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NWR Issue 101

Cerys Matthews sings ‘Happy Birthday, Dear Dylan….’

Singer-songwriter, prize-winning broadcaster and now raconteur Cerys Matthews entertained members of The Dylan Thomas Society this week (27 October) on the ninety-ninth year since Dylan Thomas’ birthday.

Cerys spoke with pride of the interest her uncle, Colin Edwards, a member of the Society, took in the poet, and his research into the recollections of those who had known Thomas. This latter appeared as Dylan Remembered’, by David Thomas, in volumes one (1914-34) and two (1935-53). Cerys herself carries Quite Early One Morning as a constant companion on tour.

In a rather self deprecatory manner, given her expatriate position, Cerys agreed with Dylan who said of Welsh artists that ‘too many go to live permanently in London’. Although Dylan also said that too many remained in Wales! Taking A Child’s Christmas in Wales as her centrepiece, Cerys guided the group with gusto, starting off with readings. We met ‘the moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road’. Reference to snowballing the cats had some members providing the sound effects evoking cats that were ‘Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling.’ Some members attempted the sound of snow while others, perhaps tempted by the prospect of football at the Liberty Stadium, may have been inclined to ‘slink and sidle’ over the walls of Sketty Hall. Whilst it wasn’t actually snowing in Swansea on 27 October, it was wild in Singleton Park. Much, much better to stay inside where there was so much warmth and where Cerys led the singing of Happy Birthday and Penblwydd Hapus.

Despite the lure of the second half of the Swansea v West Ham game, Cerys made time for an interview.

Brian Roper (NWR): You have spoken with passion about Dylan Thomas’ work, particularly the poetry. How and when did you become aware of it?

Cerys Matthews: I was aware of Dylan Thomas always and indeed shared the same view as him and many of the audience tonight because I was brought up in West Cross behind Dick Barton’s chip shop and I later saw the view from Cwmdonkin and it was very familiar to me. I was also aware because of my uncle’s work, but we never studied Dylan Thomas’ poetry in school. It wasn’t until I was in America that I really got involved. It’s not uncommon for people to have to go away to appreciate things they already have. I came across A Child’s Christmas in Wales in South Carolina. I was very pregnant at the time. I read it and reread it many times. I was and am always struck by every single image, sentiment and turn of phrase that Dylan uses in his work. That was about ten years ago and since then I’ve read as much as I can of his work and books about him.

NWR: What kind of poet are you?

CM: I am not a poet, but I am a fan of poetry and I agree with Dylan that the world is not the same place once a good poem has been added to it. Poetry helps you to make sense out of chaos. It comforts you. When art touches you like that it is something so precious. I love the way great artists can colour your life.

NWR: Is reading better than writing?

CM: I think so. When you are writing you want to do it really well, so its a challenge. The best songs I have written have been written almost in my sleep, they are the ones I have enjoyed the most. I don’t remember the work that went into them. Reading is a real pleasure. With five children, three of them at home, it's busy, so if I have the time, I like to read in bed, in silence with a great book and a scented candle. That is heaven.

NWR: You have spoken about Swansea with evident pride, how do you feel about the city today?

CM: I think it’s really going through a great phase. We moved from Cardiff to Swansea when I was seven and my impressionable years were spent in Swansea, particularly around Kingsway, as a teenager. I have been over twenty years away touring and I am now based in London but I am completely supportive of Swansea Cwtch (the city’s bid to be UK city of culture in 2017). I think that Swansea has a bit of a swagger to its step at the moment. I am especially looking forward to next year’s centenary celebration of the birth of Dylan Thomas particularly as I am a judge of the Dylan Thomas Prize. There are some exciting things going on. Swansea has got something really soulful.

NWR: On your BBC Radio 6 Music programme you have, as have others, referred to Dylan as a ‘no good boyo’. Should we forgive him everything?

CM: I did call him that, yes. Having been its subject myself, I know that the press likes drama. I’m not interested in headlines. I’m not interested in people’s personal lives at all. I’m interested in the whole man, the man who was able to write that poetry aged seventeen or eighteen in his little room in Swansea before he even left the city. I’m interested in the brain behind that and the drive behind that, the man who sat in that little shed [in Laugharne] for hour after hour. He came from Swansea and he has fans around the world that identify with the work. He has a universal voice that people identify with. The headlines to me were the least interesting thing about him. The mystery of Dylan Thomas lies behind the headlines and is still to be found. My uncle was trying to get behind the headlines and that is something I am really proud of.

NWR: The last time I heard you read the poetry was in Laugharne church. I thought that you were a little nervous that night. Today you are on top form. Will you continue to read in public?

CM: It was bloody cold that night and it was midnight. I wasn’t nervous, I was cold. I was shaking. Today I felt that I was coming home. My invitation today was a major, major date in my diary. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I am really honoured.

This was more than the usual after-dinner thank-the hosts. Cerys Matthews showed a real appreciation for and a developing knowledge of Dylan Thomas’ work. She reminded Society members of Dylan’s observation that for some expatriates living in London, ‘no lilt or inflection of Welshness may pop out.’ She is not one of their number. Her love of Dylan’s poetry and her genuine affection for Swansea shine through. She is a worthy ambassador for 2014, the Centenary year.

Brian Roper is a NWR online contributor and Secretary General of the Dylan Thomas Society

Cerys Matthews’ uncle was Colin Edwards. He unfortunately died before he could publish his work on Dylan Thomas but his notes, collected at the National Library of Wales, form the basis of David N Thomas’ two-volume work on Dylan Thomas. Cerys curated the opening ceremony in Cardiff last week of WOMEX World Music Expo, hosted by Wales. Cerys’ latest title, Hook, Line and Singer, A Singalong Book is reviewed in NWR 102, published on 1 December.

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