When the singer and broadcaster Cerys Matthews, 45, was growing up in Swansea in the 1980s, she used to look forward to visits from her uncle Colin Edwards who lived on the west coast of America. A journalist by profession, he would stimulate her youthful imagination with his vivid stories of the latest places he had visited – usually war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and Central America.
Uncle Colin wasn't any old hack, but a man with fiery anti-establishment convictions who had fled the staid environment of post-war British media to work for radio networks, such as Pacifica, in the United States, which prided themselves on their radical political agendas. He reported on Arab political groups such as al-Fatah and interviewed controversial figures including Leila Khaled, the Palestinian activist who was involved in the hijacking of several Western airliners in 1969.
But when he returned on his regular holidays to Swansea, Edwards' attention was focused on gentler pursuits. He had become fascinated by his countryman, the poet Dylan Thomas, who he never met and who had died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39. Thomas had subsequently been ignored and even pilloried in his native Wales where the influence of the chapel still hung heavily and where he was widely regarded as a reprobate.
Edwards disagreed with this verdict and, after being introduced to Dylan's chirpy mother Florence, he embarked on a reassessment of her son which he regarded as an excellent story worthy of his talents.
So he set about interviewing anyone who still recalled the self-styled "Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive" – a reference to the house in the Swansea suburbs where Dylan was born 100 years ago on Monday.
Edwards did not do things by halves. Over the course of a dozen years from the late 1950s, he recorded more than 150 interviews on his well-travelled tape-recorder, filling 142 hours of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape, as he explored the world of Dylan Thomas. Every year, when he came back to Wales on holiday, he would seek out further members of the extended Thomas family in their homes, along with anyone else who had had anything to do with Dylan at school, in Swansea, at the BBC, or in the world of letters. He also roamed farther afield, putting his gently probing questions to people who had met Dylan during his four visits to the United States from 1950 to 1953, as well on his more far-flung and unlikely trips to Italy, Czechoslovakia and Iran.
By the time that Cerys Matthews got to know him, Uncle Colin had finished his interviewing. He had plans to write a big biography of Dylan Thomas, but only finished some early chapters. That didn't stop him from continually talking about his hero, though, whose poetic genius he felt had been ignored among the barbs about drunkenness and promiscuity.
The teenage Cerys took this on board and, as she developed her career, first as the singer with the band Catatonia, then as a solo artist, and more recently as a BBC radio presenter, she wanted to know more about the Welsh poet who had intrigued her uncle.
She could have satisfied her curiosity by listening to Colin Edwards' tapes. However, so far as her side of the family was aware, the physical recordings had been destroyed. It wasn't until recently that she learnt that Edwards' American-based widow Mary had donated all this material to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Over the past year, Cerys has been familiarising herself with this material, which she has used as the basis for an affectionate but revealing programme, to be broadcast tomorrow on BBC Radio's Archive on 4, as part of the centenary tributes to Thomas. Despite their age, Edwards' interviews sound remarkably clear.
Cerys weaves excerpts from her uncle's interviews with her own observations, snatches of her readings and songs from Thomas's work, and a few contributions from present-day commentators, of whom I, a biographer of the poet, am one. Cerys tells me how making the programme enhanced her love of Dylan. "It's not because he's Welsh. The more I spent time with him, the more I wanted to give him a hug. He looked at humanity with so much love. You can't help feeling close to him and wanting to look after him."
Having performed his work for five years in her solo gigs, she has recently made a double CD (released this week on her own label, Marvels of the Universe) called A Child's Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs in which, to the accompaniment of her own music, she recites or sings several of Thomas's poems, as well as one of his best-loved stories, A Child's Christmas in Wales.
She compares her orchestral version of this tale to one of her favourite pieces of music, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf – to the extent that she, too, intends on making it into a ballet.
Before she could get to grips with the poet, she needed to know more about her uncle. Colin Edwards, who lived from 1924 to 1994, was brought up in Gorseinon, outside Swansea, where his father was in the meat trade and his mother Doris, who (unusually) attended the Sorbonne, became a writer. Cerys explains to me that he wasn't strictly an uncle, but a cousin, the son of her grandfather's sister, though she always knew and addressed him in the style of many Welsh families as "uncle".
During the Second World War he served in the Fleet Air Arm, and afterwards went to Oxford University. Like Dylan, he was not suited to academic life, and left to become a US-based radio journalist, making programmes in conflict zones from Malaya and Biafra to Vietnam and the Middle East. Living in Oakland in California, the centre of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, he also interviewed activists such as Eldridge Cleaver.
