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'

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence