Dylan Thomas Industry of Tragedy

Gwen Watkins on Dylan Thomas | Interview

Gwen Watkins met her husband Vernon Watkins when they were both working at Bletchley Park during the war. Dylan Thomas was supposed to be his closest friend’s best man but did not show up at the wedding, in London, seventy years ago this month. Vernon Watkins wrote Thomas’s obituary in The Times and edited his posthumous work. He died in 1967. Their creative relationship is encapsulated in Gwen Watkins’s book Dylan Thomas: Portrait of A Friend (Y Lolfa). She still lives in the Mumbles.

Jasper Rees: Are people desperately looking to find something new to say about Dylan Thomas?

Gwen Watkins: People have this general idea of Dylan as a drunken womaniser who happened somehow to write some quite good poems which they don’t know and they don’t recognise quotations from, so it’s a little bit limited as you can only tell them stories of when he was in the pub and when he and Caitlin quarrelled and when they spent a day with us in Pennard, which are all in my book anyway. What I’d really like to talk about is Vernon’s and Dylan’s poetic relationship, which I think is really extraordinary. You have these friendships but I doubt very much whether you could find one where they actually sat for hours in the same room and took each other’s poems to pieces like somebody unpicking embroidery and doing it up again. Dylan said poetry was like plumbing. There were masses of female and male ends and you had to find the right ones which fitted together. Dylan said making a poem is the hardest work in the world. They both accepted that making a poem was very intense work and they would spend as much as two hours doing this, picking at pieces, reading each other’s poems.

Were they equally adept at plumbing the other’s work?

Gwen Watkins: Vernon said in, I think, the commentary of his letters from Dylan Thomas that ‘Dylan could do everything with words that I couldn’t do. Our poems were in a sense diametrically opposed.’ So besides two plumbers trying to find the end and rejecting the wrong ones, they also had this tremendous opposition. They couldn’t always see what the other was doing and it had to be explained. And I think that by the time the war came they really were so intimately connected poetically that the difference in their lifestyles made no difference really. Everybody said, ‘Oh Vernon was a very quiet bank clerk who didn’t get drunk and Dylan liked to go to the pub every evening.’ Dylan and Vernon wrote the poems in the evening. That’s when he wrote because he was of course at this very busy bank, which is now a bookies. Dylan and Vernon would love that, and they’re going to put a plaque up on it. God knows what they’re going to say. So, Vernon had no choice but to write in the evenings. And the evenings were when Dylan and Caitlin went out. Caitlin said to me once that she couldn’t remember one single evening when they stayed at home. And she told me one time when they came back to find the toddler Colm, the youngest one, screaming and scrabbling up and down all the stairs. They had no babysitter ever. And the two older children were away at the school. So how often was little Colm left alone?

Would they have gone to the pub every night partly because they couldn’t be with each other without anyone else?

Gwen Watkins: Oh, I think they could because after all Dylan was at home all day. I know he worked in his hut in the afternoons in the Boathouse, but, no, I think they liked all the squabbles and yelling and quarrelling because the making up was so glorious afterwards. They didn’t like the quiet ‘Well, shall we watch Mrs Dale’s Diary, dear? Shall I get you a cup of tea?’ That wasn’t their lifestyle at all. They liked drama, both of them.

How did you and Vernon fit in with the combustible and highly thespian marriage?

Gwen Watkins: Well I didn’t see them together often. When I saw Dylan most was in the pubs during the war, because Vernon and I were at Bletchley and when we had a day off or a weekend off, it was very easy to get up to Euston and stay in London, and of course Vernon wanted to keep in touch with Dylan very much. And in the pubs Dylan would always have a crowd around him. When you went in a pub and you heard screams of laughter, that was Dylan. But I can’t help feeling that Dylan found that terribly tiring. One of the reasons perhaps that he died so early was that he got so tired. Because he had to keep in with the BBC, with producers, with editors, with the person who he was working for. It was his living. And Caitlin was not a cheap person to provide for, really not. And I think that was very tiring because this fund of wit and humour bubbled out of him. It seemed effortless. But I don’t think it can have been. Vernon said very perceptively, ‘Like all great clowns he was sad.’ And I think that was true. I think that fundamentally he was… well, you see from his poems, how much grief, how much sorrow, much perception of death comes through.

How did Vernon relate to that performer?

Gwen Watkins: Oh, well, Vernon liked to be on the edge of the crowd admiring. You couldn’t help admiring Dylan. He was so funny, he was so witty. And yet not showing off.

He didn’t like to suck up all the oxygen in the room?

Gwen Watkins: Not a bit. He wasn’t like that. He was almost like the fount of creation, creation bubbled up through him and went to everybody. He was really a life giver and that’s very tiring to the person doing it, I think. I really do think that was one of the reasons he died. I think he was worn out.

Did you like him? Did you instinctively warm to him?

Gwen Watkins: The only time that we ever had any meaningful relationship between ourselves which I would have liked to go on, was when everybody had gone down to have a swim. They were all spending the day with us at Pennard. Caitlin loved swimming and Vernon did too. And Dylan walked along the cliff and he said, ‘I can’t go any further, I certainly can’t walk down to the bay. I’ll go back and rest.’ As the hostess I felt I had to go back with him. We lay on the lawn and he really was so nice. We talked about Dickens. I said, ‘Caitlin says Dylan reads Dickens all the bloody time.’ And I loved Dickens. I said, ‘You remember Mrs Gamp where she says, “I’ve had nine my dear, all gone. And the last was turned up smiling in a bedstead unbeknownst”?’ I said, ‘They’re such wonderful words. Unbeknownst! The child being suffocated but Mrs Gamp makes it seem one of those things that happens when you’ve had a lot of kids. Dylan always used to hug himself when he was very amused. He laughed and laughed. He had a very very high-pitched laugh. And of course his speaking voice was not at all the poetry-reading voice.

So that sonorous baritone in the recordings was not his voice at all?

Gwen Watkins: Oh not at all, not at all. His speaking voice was quite a light tenor really. Very rippling.

Was the sonorous baritone feel slightly ersatz?

Gwen Watkins: No, not at all. That was how the poems should be read. Dylan knew it. He called on that. That was the poetry voice and really I don’t think anybody in the world can read Dylan’s poems as well as he read them. That was how the poem came audibly to him and that was how he reproduced it exactly.

When he died, in what ways did it impact on Vernon? Was he in any way expecting it?

Gwen Watkins: Oh no, because Caitlin always said, ‘Dylan and his chicken bones are always in hospital.’ She didn’t like him being in hospital in New York, she didn’t really like the Americans very much at that time. He got to like them. He distrusted them because of their habit of filling up your glass. She didn’t think they looked after Dylan very well.

They’d given him too much whisky?

Gwen Watkins: Well, the thing is when you have a sip somebody comes round and freshens it. And Dylan didn’t notice that, you see, because he always had the glass in his right hand and he gestured as he talked or read with the left hand. He wouldn’t look at his glass. And of course a lot of people were trying to get him drunk because they wanted the exhibition. So Vernon wasn’t particularly worried. At first he thought, oh well, he’s broken something, he’ll soon be out. But then the news came that Dylan was in a coma. This had never happened before and he and Dan [Jones] on the Saturday before Dylan died on the Monday went up to Dan’s house in Rosehill Terrace and Dan rang up the hospital and said, ‘This is Dr Daniel Jones, I’m Dylan’s doctor.’ Of course he was only a music doctor, a literary doctor. And of course they brought another doctor to talk to him. And he did say, ‘We are very anxious. We feel that he may not come out of this coma.’ In fact I think by that time they knew he wouldn’t. But they didn’t want it to get to the newspapers before the Monday. And Vernon was very worried and Dan said, ‘Oh well, American doctors, they always make up that things are worse than they are so that they can have a huge fee.’

