Dylan & me

Celtic. Poetic. Drunk. And died 50 years ago today. The myth of the poet Dylan Thomas precedes him like a heritage marketing campaign. But it wasn't always this way. The novelist John Williams has a different recollection of Wales's greatest export

I was at The Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea for a wedding reception a couple of months back. It has a bookshop called Dylan's downstairs and a bar upstairs which serves pints of Dylan's Smooth Ale (presumably because he was a smooth kind of guy), and the band that played that night was called Fern Hill after the Dylan Thomas poem. Everywhere you looked there were posters advertising events linked to the 50th anniversary of Dylan's death - the memorial pub crawl with 18 straight whiskeys for all comers was about the only thing lacking - and I have to say it did cross my mind that perhaps we might be reaching saturation point here in Wales vis-à-vis our national poet.

Walking round the centre, pint of smooth in hand, admiring the exhibition of Thomasiana, reading the fragments of poetry painted on the walls and marvelling at just how many phrases Thomas has given the English language, from "rage, rage against the dying of the light" to "starless and bible black", the sense of the poet as part of Welsh history and heritage was so tangible I could almost believe it had always been a given, this elevation of Dylan Thomas to national hero. Except that a moment's reflection reminds me that it's actually a very modern phenomenon, part of the concerted effort Wales has made in recent years to rebrand itself.

Growing up in Wales in the Sixties and Seventies, the world of Under Milk Wood was fading into history. I grew up in a Sixties-built house outside Cardiff with parents who had modern art on the walls and listened to the Beatles and Nancy 'n' Lee (before succumbing to a regrettable and very Welsh passion for opera). The Wales that they - and I - wanted to live in was a place fired with that spirit of Swinging Sixties modernism and not one that harked back to the old Wales that Dylan Thomas came out of. Not that we would have thought of it in those terms; after all, Dylan Thomas then was scarcely the totemic presence he is today. I'd heard of him, of course. In Wales the success of any Welsh person is zealously celebrated in the Welsh press and is, in a funny kind of way, a matter of personal pride to all other Welsh people. It's a small country thing. So, growing up, I became aware of a pantheon of famous Welsh people. At the top were the really big names, the towering historical figures from Owain Glyndwr to David Lloyd George to the entire Welsh rugby team of the early Seventies. Dylan Thomas showed up somewhere in the upper middle ranks alongside the opera singer Sir Geraint Evans and the Amen Corner - and only a step or two up from the world bowls champion Mal Evans and Crossroads regular Stan Stennett.

As with all figures of national pride, the relationship was more theoretical than anything else. You weren't expected to have heard Geraint Evans sing or have read a line of Dylan Thomas; you were just pleased to know that there were people from Wales who had made their mark in the world. It carries on to this day: every Cardiff taxi driver or old lady can recite the names of Wales' top bands - Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals et al. Hell, there's even a faint glow of pride at the notion that the Tory party is on the point of having its first Welsh leader: Gorseinon's Michael Howard.

In the mid-Seventies, Dylan Thomas started to come into slightly better focus. As a teenager, I remember reading that Bob Dylan had named himself after the poet and being pleased but a little bewildered. In school "Do Not Go Gentle..." was occasionally read out at assembly, but Thomas's poems seldom featured in Eng Lit. My grandfather did like his work and played me a recording of Under Milk Wood. But I didn't warm to it. For me, it was part of a declining, chapel-fearing Welsh culture that I and my friends wanted to leave behind as soon as possible.

If I had a Welsh hero in my teens it was not Dylan Thomas but John Cale. The notion that a boy from the Swansea valley could end up playing viola in the Velvet Underground seemed infinitely more exciting than finding out that Llareggub meant bugger all. Of course the discovery that John Cale's song "A Child's Christmas in Wales" was named after a Dylan Thomas prose poem gave me pause for thought, but I figured that once you were living in New York and hanging out with Nico and Andy Warhol you were allowed a little nostalgia, and put it down to that.

If this sounds a mite dismissive you need to remember that Wales in the late Seventies was basically crumbling. All the things that its economy and culture had been based on - coal and steel, rugby and chapel - were disappearing. In those days Wales was not a Celtic heritage zone; we never heard or used the word "Celtic" to refer to ourselves. Wales at that time was far from romantic. It still bore the ravages of heavy industry; the valleys were still dark and grim and overshadowed by Aberfan. It was taken as a given that if you were ambitious you got out. If there was a poet who summed up how we felt it wasn't Dylan Thomas but his contemporary and namesake R S Thomas, who spoke in "Welsh Landscape" of "an impotent people/ Sick with inbreeding/ Worrying the carcass of an old song".

