Dylan Thomas and the Kardomah set
They had no manifesto, no grand theories. But for nearly a decade, a coterie of writers, composers and painters gathered in a Swansea café to share their hopes and dreams. As the last survivor passes away, Boyd Tonkin recalls the artistic ferment that raged in that 'ugly, lovely town'
Saturday 11 February 2006
Next week, a rock venue in north London will host a gig by an upwardly mobile indie band from south Wales. Kardomah cite the Smiths, U2 and Radiohead among their musical inspirations, but for fans with literary inclinations, the magic will begin with the name.
That is a tribute to the Kardomah café in Swansea, where, in the 1930s, the young Dylan Thomas and his bohemian friends would meet, talk and dream of the triumphs that their talents would achieve. Two weeks ago, Charles Fisher, the last survivor of the "Kardomah Boys" and keeper of their their flame, died at 91. It could just be that, on Friday, the spirit of the Kardomah Boys will ignite again on stage at the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town.
The spirit draws its force from an old British dilemma: on the one hand, a defiant pride in local roots, but on the other an urge to escape the confines of a provincial scene that may mock your aims and keep you trapped.
There is an apocryphal story about the young Michael Frayn arriving, fresh from Cambridge, to work on The Manchester Guardian in the late 1950s. The trainee reporter, and future novelist and dramatist, is supposed to have asked where the city's "artists' quarter" could be found. The Mancunian journos are supposed to have dissolved in mirth. These days, of course, they would merely scratch their heads, spoilt for choice: does he mean the posh ones in Didsbury, the right-on ones in Chorlton, the ultra-cool ones in Castlefield ...?
Back then, even in the city of Neville Cardus and John Barbirolli, it could be taken for granted that the cities of provincial Britain did brass, but not arts. Any creative spirit unlucky enough to grow up in them would - so the assumption went - yearn to escape the sticks, first to some scholarly city of perspiring dreams, then to the glamour and glory of London.
In the meantime, the young wits, bards and dandies would hang out in some friendly local pub or coffee house, sharing their disdain, sharpening their repartee, and hatching plans to take the creative world by storm.
Even in the decades before the Liverpool scene of the 1960s began to knock the pride of London off its perch, the non-metropolitan truth was often far richer than the myth. Yet bohemian covens around Britain really did meet to drink, smoke and talk, and talk, and talk of the great expectations that would banish their small-town blues.
The experience of these fraternities - little Utopias of chat and comradeship in places often perceived by their native sons as dour or philistine - would mark their members for life.
So it was a poignant moment when, late last month in a Bangkok hotel room, Charles Fisher, the Canadian journalist and writer, passed away. Fisher, still the dapper, globe-trotting bohemian, lived in Ottawa, where he had worked, until an active retirement, for the Canadian version of Hansard. But he had left his heart in Swansea. "My love was Wales," runs one of Fisher's poems, "her tremendous signatures."
He was born in Swansea in 1914, an exact contemporary of his friend, Dylan Thomas, the most tremendous signature of all in 20th-century Welsh culture. With Thomas, he formed part of the Kardomah Boys, the informal gang of aspiring writers, musicians and artists who hung out in a cheap and welcoming café. Fisher was not just the last surviving member but the chronicler of what they did - and failed to do - with their burgeoning abilities. With his death, a door closes on the smoky, boozy, in-jokey and generally all-male cliques that did so much to fix the character of culture in mid-20th-century Britain.
A large dollop of legend always flavours recollections of such groups. With the Kardomah Boys, it seems possible the principal players never even found themselves all together on the Castle Street premises. But in one respect, the location did claim a role in Dylan Thomas's development that sounds too mythically good to be true. The café stood on the site of a Congregational chapel where, in 1903, the poet's parents - D J and Florence - had married.
D J Thomas taught English at Swansea Grammar School, where his gifted but wayward son met Charles Fisher. Indeed, Fisher played the part of Thomas's wife in a school production of John Galsworthy's picket-line drama Strife. After they left school, both apprentice bohos got jobs on the South Wales Daily Post, where Fisher's father was head printer.
At about this time, in the early 1930s, the Kardomah group took shape. In addition to Thomas and Fisher, its leading lights included the Marxist scholar Bert Trick (Dylan's political mentor), the composer and linguist Daniel Jones, the painter Alfred Janes, the poet and translator Vernon Watkins, the artist and art dealer Mervyn Levy and the novelist and poet John Prichard.
Fisher wrote later that "there never was such thing as a Kardomah Group in the sense usually applied to people who meet to reinforce artistic or social aims they possess in common. We were far too individualistic for that. We had no manifesto to publish, no theory of art to propose".
Rather, in the cash-strapped but time-rich Depression years in south Wales: "Our purpose in meeting was simply to talk and exchange news in the wittiest and most lively way we knew, which we did at great length and to some effect for a decade or so."