Gwen Watkins: And on the Sunday The Times rang up and said, ‘Could you do the obituary?’ And Vernon screamed, ‘But he’s not dead yet!’ And The Times man said, ‘No but we have to have it ready for when he is. He is expected to.’ And of course Vernon spent that Sunday writing this wonderful obituary. I think it’s the best thing that was written about Dylan’s death and other people did too – it’s been reprinted a lot. But you can imagine, because he always said, ‘No, Dylan and I will grow old together and our poems will be like Swedenborg’s angels moving towards the dayspring of their youth.’ But I don’t see how Dylan could write many better more beautiful poems of greater genius than he did. You do feel with the last poems that this is it, you can’t really go much further than that. And there was a lot of talk after Dylan died that he’d been written out and he was depressed. But then six months afterwards Vernon got this huge packet of papers for the unfinished elegy for his father. Sixty-four pages filled with Dylan’s tiny script of possible lines, possible variations, possible rhymes. That doesn’t look like he was written out, does it? Not at all. But you see people don’t want to take any notice of that. I think that Dylan had in one sense come to the end. But this elegy Vernon finished and it is beautiful. Every line that he used to finish it was one of the ones in the many many variations, but of course he had to select out of hundreds.

He did the plumbing.

Gwen Watkins: I think he felt that he was working with Dylan again. And of course he finished the poem ‘In Country Heaven’ too, but with only pages of possibilities, whereas he thought the lines in the Elegy variations were intended to be used with perhaps some variant words – Dylan had notes and things. But I think that gave him some comfort because he felt that he was really working with him again. But otherwise he was devastated, because Dylan had been his closest friend in the sense that Vernon and Dylan, whatever their lives were like, were poets. They both felt that the burden of poetry had been put on them. Vernon says in one essay, ‘Of course you don’t have any choice. If the muse wants you the only choice you have is that of Rimbaud. You can say, “Sod off, I’m not going to write any more poems.” Otherwise you don’t have the choice of refusing this burden.’ And it is a burden. I suppose genius is always a burden. We don’t understand what it entails. I mean perhaps a musician has notes going through his head the whole bloody time and can’t stop them. We don’t know. But certainly Dylan and Vernon both knew that the base of their life was poetry. They were poets and that was the thing. You could be an amuser, you could be a broadcaster and Dylan was a wonderful broadcaster. Vernon said that Dylan took the place of Chaplin in silent film in BBC broadcasting, which was very much ‘how to make compost from seaweed’ and the later fugues of Bach. And into it bursts ‘The August Bank Holiday’.

It seems extraordinary that this gift could not be converted into regular income that would keep the wolf from the door.

Gwen Watkins: He did have a regular income when he was doing the films. It was never enough for Caitlin, you see.

And it really was Caitlin. You tell a story in your book about Caitlin spending most of the eight guineas he has in his pocket on a gold swimsuit.

Gwen Watkins: A gold bathing suit. ‘But I have to have it, Dylan!’

Did you see her wear that?

Gwen Watkins: I think she did. She had quite a full figure and you need a bit of uplift and she liked to look beautiful. She also during the war – when clothes rationing was at its worst and women used to buy blankets which were off rationing and cut them into coats – went to a theatrical costumers which was closing [and acquired a] wonderful purple velvet Victorian costume. A beautiful jacket, very tight, and this flowing skirt. And she used to walk down Regent Street in it with all the women in their patched coats. She loved it.

I can’t believe she wore it in Carmarthen.

Gwen Watkins: Possibly not. I imagine when it got dirty she would throw it away. She was not a great housewife in any way.

Did you see her after Dylan died?

Gwen Watkins: Only once. Vernon saw her. She became very fond of Vernon and she liked Vernon’s letters. She wrote and sent him postcards and things and said, ‘You were always the one person who kept Dylan straight, who really loved Dylan and didn’t just want him for what he was.’ She knew that people sort of sucked life from Dylan. They really did. I did meet her with Joe – Giuseppe.

Her second husband.

Gwen Watkins: At one point they came to the house and they had drinks and she said, ‘What would you do, Gwen, if your husband slept with a gun under his pillow?’ Because he was in the Mafia, everybody thought. And he said, ‘What would you do, Vernon, if your wife slept with a long knife under her pillow?’ So I thought possibly it’s not the calmest of marriages. But he did look after her. And she could have done much worse in a way.

Did you like her?

Gwen Watkins: No, not at all. I don’t think anybody liked her except other women who liked incessant drinking. Because Caitlin, you see, had a very hard head. You know what the group used to say? Vernon can drink Dylan under the table, Fred can drink Dylan under the table, Dan can drink everybody under the table and Caitlin would never be under the table. And it’s true. She was brought up in Ireland and they drank whiskey. She got more and more furious and angry but she never collapsed. Dylan often when he had drunk would sleep.