And so, like Dylan Thomas and every other ambitious Welsh person, I went to London. I played in bands and worked in record shops and then started writing. And to my surprise I found that, in the big city, I was regularly stumbling upon reminders that Thomas has passed this way before. Every other pub in Fitzrovia had a bleary-eyed photograph of him on the wall. For a while I ran a series of readings in the upstairs room of one of his regulars, the Black Horse on Rathbone Street. I called the evenings Hangover Square, after the Patrick Hamilton novel, of course, but with a tip of the hat to Thomas.

But it was only when I started travelling in America, researching a book about American crime writers, that I started to understand Thomas's true legacy as a poet. To Americans who went to college in the Fifties Dylan Thomas was not just another bohemian drunk. He was an impossibly exotic romantic figure, a proto-beatnik, proto-hippie Dionysian Celt. To the Americans, he was an emissary from another world, as elemental and extraordinary as, say, Muddy Waters was to us in Britain. I have to say I was somewhat disconcerted by this enthusiasm. I suspected that it was rooted in a patronising fondness for the primitive Celtic soul, and not based on the merits of Thomas's work itself. As a Celt, I had never noticed my innate soulfulness and was somewhat bemused to have it pointed out to me. But then, perhaps to push the analogy a little too far, black Americans of the Fifties weren't too interested in listening to Robert Johnson albums either. What is exotic to an outsider often seems parochial and downright embarrassing to someone who happens to have grown up in that culture.

However, my take on Thomas changed when I came to writing fiction myself. It became clear to me that however much you may want to escape your culture, it's always there, lurking in your unconscious. My first novel, Faithless, was about a Welshman in London, but from then on all the stories I seemed to want to tell were set in my home town of Cardiff. I wrote my first Cardiff book, Five Pubs Two Bars and a Nightclub, while still living in London. But then, when I realised that all the other book ideas I had were also going to be about Cardiff, it struck me that it was time to give up the unequal struggle with my unconscious and go back to Wales. Following once again in Dylan's footsteps.

And the Wales I returned to in the late Nineties was utterly changed. Gone were the slagheaps and the mines. They'd been landscaped and grassed over. Gone were Cardiff's decaying docks, replaced by identikit European-style waterfront developments. Gone - at least from Cardiff - was the chronic unemployment. The new Wales had embraced the ethos of the new Britain; it was all service industries, hi-tech and tourism.

Tourism! I remember just before I left Cardiff in 1982 hearing that a Holiday Inn was going to be built in the centre of town, and everyone falling about laughing. Why on earth would anyone want to holiday here? But today, the tourists are here in their hundreds. Cardiff is all spruced up and user-friendly - the cosmopolitan gateway to what always was a very beautiful small country. At the heart of this tourist boom - as with British tourism generally - is, of course, "heritage". And, presiding genially over this repackaging of Welsh culture as heritage is, of course, the alcoholic baby face of Dylan Thomas.

It's not because Dylan Thomas is a greater poet than R S Thomas. And it's not because the Welsh establishment approves of a dissolute adulterous drunk who squandered his talent. It's simply that the Americans have heard of him, and in the end the idea of a hard-drinking garrulous poet lends itself better to the promotion of a holiday destination than that of a cantankerous old priest like R S, who urged his countryfolk to burn holiday cottages.

So, in just 20 years, Dylan Thomas has gone from being a middle-ranking celebrity in Wales to being the country's ubiquitous figurehead. Under Milk Wood shows up in every repertory theatre in the land with metronomic regularity but, as with all literary figureheads, the merits and demerits of his work are scarcely relevant any more. He is "the great Welsh writer": end of story. His work is no longer literature. It's heritage - which is something more and less than that.

As a result, it's almost impossible to assess his legacy in any objective way. Clearly, the shadow he has cast over poets writing in Wales over the past half century has been huge. All Welsh poets are almost obliged now to take a stand, to love him or hate him - to celebrate the ways in which he incorporated the rhythms and internal rhyming patterns of Welsh language poetry into English verse, and the way in which he popularised modernism, or to decry him as a bloated self-publicist who was finished as a poet long before he drank himself to death.