The Kardomah was across across the road from the newspaper office, and the story-gathering trips to court or port by the young reporters would often take a long detour there. Fisher acknowledged that "a great deal of the latitude allowed me was due to the kindness" of their boss, "in overlooking long absences from the newsroom".
In contrast to the seedy and shambolic style associated with Thomas, Fisher acted the elegant countryman. Thomas marked this clash of images in his radio script Return Journey, a nostalgic, elegiac trip back to bomb-wrecked Swansea amid the severe winter snows of 1947. Trudging past "the flat white wastes where all the shops had been", Thomas remembers the Kardomah, wrecked by German bombers in the raids of 1941, and its merry band of brothers with their dreams of future conquests.
"Dan Jones was going to compose the most prodigious symphony, Fred Janes paint the most miraculously meticulous posture, Charlie Fisher catch the poshest trout, Vernon Watkins and Young Thomas write the most boiling poems, how they would ring the bells of London and paint it like a tart."
Thomas's poetry duly came to the boil, in the visionary, surreal verbal effervescence that intoxicated readers around the world and continues to enchant enthusiasts, from schoolchildren to movie stars to a brace of US presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Still, raising his poetic temperature, and his own profile, did mean for Thomas swapping the Kardomah for the taverns of Fitzrovia and the studios of Broadcasting House. He started to make career-building trips to London in 1933, and in the capital he met editors, made friends, won hearts, and broke hearts.
By 1936, when he had published his first major volume (Twenty-Five Poems) and met his future wife Caitlin Macnamara (then the lover of the painter Augustus John), Swansea had begun to drift into the misty twilight that would shape his later views of it. Sometimes hell and occasionally heaven, his Swansea, that "ugly, lovely town", then conveniently crumbled under the Luftwaffe's wartime bombardment.
World-conquering afternoons in the fug of the Kardomah, like childhood Christmas mornings at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, would slide into the borderlands between memory and fantasy. It joined a poetic landscape of yearning and regret in which the only paradises were paradises lost. "Time held me green and dying," as Thomas's Fern Hill definitively puts it, "Though I sang in my chains like the sea."
In Swansea's smallish world, these young contenders already felt the pressure - and the pull - of grand metropolitan institutions. Fisher said that "in our Kardomah circle, the BBC was ever an unseen presence, a force in our lives never to be taken lightly, albeit shifty, unpredictable, treacherous. For young composers, especially, the organisation was a nightmare."
The BBC would prove crucial to Thomas's lasting fame as a poet and radio dramatist. An early work, The Romantic Isle, won a radio poetry competition in 1933. Two decades later, the posthumous first broadcast of Under Milk Wood in 1954, with the young Richard Burton as First Voice, probably did more than any other event to seal the Dylan Thomas myth. His fame was in every sense broadcast around the world.
For all his boozy, lecherous romanticism - later adorned in the telling, but genuine enough - Thomas had a shrewd and canny grasp of the literary marketplace. If he hit the jackpot of cultural celebrity, it was in part because he knew exactly which levers to pull. But what of his Kardomah comrades, and their dreams of glory?
The career of Daniel Jones, Pembroke-born musician, composer and polyglot linguist, shows the fickleness of fame. Dylan remembered Dan Jones in the Kardomah, plotting to compose "the most prodigious symphony". He did a lot better than that. Jones completed 12 symphonies, as well as a vast and varied output of other choral and orchestral work, in a long creative lifetime; he died in 1993.
Part-Modernist, part-Romantic (rather like Thomas), Jones composed the music for Under Milk Wood and, in 1954, his fourth symphony took the form of an elegy for his friend, Dylan. He had another, extraordinary string to his bow as well: during the Second World War, the gifted linguist became a codebreaker at the top-secret Bletchley Park.
Fisher thought Dan Jones a genius. "I choose the word after deliberation, believing him to be a major composer of the first rank." For Fisher, he "deserves to be regarded as Dylan's equal in the field of creation, not as an extra, or a spear-bearer or as one to be dismissed lightly as 'Dylan's friend'."
Yet Jones's work, by and large, languishes in the obscurity that rapidly overtook so much 20th-century music, in Britain and elsewhere. Loyalty to local roots, and local inspiration, may have proved a blessing for a shooting star such as Dylan Thomas, but a curse for the steadier orbit of a Daniel Jones.
Seventy years on, the quandaries of the Kardomah gang still plague artistic wannabes who hail from anywhere outside the charmed circles of the capital. Big fish in small pools often want to leave, yet they may draw their nourishment from the very waters they find so dull.
Today's equivalents might like to chew on that paradox, as they sit around topping up their caffeine levels and buffing up their one-liners and put-downs, just as the teenage Kenneth Tynan did at a café in New Street, Birmingham, in the 1940s.
And what was the name of this favourite haunt of the fledgling enfant terrible of British theatre? As it happens, the Kardomah.
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