Drink made him somnolent and her furious?

Gwen Watkins: She was always furious! You felt that there was a kind of raging anger under her all the time. And that was partly directed at this vast fame that her husband had which meant less attention for her. Well, in the pub she always found some very handsome man in uniform to flirt with, and Dylan loathed uniform. He loathed it. Dan Jones’s captain’s uniform drove him mad. Dan wore it because I don’t think he had any civilian clothes.

Did he loathe it because it seemed like a surreptitious rebuke of his pacifism?

Gwen Watkins: No, not at all. He loathed it because it was symbolic of the war and people who were ready to kill other people. He loathed the war. He loathed it. He loathed violence for all the fact that he didn’t mind fighting with fists. Because when Caitlin was flirting she would deliberately flirt with an eye on Dylan to get him out of the happy group. And he would come and then he would fight her tall handsome soldier or sailor and then he would get thrown out. And it was her fault totally.

Did this happen all the time?

Gwen Watkins: Not every night but she did flirt with people because she didn’t like the group. She could have been in the group laughing at Dylan but she liked attention. She was very jealous of all the attention Dylan got, because she said, ‘He’s a little fat sweaty thing, he’s not very clean, and people crowd round him.’ And she was beautiful when she was young and she had this hair which was red gold, great heaps of it. Very bounteous figure and very flirtatious. I think she was mainly trying to get his attention. Perhaps some women like being fought over. Perhaps she did. I don’t know. John Pritchard and I were walking past I think it was the Six Bells in Chelsea and of course it was the blackout and suddenly the pub doors were thrown open and light streamed out and Dylan came rolling out. Caitlin came after and said, ‘Oh dear, if Dylan would only just once pick on a little man.’

But she had picked the man Dylan was going to hit.

Gwen Watkins: That’s right.

Was he at all different in Welsh pubs?

Gwen Watkins: I was only once in a Welsh pub with him and he was in a crowd with Dan, Fred Janes and Vernon. He loved being with his old friends. He really did. He was a different person in a way. He was at ease. He didn’t have to show off, he didn’t have to work hard to get jobs from them.

So he was different – the fact that it was in Wales is neither here nor there.

Gwen Watkins: Oh yes it is, it’s here and there, because it was the centre. Vernon said, ‘We had an immediate affinity. We were both Welsh.’ That was absolutely at the core of Dylan’s friendships with people. All his Welsh friends. I often think that if Margaret Taylor had bought him a house in Swansea instead of Laugharne, which was very solitary for a poet, I think Dylan would have been so much more content. I mean Ebbie’s pub was not an intellectual centre: you’d just gossip with local people and then he’d go and do the crossword with his father and then he’d go to his hut and work with nobody, not Vernon or anybody to help him. And so would Caitlin because she would have shops and pubs and cafes to go to. But what could she do in Laugharne? Wash nappies? I mean really!

What did you make of Laugharne?

Gwen Watkins: Well, I wouldn’t have liked to have lived there, I can tell you. I haven’t been there for years but when I went after Dylan died, some time after Vernon died, I thought it was a dump. The last time I went, which would be ‘70s or ‘80s or something, on a Sunday afternoon, there were three teenagers walking up the main street with a big transistor on the shoulder. That was their thrilling entertainment for a Sunday. It was a dump. It was. Vernon used to cycle down there before the war every weekend and if Dylan had nobody staying with him he would stay with Dylan and they would sit in the alcove, the oriole of Laugharne castle, and read poems to each other. Dylan read all Lorca, Rimbaud. He heard of Rimbaud first from Vernon. He would read translations – Rilke. Rilke actually occurs in ‘Conversation at Prayer’ where the baby is born in the next room. That’s from ‘Du, nachbar Gott’ where Christ is being born in the next room. He really did like that. It was stimulation. It meant that he could talk in London to the Old Etonians and Harrovians about Lorca, he could talk about Rilke. He did know something about them even if he’d heard them in translation. He had that kind of stimulation every weekend.

I think you overestimate the extent to which Old Harrovians would have known anything about those authors.

Gwen Watkins: You may underestimate the extent to which people who were in the communications industry – broadcasting, editing, journalism – showed off.

