'I always knew whether my father was working or reading his forbidden detective novels. If you passed and heard nothing he was reading, for as soon as he picked up his fountain pen he spoke every word out loud. For him, the sound of the words was integral to the poem. Sometimes his voice was loud and booming, at other times I had to put my ear to the thin door to hear his mumbles. It seemed like a secretive, incantatory rite.'
I suspect that finding out about the life of a poet, of whom you know little beyond their hedonistic lifestyle, and doing it via the memoirs of one of his children might be a good point of entry.
'Point of entry' is my new phrase, shamelessly pilfered from a conversation with the lovely people at Pan Macmillan last week as we debated those books that offer a good way into a writer we may have struggled with.
How many times have I struggled and surrendered, but apparently it's all about starting with the point of entry book and I think the idea works well when approaching a life too.
I had read My Father's Places, a portrait of childhood by Dylan Thomas' daughter Aeronwy Thomas and published by Constable before I then picked up My Life with Dylan Thomas double drink story by Caitlin Thomas and how glad I am to have approached his life in this order because, Aeronwy's, like The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith, was a book I read in daily doses and really didn't want to end.
In contrast Caitlin's account can't end soon enough for me.
Aeronwy through her own eyes seemed to have to make do with the crumbs of parenting that were scattered her way by two madly egocentric people indulging in a fiery, centre-stage relationship fuelled by drink
...and crikey could they drink...Dylan would down twenty pints a night, Caitlin wasn't far behind.
The relationship was volatile, physically violent and very vocal with Dylan entering a self-perpetuating cycle of escape and absence that often left an unwilling and fierce-tempered Caitlin holding the parental fort, and to be honest I shuddered at all of it.
The couple never spent an evening home together and by that I mean never, as in 'not once', there were bars to be propped up, drinks to be foraged by Dylan and Caitlin the masters of scrounge and if you might be wondering who was at home looking after the children, the answer is no one. In 1943, for the first months of her life Aeronwy suggests she was fed and left alone every evening at 7pm in a little room in a bomb-torn London flat whilst Caitlin and Dylan went off to the pub.
As they grew older the children looked after themselves in the evenings, a young Aeronwy usually having full responsibility for the care of her baby brother Colm whom she tried so hard to hate and would leave lying under bushes in the hope everyone would forget about him, but whom despite her best efforts she came to love, though with reservations. Life at the Boathouse offered freedom and the potential for an idyllic childhood, but there was something fundamental missing from the equation and there was little Aeronwy could do about that, she compensated hard in other ways.
Unsurprisingly there is a sense of detachment to Aeronwy's writing, a genetic belonging and an upbringing , if you can call it that, (more an existence with uncertain, shifting boundaries and unpredictable degrees of discipline,) which raised a spirited handful of a child, precocious, self-reliant, independent and willful, desperate for attention and striving always to procure it from her father. It needed great powers of persuasion to extract on ounce of his time and even then it would be distracted and fleeting, always threatening to end but when she did it usually involved reading aloud.
Yet through the eyes of the daughter there is no overt sense of self-pity, this is just how it was, Aeronwy knew no different and so to her Dylan Thomas was 'round like a benevolent teddy bear' and capable of tenderness whenever she could manage to persuade him to notice her. Those briefest of moments of his time became precious and loaded with memory for Aeronwy who spent her latter years(she died of leukaemia this summer) dedicated to the promotion of her father's work; in his death perhaps looking for that compensation and a closeness that she had yearned for but never received in life.
Poignantly Aeronwy reveals at one point in the book that her father only ever wrote and dedicated one poem to her, that search for signs of love and affection seems thwarted at every turn.
How interesting too that Dylan Thomas was so incredibly close to his own father, met him each morning in Brown's Hotel in Laugharne to complete the Times crossword, and yet he was such a helpless, hopeless father himself. More about Caitlin as a mother when I have finished reading Double Drink Story.
Despite the sturm und drang and the traumas of such a dysfunctional family life My Father's Places is an excellent read and easy to spot those elements of denial. Aeronwy is perhaps unwittingly candid about her life but equally guarded about passing judgement on her parents, making endless allowances as children in these circumstances often do.
On their return from a lengthy US tour the, parents bring back virtually nothing for the children but that's alright, it had been expensive staying in hotels, buying drinks and Caitlin, so overcome by the abundance, buying quantities of clothes for herself with money she didn't have. The begging letters go out and the funds trickle in again and Aeronwy lives in a child's world 'unmarked by trouble'.
I think we see a very different world indeed.
News of her father's untimely death was broken to Aeronwy who was by this time at boarding school
'The teachers were worried and asked pupils to check whether I was grieving at night. No, they reported no signs of grieving. No one could understand that I carried on my life at school as if nothing had happened. Writing about my father's death is cathartic, though all my activity on his behalf during most of my life has been a form of reconciliation to his death.'