Dylan Day 2020

(A piece by John “Gwnnwr” Cunningham)

Growing up in Swansea, Dylan’s presence was always around but in a somewhat ghostly unspoken air. His name was barely mentioned in school apart from the odd occasion when I heard about the older classes reading Under Milk Wood. I spent a lot of time in the Uplands as a young teenager, we frequently popped into Dylan’s bookshop (I didn’t make the connection back then) there were words carved into the beams of the shelter in Cwmdonkin Park that I knew belonged to him. And of course, the blue plaque, I didn’t take a lot of notice of, on the house in Cwmdonkin Drive that we regularly walked past on the long walk from Townhill to our rendezvous in Brynmill Park. There’s the statue of Dylan in the Marina that everyone took turns to sit on at some point but, who exactly was this man? Why was nobody sitting me down to explain the genius of this Swansea Jack?

Why was I not told of the trail this local boy has blazed across the globe and right through the literary world leaving giants like T.S Elliott and W.H Auden in awe of a young man in his 20’s who had already amassed two thirds of his poetry that would go on to be published, all whilst living with his Mam and Dad? What more could any teacher need to present to a young kid from Swansea to ignite his ambition? No matter the dream, be it a Footballer, Lawyer, Astronaut, Surveyor, Dylan, a local lad from down the road, blew the world away. If he could, then so can you. He’s the ultimate icon for a working class old industrial higgledy-piggledy mess of a town. So why isn’t he revered like any other trail blazer? Shakespeare, Shelly, Byron, Burns, Keats, Yeats? Because he made a decision very early on that to gain the respect of the older more established poets and writers (not to mention the girls) that he not only had to excel in his chosen profession, he had to live it. He chose to act as the bohemian, like Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and slowly morphed into an alter ego, a performer.

When you mention the name Dylan Thomas the usual return of dismissive responses includes the words womaniser, drunk, waster, sponger. Now there’s certainly an element of each in Dylan but how about, pioneer, genius, workaholic, observer?  Does a waster have a book of poetry published at the age of 21? Does a drunk write Under Milk Wood? Over two hundred broadcasts of his short stories and poems on national radio? The answer is simply no.

Dylan’s work is far too refined and clever to be the work of a habitual drunk madman. Its painstakingly put together, every single word of his work is part of the puzzle. One he wants to woo us with, make us fall in love with, but also something he wants to tease and challenge us with and once you’ve found the first couple of clues you’re hooked, but in typical Dylan style, there’s always one piece he doesn’t want you to find. A personal piece he keeps for himself, thus leaving us unable to ever truly crack the code. There are so many religious references, both sides of the family had strong chapel going roots. So many wonderfully playful choices of words in his work. For example, in The Force That Through The Green Fuse, there’s a line “And I am dumb to tell a weathers wind how time has ticked a heaven round the stars” A phenomenal line. The Welsh word for time is Amser,  but “Am ser” translates to “about the stars”. Is it the weathers wind that blows or a clock like wind that ticks time? In Love In The Asylum, the line “Strait in the mazed bed” not straight in the mazed bed. Is the spectre connecting the two seas that is Dylan and Caitlin in their tumultuous bed? Dylan’s work is also littered with Welsh connections, religious connections. It’s a relentless task to dig beneath the first meaning, the one he openly and obviously gives us, but the second… It’s a game he’s still playing with us.

Dylan’s humour is also wicked. His short stories, broadcasts and letters are brimming with great observations, quips and one-liners. Describing his cousin Gwilym in The Peaches “a tall man aged nearly twenty with a thin stick of a body and a spade-shaped face. You could dig the garden with him” During a confrontation about the day trip to Porthcawl, his Aunty gives his Uncle an ultimatum. ‘If you go on that trip Mr Thomas I’m going home to my Mother’s.’ Holy Mo, I thought, she’s got a mother. Now that’s one old bald mouse of a hundred and five that I won’t be wanting to meet in a dark lane.’ In Return Journey, setting the cold February scene of a snow-covered Swansea he enters a hotel early one morning: ‘I went into the hotel. ‘Good morning’ The hall porter did not answer. I was just another snowman to him’ Describing a scene in The Festival Exhibition ‘And what a pleasure of baskets! Trugs, creels, pottles and punnets, heppers, dorsers and mounds, wiskets and whiskets. And if these are not proper words they should be.’ It’s important to remember Dylan was an active member of the surrealist movement and that too has an influence in his writing. In Under Milk Wood our first encounter with Cherry Owen is when he ‘lifts a tankard to his lips but nothing flows out of it. He shakes the tankard. It turns into a fish. He drinks the fish.’ It’s hard not to see how he must have influenced a young Harry Secombe and the humour of The Goons. In turn, John Lennon was a big Goon fan. Ever read Lennon’s book In His Own Write…

So, here we are, our annual day of defence, deference and celebration for Dylan, itself a miracle. After a blazing start in 2014 in honour of the centenary of his birth, funding for the event stopped about 4 years later. And with it, the council of Swansea and West Glamorgan, Wales and the UK miss an opportunity to promote and bring Dylan’s work to a new generation, to embrace Dylan’s true genius and to promote tourism when so many places and references in his poetry are still here with us today. Today’s events are now driven by the efforts of those who still hold him in high esteem. The Welsh Centre was to hold an event with Guy Masterson today which very sadly had to be postponed due to the pandemic. So instead, we’ve turned to our creative Canolfan community! Thank you to all who have contributed to the cause, proving that even during a lockdown, we can sing in our chains like the sea.

In very strange times, I wish you all a tremendous Dylan Day, please raise a glass to the great man, enjoy a poem or story and embrace the escape for an hour. Best of luck cracking those codes.