Edwards had two main objectives in his Dylan recordings. One was to counter the idea that Dylan was a drunkard (what Matthews calls the "demon drink" issue). This was partly because he wanted to please Dylan's mother who provided his entrée into the poet's world, but at the same time, it seems, because he himself was teetotal and a non-smoker, and he wanted to understand a world of excess that was totally unfamiliar to him.
In some respects, he over-compensates. One hears Ebie Williams, landlord of Brown's Hotel where Dylan drank in Laugharne, gamely suggesting that the poet was not a big drinker and was content with his pint of bitter. Dylan's daughter Aeronwy who died in 2009 is more realistic. She talks unflinchingly in her interview with Edwards about how her father would go to Brown's around midday. He would return for lunch (her mother Caitlin wasn't a great cook, with only a couple of dishes – tripe and Irish stew). In the afternoon Dylan would be despatched to his shed (and sometimes locked inside) until six o'clock when he would be off to the pub again, this time with Caitlin in tow. Often his three children would be left with nothing to eat. "Two drinkers aren't that bothered about food," says Aeronwy in her matter-of-fact manner.
Edwards' other main objective was to claw back Dylan's reputation as a great poet. It was a habit he learnt early. Florence Thomas records how she would give her son "plenty of notepaper and he'd go to his own little room and write and write. Unfortunately she didn't keep anything because he produced so much that he "wouldn't have had a room to live in". Edwards also tackles the idea that Thomas's writing suffered from a surfeit of fancy words to the exclusion of meaning. Vernon Watkins, Dylan's fellow poet and close collaborator, states categorically in his protracted conversations with Edwards that "sound is the meaning in good poetry".
Charles Fisher, an old school friend, recalls Dylan "interminably" discussing his poems, as he summons up hitherto unknown lines such as "You collect such strange shapes in the cool palm of your hand/ You with your long sinewy limbs and muscles breaking through the skin." Fisher waxes lyrical about Dylan's "beautiful sprung rhythms" and his fascination with sounds such as "metrical biscuitry" which he gathered like "rare butterflies". Cue for Cerys Matthews to launch into Fern Hill. "It's all in the seductive sound of his poems," she says on the radio show. "Dylan excelled at this – the cadence, the rhythms."
Once again, Aeronwy puts this in domestic context, when she reveals on the Edwards tapes that her father liked to declaim his work around the house, but was discouraged by her mother: "She thought him a great poet, but didn't like him bringing it home." But she insists on Dylan's sincere dedication to his craft, a point taken up by Vernon Watkins and others.
Over the course of the interviews, a third theme emerges and that is Dylan's unusual capacity for empathy. Watkins might not necessarily agree (Dylan failed to turn up as the best man at his wedding). Aeronwy also might have had other ideas (she talks feelingly about how her father would ignore her when there were visitors).
But others emphasise the poet's capacity to engage with, listen to, and understand other people. One friend, the painter Fred Janes, points out that Dylan was "a fantastically human being". In one of Edwards' most interesting interviews, a little-known Scottish actress called Elizabeth Ruby Milton comments on Dylan's empathy with the downtrodden (she particularly mentions prostitutes) and his interest in death. Dylan used to spend a lot of time with her in London in the late 1930s and during the Second World War, when he was in the capital making propaganda films and writing powerful poems, such as A Refusal to Mourn The Death, by Fire of a Child in London.
This leads to a well-rehearsed debate in the tapes about whether Dylan was a religious poet. "I think he believed in God," recalls Aeronwy, "but he didn't want to be chained, he didn't want the restriction. His God was poetry."
Cerys sums him up as "a boozer with self-discipline, a child with a visionary voice. Listening to my uncle's tapes you hear all the contradiction that is at the heart of being human. This is the heart of Dylan Thomas, and I think it's what drove my uncle on and on to seek out others who'd known Dylan. He was desperate to try and untangle the myths and redeem the man and that which drove him – poetry." In her radio broadcast, there is a dramatic pause before the last word, which is infused with every possible melodious cadence.
Colin Edwards, unfailingly courteous to the end, signs off his interview with Dylan's mother, saying it is "very gracious of you, Mrs Thomas, to let us come here to your home at Laugharne, to give us tea," and she replies, "I am delighted to talk. It brings back happy memories; I'm very, very proud."
'Cerys Goes Under Milk Wood' is a Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4 (producer Sarah Cuddon). It will be broadcast tomorrow on 'Archive on 4' at 8pm
Andrew Lycett's biography 'Dylan Thomas: A New Life' is published by Phoenix (£12.99)Reuse content