Dylan Thomas Industry of Tragedy

Meeting Dylan | Thomas at 100

Meeting Dylan – To celebrate Dylan Thomas at 100, Jasper Rees collected statements from those who met the poet.

During the centenary year of Dylan Thomas’s birth I have attempted to make contact with as many people as I could find who met Dylan Thomas. I was stimulated to do so partly for an article I wrote for the Sunday Times Magazine about the centenary, but also because I discovered a couple of years ago that my own grandfather Bertram Rees had an intimate acquaintance with the poet: he was his dentist in Carmarthen. Of the people I spoke to, I was steered towards some, and chanced upon others. I happened to be interviewing Desmond Morris about something else and we got to talking about Dylan. Eileen Mitchell, who has since died, had a single encounter with Dylan in a pub in Fitzrovia when she was stepping out with Kenneth Tynan. She mentioned it to me in an email.

I have not included two conversations here. My interview with Gwen Watkins, who knew Dylan Thomas best of anyone still alive, can be found elsewhere on Wales Arts Review. Then there is the late Dannie Abse, whom I rang earlier this year to ask if he’d like to share memories of his one encounter. He steered me to his memoir, Goodbye, Twentieth Century. I, in turn, steer anyone who is interested not only to the relevant pages but also to the whole magnificent book. There may well be others who remember meeting Dylan Thomas. If so, I would love to hear from them.



Read poetry on the BBC with Dylan Thomas in her teens

I was only in my early or mid-teens and I was just graduating from playing children’s parts on the radio to being in grown-up poetry programmes and feature dramas. And on the poetry programmes a couple of times in that year, which must have been in the late ’40s, was Dylan Thomas. I can remember being terribly nervous having these poems to read, and mine came right at the end of the show. And all of the actors – there were maybe five, who were very grown up and starry except me of course – tiptoed out of the studio when they’d finished because everything was live. And Dylan Thomas was so polite: he just sat there until I’d finished. And I was absolutely staggered. I had never been treated with such deference by an artist. I don’t know that I fully appreciated how great a poet he was. And then he got up and opened the studio door for me and went out. After that everybody went out to the Park Hotel. I was included in the bar where I shouldn’t have been. I have a vivid memory of just sitting quietly with my orange juice in the corner and listening to Dylan Thomas and Gwyn Thomas talking. It was so sparkling, I can’t tell you. It was like champagne. They were so funny. They didn’t try to show off or outdo one another. It was just like a very good tennis match where the ball went from one to the other. The evening got more and more glittering and riotous and amusing. They were getting drunker of course – I didn’t realise that.



Met Dylan Thomas in her early 20s in 1943/ 44.

I worked at HQ of RAF Fighter Command in World War Two with Augustus John’s daughter Zoe. I think it was the Café Royal or the Café de Paris where he and Dylan Thomas used to meet and Zoe would invite any of us who were off duty. I was only invited once as that was the only time I was free. I knew about Dylan Thomas because I was very fond of his poetry – I didn’t know anything about his background or what he looked like. Dylan Thomas was a bit ruffled and not well presented, but he was highly amusing. I was born in 1921 so Dylan Thomas was seven years older than me – I considered him mature. But he and Augustus John were a bit naughty. These days if girls have their bottoms pinched they start complaining but we took it as a compliment. He didn’t say anything improper but you did feel he was a bit sexy. They were very very friendly, enjoying meeting a lot of WAF officers. They bought us drinks. I was too in awe of him to talk about poetry. I did get the feeling that they really were giving us an audience and we should be honoured to meet them. We weren’t drinking very much as we were going back on duty. We couldn’t tell them anything that we did because we had all signed the Official Secrets Act.



Meeting Dylan Thomas via the surrealist artist Mervyn Levy

I managed to get a job teaching fine art at a demob college. My boss was Mervyn Levy, a civilian seconded to the army. It turned out that he had this best friend Dylan Thomas who was coming to stay. ‘He’s coming to stay; it’ll be awful,’ he said. And it was, because he wet the bed. He was so drunk he couldn’t get out of bed. Dylan had a terrible hangover and we were having lunch and he just got this great big potato and skewered it with his fork and held it up like an old-fashioned BBC microphone and said, ‘I shall now present a hymn to our host, a very small man.’ Mervyn was rather cross because he didn’t like to be small. ‘Midget which art in heaven, miniature be they name…’ And he went on and on. I’m so cross I can’t remember it. I know it ended up, ‘Forever and ever Tom Thumb.’ It was just magical to listen to him. I just sat there astonished at the way somebody could play with words. He left a mark on me because I was a teenager at the time and he was destroying himself. It was very sad to watch and there was nothing you can do about it. Dylan was always short of cash. All day long, money money money was the only thing, he was always moaning about it.



Casual encounter in early 1950s

I ran into him once, when I was with Kenneth Tynan in, I think, the Fitzroy, and he lurched over and ‘borrowed’ a pound from Ken (big money in those days), and Ken said slightly sourly, ‘I shan’t see that again.’



Canadian artist painted Dylan Thomas in 1953

A friend of mine in Carmarthen said he knew Dylan and he could put me in touch with him. So we went down to Browns [in Laugharne] and lo and behold he was there. I sketched him very quickly, then he came by and looked at the sketch. And I said, ‘Any chance of you sitting for me?’ He said, ‘I’m very busy, but it will be a painting, will it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I showed up and when Dylan’s wife opened the door to us, Dylan said, ‘This is the Canadian painter,’ and she said, ‘Bloody painters. A surfeit of bloody painters.’

We did meet up on the following day and I got my box of paints out and did some quick sketches. I had to be very quick because the sitter was moving about a bit, getting up and down, looking at books and shuffling through papers and so on, and he was preparing a talk he was giving on Under Milk Wood in Tenby. I couldn’t get what I wanted. That happened for the next two days. The first sitting was in the boathouse. The second time was in the shed. I did two sketches and said to him, ‘Look, if I’m going to do this you’ve got to sit still.’ I did get a fair sketch. He had an unmistakable profile. If you got that right you got everything right. I laid the paint on heavily and took chances and it came out quite successfully.

He and I walked every afternoon and we got on terribly well. He was pleasant and accommodating. Very nice. I felt I could have a friend here whose interests were the same as mine. Mine in oils, his in words. A friend of mine told me that he had died. It was a surprise. He was getting on pretty well. He had a cold, he looked very pale and he was obviously so busy. I was at the funeral. The last row but one. A great line of people. Up till then I felt that people didn’t really appreciate him very much but Laugharne came out in force and marched to the church and his wife came in and was wailing and very very upset.

original illustration by Dean Lewis

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Sarah King discusses Ceri Richards’ body of work in visual art at the Martin Tinney Gallery and how it reflects and builds upon the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

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.