I’m sure. I don’t think many of them would have been Harrovians.

Gwen Watkins: The Etonians of course. Pop was literary to some extent.

Let’s not talk about Eton and Harrow though.

So many people were from public schools and university and Dylan felt very very difficult about having left school at nearly 16 with no exams, no qualifications, nothing at all. He always used to boast about how stupid a lot of the public school boys were, particularly Cambridge for some reason more than Oxford. He used to say, ‘They like to show off; they pretend.’ But actually he did feel it very much – and more so in America, because where did he go in America? From university to university. Even the kids who wanted to sleep with him knew more than he did. He felt that was a thing that he kept very quiet but it was obvious in some ways that he felt uneasy and that’s why he showed off and made those awful jokes and liked to get drunk in America. Because he was surrounded by people who were learning about literature, which he’d never done, although he knew of course, as far as poetry goes, miles more than anyone else. But it was in some ways noticeable.

I saw him do Vernon’s programme on old age where VC Clinton-Baddeley was the other reader. Clinton–Baddeley was the younger son of a noble family and he’d been everywhere. He couldn’t help it but he was very upper class. And Dylan really didn’t like him. At first when they came into the studio Dylan said, ‘Well, I didn’t know you were going to be here. I might not have come.’ And Clinton-Baddeley said, ‘Oh, Dylan dear, we both like the poems we’re reading. Let’s get on.’ And Dylan sullenly shook his hand. But Dylan made a huge mistake in reading his own poem which he couldn’t get right and I know he was ruffled by Clinton-Baddeley. Because he had nothing! Swansea Grammar School where he mitched off half the time anyway for almost any lesson except his father’s English literature. What had he got to put in front of all these people who had doctorates and MAs?

And blue blood.

Gwen Watkins: I don’t think he minded the blue blood so much if people admired him or knew his poetry at all. He liked that. He could be very simple and very happy but the upper classes – I don’t think they meant to show off. Patric Dickinson who ran the BBC poetry programmes just did know a lot of poetry. It was his job. And he liked it and he quoted it.

What do you think that Dylan would make of this centenary celebration?

Gwen Watkins: I think Dylan would have laughed at it. He would have thought, what a joke! Half the people who take part in it only know ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, and Under Milk Wood, perhaps they’ve seen. He would have thought that’s a joke. He didn’t mind if people didn’t know his poetry as long as they didn’t pretend to want to know him because of his poetry. When he became famous people did just want to know him. And he thought that was silly.

The idea has been to bring money into Wales, particularly this part of Wales. Might he have an issue with that?

Gwen Watkins: I tell you if he’d still been alive if he was 100 he would certainly have entered something for one of those big £10,000 prizes. Or possibly entered three or four under different names. He would have thought it nice. He liked celebrations. He always wrote a poem for his own birthday. Two beautiful ones. He thought you should celebrate it. The 100 one he would have thought it was a nice idea but he would have thought, as usual in Wales, the whole idea has been puffed up and blown out and made what? People are writing any kind of rubbish. And doubtless many very good things. Who knows?

Has Wales taken care of Dylan over the years?

Gwen Watkins: Wales has taken care of Dylan ever since it found out from Swansea council that it could make money. After his death a friend of mine who was a lecturer at the university in the English department wanted to do a course in Dylan Thomas’s prose because so many students came and so much of Portrait of the Artist and the prose are all about Swansea. But no. The department turned it down. ‘We really don’t want it.’

On what grounds?

Gwen Watkins: ‘We don’t do things by people who lived the kind of life that Dylan lived.’ ‘Oh really?’ she said. ‘You don’t teach Byron? I thought you did.’ She named a lot of very disgraceful people who were taught in the department. ‘Well, we’ll have a vote.’ And all except one other voted against.

When was that?

Gwen Watkins: The Eighties. I taught a literature class in Pennard and I wanted to read some of Dylan’s prose – A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which wasn’t well known then, it hadn’t been published. I thought they’d like it. It was mostly old ladies. And several of them said, ‘Oh no, we don’t want anything by that man.’ He was universally disliked, rejected, by my old ladies who were not very literary and by the university department. And the council certainly wouldn’t do anything. Boatloads of Irish came to the Year of Literature Festival in 1995 and the council suddenly realised, we’ve got something that makes money. The stone in Cwmdonkin Park? That was paid for by two ladies in America. Vernon did a broadcast saying he thought it absolutely shameful. He’d come back after his first visit to America and we travelled by train through Canada to go to Vancouver and every little backwoods town had some kind of statue or monument or poor little museum to a famous person. He came back and he said, ‘Swansea bore one of the greatest of all modern poets and there isn’t a single memorial anywhere. Not a plaque. Nothing.’

Caitlin’s second book about her life with Dylan was very much a rebuke of her first, Leftover Life to Kill. What did you make of her volte face?

Gwen Watkins: Caitlin most of her life was an alcoholic. Her brain must have been affected, mustn’t it? And her memory and everything. She was almost insane after Dylan died. I always thought she was psychotic, that she had a very strong psychotic element, because she wasn’t normal. One other time I saw Caitlin, she was always pestering the trustees for money. However much they gave her she needed more. They’d built this beautiful house in Rome. And she came over and Stuart Thomas who was the trustee, the solicitor at that time, invited Vernon and me in the hopes of, you know… and we went to the Bush Hotel and we sat at a round table and Vernon managed to keep talking about the old days to her, managed to keep it all right till the drinks came in at the end. She wanted liqueurs and said, ‘And now, Stuart, you’re being too mean, I really really need some money.’ And Stuart started to ramble about how ‘the trust can only pay out what we get in.’ He was such a bloody liar. But anyway she just stood up and she threw herself over the table. His chair went backwards. It just shows you what Caitlin was like.

A psychotherapist would have had an interesting time with her.

Gwen Watkins: I think she was a deprived child. Her mother was a cold lesbian fish who thought of nothing but manners and money. And her father rejected and left her. What childhood did she have? Nothing! Very little education she had. You can tell from Leftover Life to Kill she didn’t really know how to write an English sentence. And yet she had quite a lot of creativity in a way. I’ve never seen one of her poems that was any good but Dylan used to encourage her and read her, and she used to criticise his poems terrifically. Poor thing. I knew one ought to feel sorry for her but she was so unlikeable and often so hostile. Even if she was staying with you she would say hostile things. Very difficult. And I was very young when I married. I didn’t know how to cope with this at all. And I think Dylan did love her, he certainly did, and I think she loved him in a way – or she needed him or something. I don’t say love because I don’t think she was capable of unselfish love at all. I don’t think he would have left her. And if she did I think she would have gone after him and pulled him back.

What is your favourite Dylan poem?

Gwen Watkins: Oh heavens. Oh heavens. Oh heavens. ‘Poem on his birthday’ possibly. ‘Two throats, where many rivers meet, the curlews cry.’ God! ‘Poem on his birthday’ and ‘Poem in October’, that pair I like.


Gwen Watkins: Well, just the words are so beautiful. What can you say about Mozart’s’ music? The notes are so beautiful. They’re in the right place. I think these latest poems from ‘Over Saint John’s Hill’ are just among the greatest of British poetry. I do think that. I would put him just below Milton whom I think is the greatest, with Tennyson. With Hopkins. No, I cannot too much express my love of the late poems and my reverence for them because, like Mozart’s music, how did it come to them? When you knew Dylan, I mean hopelessly messy, hopeless, impracticable, absolutely a liar, fornicator, then where did the poems come from? They came from somewhere. But how did he do it? With work. With work he did it. Endless work. Endless endless notes. Out of work comes effortless beauty. How does he do that? That’s what all great poets do, I suppose. But I really think those late poems are so wonderful. The early poems say very little to me actually. What did he say? ‘The outbursts of a boily boy.’ The war poems, ‘Ceremony after a fire raid’, that’s the beginning I think of the really majestic [work]. And ‘A Refusal to Mourn…’. ‘How does he do it?’ is all you can say. The first day he met him Vernon thought he was a genius.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis

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Professor Walford Davies is one of Wales’ foremost literary critics and a world authority on the life and works of Dylan Thomas. In the first of a new series of interviews from Jasper Rees centring on the life and work of the poet in his centenary year, Davies talks about his admiration for the work of Thomas, his first introduction and his views on the national celebrations.

This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.

Jasper Rees is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.