BLOG Liza Penn-Thomas NWR Issue 108
The Lost Notebook of Dylan Thomas
Jeff Towns recalls the most satisfying moment was hearing the gavel crash down declaring the Swansea University bid he was fronting as the winner. There were high fives in Sotheby’s last November. That success was the start of the notebook’s journey back to Dylan’s home town of Swansea. Shortly afterwards it was announced that a new annual celebration of Dylan Thomas would be marked each year on 14 May. So the first display of the ‘lost’ fifth notebook to the public was suitably scheduled for the inaugural International Dylan Thomas Day 2015.
Please allow me the poetic licence to say it was a day of two halves.
Firstly we had the official welcome from VIPs and honoured guests. Swansea University should be rightly proud that the notebook has found a new home at the university’s Richard Burton Archives. It was certainly a relief to Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter Hannah Ellis when the notebook was bought by a public body rather than falling into the hands of an ungenerous private collector never to be accessible to the public again.
But there is always some unease at such events that further link an artist to the establishment. I stood behind the dark suited men, listened to the enthusiasm of the Culture Minister, and absorbed the corporate pride with a degree of cynicism. Dylan Day itself has come in for its fair share of criticism (as indeed did the twelve month marathon Dylan 100 last year). However, my cynicism was chipped away at by the genuine excitement of true Dylan experts such as Jeff Towns (you must get him to tell you the tomato pip story if you see him in the Dylan Bookbus – I couldn’t do it justice). And the enlightenment offered by Professor John Goodby who reminded us just why this find was so important. It is all about the poetry.
The recovered notebook has already allowed the reassessment of one of Dylan’s poems as it was thought to date from a much later time but appears here in 1935. The notebook also illuminates the journey of these poems, as Dylan has noted the place when each was completed – including time spent in Donegal and Cheshire. We are, as Owen Sheers emphasised, being allowed in to an ‘intimate moment’ when the poems were only in conversation with the poet. We are seeing the editing process, the crafting of the lines, and the choosing of one way of saying over another. Only by studying the drafts of literature can we see clues to the artistic process and give credit to the slog of a writer’s craft alongside the inspired originality of genius. This is a privilege that modern technology may be depriving us of.
The original itself will not be on permanent display. This is a school notebook that is at least 80 years old. We have been fortunate that the notebook has survived in such good condition. The balance that has to be struck by the Richard Burton Archives, where the book has now been rehomed, is to ensure the notebook is preserved whilst allowing access. This is why the first stop for the book after the Sotheby’s gavel descended was not the university but a conservator. The work of the Richard Burton Archives is not just to ensure a generation of fans and academics have access to the document but that it is preserved for generations to come. This means carefully monitored conditions in secure facilities where risks from fire, damp and paper munching vermin are minimised. Limited handling has been assured by making the contents of the book accessible through digitised pages available to view in Swansea University’s archive reading room.
With this in mind, the small groups of visitors that occupied the second half of the day were seeing a rare glimpse of the original. Away from the corporate launch these Dylan fans each shared their own intimate moments with the handwritten poems of Swansea’s most famous son – each bringing their own relationship with the poet and his town to that experience. The afternoon visitors were also treated to a surprise poetry reading by Dylan Thomas himself in his guise as actor Adrian Metcalfe of Lighthouse Theatre. Adrian was fresh from a morning encounter at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive where pupils from Terrace Road Primary school were marking Dylan Day by visiting his childhood home. He told me that the pupils embraced his Dylan and asked what his favourite memories were. ‘Dylan’ talked about his childhood and the sound of children playing in the park. They, being children, embraced the moment without cynicism.
Let us by all means keep asking the questions about whether we only need the legend to fuel our corporate concerns and promote Swansea Bay to American tourists. But surely we have to acknowledge that the continuation of events such as Dylan Day provides us with the opportunity to draw world attention to a Welshman who was one of the greatest writers in the English language. We can recognise that celebrating and preserving the literature of generations past offers the potential to inspire the generations of the future. We can lay our cynicism to one side – and, just for a moment, let Dylan Thomas beguile us anew.
is a Swansea writer who has spent the first forty years of her life researching material to create with in hopefully the latest forty years of her life. Highlights so far include producing three children, having a single played on the John Peel Show, and hanging around with a lot of dubious people. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in obscure independent litzines and performed in seedy bars. She likes it that way. Liza graduated from Swansea University in 2009 with a first-class BA in English with Creative Writing. She then went over to the dark side and is in the final stages of a PhD researching the unwritten theatre tradition of Wales in the twentieth century. She has won prizes for both her academic and creative writing at Swansea University. To finance her continued life as a poet and philosopher, Liza is a member of the university library staff as well as being an Associate Tutor with DACE. She gets into arguments with people who are wrong on the internet.
previous blog: Neil Gaiman at Hay Festival
next blog: Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts