Demythologising Dylan: a Centenary to Rock the Boat House Legend

Art & Lit Literature

Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter, Hannah, admits scepticism over the ‘Dylan Myth’ amidst musings on charades and rats.

A torpedo of drunken rebellion and poetic flair ultimately ended by 18 straight whiskies splashed down his throat and across the headlines? Or sensationalised simplification so overblown as to give itself away as media make-believe?

Hannah Ellis is under no illusions about her late grandfather’s sporadic drinking habit, but stands firmly for a more balanced view of Dylan and his poetry. 2014 marks the centenary of his birth, and it is not slipping by unnoticed. Dylan Thomas 100 has set in motion a twelve-month programme of worldwide events, spanning from the unprecedented display of his teenage notebooks and Dylan-inspired jazz, to theatre, poetry conferences, and multimedia exhibitions. The variety is off the scale, and the hype is already underway in his home country.

Hannah has evidently mulled over her grandfather’s international appeal: “He was almost seen as the People’s poet in how he talked about the vulnerable”, noting even communist East Germany’s favour with their invite for Dylan to cross the Berlin Wall. Poems like ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ hint at the writer’s vast empathy, and Hannah suggests such “feeling too much” may have lain behind the drinking. Discussing his struggle to cope with the losses of his father and sister in his 39th year, Hannah concedes: “There’s every truth in that he was completely on self-destruct at the end of his life.”

Yet Dylan’s notoriety as a “roistering, drunken, and doomed poet” (courtesy of John Davies) clashes with tales of family charades and rat invasions. Hannah recalls her mother reminiscing with a smile: “He’d be playing the hunchback, always the best”, and gives a softer portrait of a man who would shriek and leap onto tables in the Boat House as her grandmother and mother chased off rats. Hannah has no doubt that Dylan’s children knew his writing was top priority, but his ability to put others at ease left his daughter with fond memories to pass onto her own children.

Hannah feels she met her grandfather through her uncle Colm, Dylan’s youngest son. She describes someone, by no means perfect, but as a charmer and a wonderful joker, hugely missed by his family. Colm’s ultimate withdrawal to an Italian village might have resembled a “Laugharne in Italy” to echo Dylan’s own haven on the Welsh coastline. “The whole community came out for my uncle’s funeral”, Hannah contemplates, “they adored him, just as Dylan was always one of the crowd”. Even so, she does not ascribe her grandfather’s caricature to outsiders’ distortion alone, and recollects friends’ stories of how Dylan would sip a single pint then feign swaggering intoxication on bumping into an acquaintance. Mystique prevails. Bantering with Dali and the Surrealists in 1936 saw the poet with a teapot and cup of string in tow, accosting bystanders: “Weak or strong?”. Questions certainly seem to outweigh answers in the excavation of Dylan’s own riddled personality.

Perhaps focusing the lens on ‘Dylan the person’ isn’t the way forward. Robert Lovell saw in him “a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding” and indeed Dylan’s audience transcends boundaries. In a festival that stretches to Argentina, India, Canada, the US, and Australia, it seems neglectful that Oxford has yet to map itself onto the 2014 celebrations. The poet’s year spent at Holywell Ford, Magdalen College, is a noteworthy fleck in the diverse landscapes of his career. The influential Welsh ‘capel’ climate of preachers’ dogmatic boomings not only shaped Dylan’s bold, dramatic recitals, but also provoked the claustrophobia that saw him shirking a fixed post-code.

To quote Seamus Heaney, a Patron of the festival during his lifetime: “If ever there is a centenary worth celebrating, this is it.” While Dylan’s life might have been cut short, Dylan Thomas 100 is ensuring his poetic legacy need not be. True to his word, “death shall have no dominion”.

Go to http://dylanthomas100.org/ for details of the festival’s 2014 events that are taking place across the UK and beyond.