My own opinion is that Dylan Thomas is a fine poet but often a terrible influence. His work offers so many temptations to romanticise and sentimentalise. But if we can focus on his very real strengths - his sheer love of language, his effortless mixing of the vernacular and literary and, above all, the basic fact, so often obscured, that in his work he was always for modernism and never for the false comforts of "heritage" - then beneath the Celtic reprobate shtick we can find something of value to all of us as Welsh writers. Even to an unreconstructed child of Sixties modernism like me.

John Williams's latest novel is 'The Prince of Wales' (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Dylan and me, too

John Cale, 61, musician, set several of Thomas's poems to music

Dylan was taught in Wales in the Fifties in a peculiarly cross-cultural way - and I use the word "peculiar" advisedly. What I got out of it was a lot of noise, like good, fresh advertising copy. It riveted my brain. I was stunned. As to how I felt I was supposed to respond, "pride" is the answer. They were teaching it as if it were continuous with the Welsh tradition of [the 14th-century poet] Dafydd ap Gwilym. It's the language that I connect with - I can't really focus on ethnic purity in that way; it makes me nervous. People floated towards "Fern Hill" and the later poems because the structure is mellifluous and kind of normal. The earlier stuff is much more opaque and mysterious. That's what I like. As to the Thomas heritage industry: ouch!

Nia Roberts, 31, actor

Although I first encountered Thomas through my mother, who used to perform extracts, I grew up thinking of him as a male voice. At home we had recordings of Thomas reading his work, Burton reading it, Hopkins reading it. Lovely though those are, they are all the same booming, resonant deep Welsh voice, very much of its time.

In New York I did a tribute performance in the Chelsea Hotel bar, where he used to spend a lot of time. I was asked to step in when Bryn Terfel couldn't perform "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" - but I thought, "No, I can't, my voice isn't big enough, I'm not big enough - I can't read this poem, a man should." I can't believe I refused. Then, later, working with Michael Bogdanov on Under Milk Wood we found a freer, lighter side to the text. It could be ironic, funny even. I played the second voice, which is traditionally male but works really well as a woman. Then I read "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" for BBC2 the other day and suddenly I thought, it doesn't need to be a man.

Iestyn George, 37, journalist and broadcaster

In the jumble of childhood memories it is the blue plaque attached to Dylan Thomas's place of birth that fits in somewhere with the cover of the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the Apollo 11 moon landing and the signature tune to White Horses. Dylan was right up there with John, Paul, Neil and Jacky. Every pub and coffee house had its own Dylan Thomas anecdote and every single visitor east of Newport got treated to the 5 Cwmdonkin Drive-by experience. There's always a worry that he'll end up being little more than a piece of cultural collateral for the tourism industry, but on the evidence of the audiences for the recent production of Under Milk Wood, the faithful will always turn out for the greatest hits.

M. Wynn Thomas, 59, Professor of Welsh language and literature at Swansea University

I was brought up in a Welsh-speaking house, so I have no childhood memories of Thomas. It was much later that I came across him. My interest is in exploring the way he has been treated as a cultural totem - how he's been polarised. There's the icon: the Tom Jones of poetry, the Welsh bard, Wales at its best. And there's the Welsh bogeyman: Neil Kinnock on a bad day, endlessly garrulous, indisciplined etc. Which pole people choose depends on their own cultural positioning. The Welsh non-Conformist establishment used to be very hostile to him, for example, because of the way he lived and his flippant remarks about Welsh culture.

Thomas casts a big, potentially poisonous shadow. He threatens to overwhelm Welsh literature and for this reason I've almost deliberately pushed him to the margins of my work.

Gwyneth Lewis,43, poet

My first encounter with him was in school. I was bowled over by the richness of the language. Under Milk Wood seemed like a complete world - fascinating for a child - and to hear poetry in your own accent and vernacular is entrancing. People I knew were slightly like the characters in it- though not entirely. I think Dylan Thomas is particularly attractive to children, since they are less cerebral and rationalist.

In my early twenties, I got irritated that the music didn't mean as much as I had hoped. When you are seriously trying to be a writer you get very critical of poets who were your models. It's like rebelling against your parents, perfectly healthy. Every Welsh poet has to rebel against Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas - the fathers. Then in my late twenties, I thought, right, I'll have another look, and I read every word he'd ever written. And I fell in love with him all over again.

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