone him at first and many of his fictional scenes and characters were derived from his childhood.
Thomas attended the school his father taught at but was undistinguished as a pupil. He did, however, edit the school magazine and in 1931, aged 16, he left full-time education. His first job was at a local evening newspaper where he wrote on literary topics whenever possible. The autobiographical stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, especially admired by Kingsley Amis, reveal a self-conscious transition from shy child to tormented adolescent, “a would-be provincial rebel hoping that drunkenness and loud shirts would shock his elders”.
By this stage Thomas was already pursuing poetry and in a serious manner.
Thomas first visited London in 1932 and, apparently, whilst at the British Museum began waxing lyrical over a piece of “abstract sculpture” only to be told it was a meteorite. Years later on being invited to the War Museum he commented to his friend and countryman, the actor, Richard Burton (1925–1984), “that museums ought to be put into museums and I can’t think of anything more boring”.
In 1933 Thomas’ short career as a journalist ended. He continued to live at home, in Wales, unemployed but constantly writing, filling notebook after notebook. Half the 90 published poems by which he is known were written during these early years.
Later in 1934 his work appeared in a BBC journal which T S Eliot and Stephen Spender saw. They wrote to Thomas and helped publish his first work, Eighteen Poems. Thomas moved to London around this time but, as one biographer explains, he was “a commuter – writing in Wales and travelling up to London to drink”.
Sometime in 1935 Thomas was invited to a party, by George Orwell’s school-day contemporary, the critic Cyril Connolly. At the party Thomas talked “smut” and met the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who later wrote of how a friend had commented on their similar physical appearances.
Later, during the Second World War, on hearing of Thomas’s attempts to raise money from wealthy benefactors, Waugh’s elder brother, the writer, Alec, commented that Dylan should “write more stories and fewer letters”, to which Thomas suggested tartly that Alec “write fewer stories and more letters”.
In 1936, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara (1913–1994). She was a “fiery woman with artistic tastes”. From the moment they met at a pub in London, drink was the most conspicuous part of their lives. She later wrote, “The bar was our altar” and “we belonged...to the Greats, whose solemn duty was to surfeit ourselves limitlessly with drink”. The couple were married in 1937, had various infidelities and the relationship was “passionate, stormy and dysfunctional”.
Thomas wrote that London was “promiscuity, booze, coloured shirts, too much talk, too little work”.
Thomas and Caitlin lived at number 54 Delancey Street, Camden Town, with their three children, in a three-room basement flat from about October 1951 until their departure for a lecture tour in America in January 1952. In December 1951 Thomas wrote of “our new London house or horror on bus and night lorry route and opposite railway bridge and shunting station”.
By this stage Thomas was recognised not only as a poet but for his dramatic readings for BBC Radio. The writer Kingsley Amis described his voice as a “clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice”.
Earlier in 1951 Thomas accepted an invitation to give a talk to the students of the English Society of the University of Swansea where the young Amis was teaching. Amis congratulated himself on buying Thomas a beer and witnessed an outstanding reading, which was “magnificent and the silence of the room was absolute”. Thomas wrote: “Poetry I like to think of it as statements made on the way to the grave.”
He died of alcohol-related illness whilst in New York in 1953.
Back in Camden the poet’s daughter, Aeronwy (born 1943), recalled that number 54 Delancey Street was “decorated throughout... in a riot of chintz, a real floral cornucopia”. Their landlady was Thomas’s friend and patron Margaret Taylor, wife of the historian A J P Taylor.
Margaret provided a Romany caravan in the back garden so that Thomas could write away from the clamour of children, but he apparently found it too cold and damp. The caravan was still in existence at the time of the unveiling of a blue plaque by Thomas’ widow, Caitlin, in 1983.