EDITORIAL NWR Issue 62
It takes about half an hour to drive from Aberystwyth to New Quay, on a road that runs like a lip along the coastline. Small villages look strangely toppled from a distance, their houses built haphazardly down to the water's edge. Even in genteel Aberaeron many of them face away from the sea, although they most often meet across squares and car parks. New Quay is different. Almost every single house there looks over Cardigan Bay with its windows opening out across the water. The spirit of the place embraces the sea.
According to literary historian David N. Thomas, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood
was to a large extent inspired by the time he spent in New Quay, and some of the memorable characters in the celebrated play, such as Nogood Boyo and Cherry Owen, are loosely based on colourful local figures. In his book on the poet and the environs which so influenced him, David Thomas carefully unpicks Dylan Thomas's wickedly inventive creations to reveal the New Quay prototypes buried beneath.* The seaside village's newly-recognised place in literary history seems to appeal to visitors and locals alike: just a few months ago, a Dylan Thomas trail was opened in the village.
I decide that today might be the day to follow the trail, albeit as an unwilling pilgrim. For I am, I don't mind admitting, slightly jaded by the never-ending afterlife of Dylan Thomas: the past month of endless newspaper articles and TV specials on 'Dylan' has been too much for me. Perhaps a stroll along Dylan's Way will bring me round. Especially in my native village, the place that, rightly or wrongly, I still call home.
When I go back to New Quay, I usually follow a very particular route. First, I go to my grandmother's house high up on Picton Terrace. It was sold long since, but I can still stand on the road in front just as I did as a child and peer at Wales's highest mountain across the sea's expanse. I used to lean against the low wall for hours above the terraced garden of the house below and point a pair of binoculars through the palm trees and hothouse plants that flourish in New Quay's almost Mediterranean climate. The binoculars were my grandfather's, an old pair he used to take on sea with him whenever he went away. Like most New Quay men of his generation, he was a Master Mariner who spent months away at a time. When the seafarers came home they would bring exotic presents - lampshades decorated with ivory, chinoiserie, paintings, silks and even parrots. The attics of my childhood were littered with the spoils of British imperialist commerce. One distant relative even brought a slave home from the colonies, thinking that he could offer him a better life; they say that he ran off to London as soon as he could. As I stroll around the village I wonder if he ever found his way home.
Walking up the hill to the cemetery, I remember the litany of exotic house names and seductively foreign Christian names that pepper New Quay's past - Osaka, Brisbane, Chile and Valdivia.* On a day like today when the sky is cloudless but the tourists and their cars are long gone, you can allow yourself to imagine, just a little. Today, though, I start at the opposite end of the village at the old police house, which, David Thomas claims, is the 'Handcuff House' of Under Milk Wood
, and make my way along George Street. Unsurprisingly, the trail takes you around several pubs, and David Thomas's account of the route (in The Dylan Thomas Trail
[Y Lolfa]), offers a well-researched and colourful snapshot of New Quay as it was in the '30s and '40s. His emphasis on New Quay as the prototype for Llareggub results in a very different image of the village of that time from the one that I see in my mind's eye: the Llareggub/New Quay of David Thomas's historical re-creation is peopled with cartoon-like innkeepers, lustful tailors and chapel-going hypocrisy.
All the same, it's good to be forced to take a different perspective, I reflect, my outlook mellowed as I raise a solitary glass to the memory of 'DT' in the Dolau. New Quay wasn't all parakeets and ponchos in the 1930s after all: historians of the area have written about the deep-rooted Welsh Nonconformist traditions which permeated the village's seafaring habits. When a Master went off to sea, he would frequently take a group of New Quay boys with him; home was never far away. My maternal grandfather, the village doctor, although educated in Edinburgh, was in some ways very much one of the werin bobl
, who like so many local characters was immortalised in penillion
by Isfoel, one of the Cilie poets. Perhaps David Thomas's theories about Nogood Boyo et al. are more convincing than I like to think.
And yet, the point is not that the New Quay of my exoticized, half-imagined memories is so very different from the village conjured up by David Thomas in order to prove the influence that the place had upon Dylan Thomas. It's more that any interpretation of a literary work which tries to pin it too closely to flesh-and-blood reality is bound to remove us from the artist even as it claims to bring us closer to the man. Despite the fascination which literary biography holds for me, there's no doubt in my mind that Under Milk Wood
is a composite of many different places and people, all of which are brought together and transposed into literature in such a way that it is the unique projection of a fertile artistic imagination. As John Goodby says in his review of Ralph Maud's recent study of Dylan Thomas (published on page 103 of this issue): '[I]t is surely clear from cursory acquaintance with his tricksterish, paradox-courting and hybrid writings that Dylan Thomas never even came within a bargepole's length of "expressing" a cohesive identity.'
Despite the limitations of critical approaches which attempt to explain the art entirely in terms of the life, they clearly have a great deal to offer. It is the shallow 'branding' of Dylan Thomas across the popular media that apes such approaches on a less intelligent level that I find unappealing. The overexposure of Dylan Thomas as Wales's only internationally renowned poet has undoubtedly backfired, to the extent that when Bill Clinton visited the Hay Festival a couple of years ago, he allegedly proclaimed that we in Wales must be really proud of 'your poet'. Rachel Trezise (whose story 'But Not Really' is published in this issue) put her finger on it when she wrote in a special commemorative issue of Poetry Wales
: ' "You come from Dylan Thomas land," a Dutchman said to me once./ I don't. I come from Wales. My land.'
Dylan Thomas is dead. He should always be remembered. He will, I hope, always offer a benign and fruitful influence on today's writers. But, as well as the more contemporary interpretations that John Goodby calls for - critical approaches that will 'discover a Thomas more relevant to the twenty-first century' - space also needs to be made for other voices. The rest of the world needs to know that Wales has more than one poet.
In a recent Dylan Thomas TV special, a member of the public read a poem by Thomas to camera before declaring, 'It really can't be bettered, so there's no point in trying.' The current adulation of Dylan Thomas in the popular imagination is very much to the detriment of our culture's literary vitality. Susan Sontag has written recently of the perils of national vanity: such vanity, in the case of Dylan Thomas, smacks of a desperate pride in the only poet deemed worthy of international recognition. Dylan Thomas is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful poets to have come out of Wales. And maybe his best writing can't be bettered. But there is always a point in trying.
* David N. Thomas's Dylan Thomas: A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow
is published by Seren.
* I am indebted to the numerous publications of my aunt Susan Passmore for the historical detail on New Quay included in this editorial: see for example Farmers & Figureheads: The Port of New Quay and its Hinterland
(Dyfed Cultural Services).
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