Lost girl in the land of my fathers
Nick Smith reviews
My Father’s Places: a portrait of childhood by Dylan Thomas’ daughter
By Aeronwy Thomas, Constable, £14.99, pp 218
On the fiftieth anniversary of her father’s death Dylan Thomas’s only daughter said in an interview with the BBC: “Some of my best memories are when we walked back silently to the Boat House and I just felt so comfortable with him and he obviously felt comfortable with me… because there wasn’t any need to speak.” Aeronwy Thomas had put up with a lot. Her father had died before she’d reached her teens and she’d been forced to grow up in public with hurtful, nasty comments made about her father without a thought for her feelings. Gutsy, she stuck to her guns, defended the poetry and made allowances for the father. But she did need to speak. “Beyond being a drunkard and a writer and a womaniser,” she said commenting on his belated inclusion at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, “he was predominantly a poet. So what if he was a drinker? There are many drinkers in the United Kingdom, but there are not that many writers.”
Aeronwy died in July this year as her last book – My Father’s Places – was going to press. It’s sad when an author doesn’t get to see the fruits of their labour, but in this case particularly so because it’s a posthumous labour of love that ‘took ten years to write from start to finish’. That it took a decade to get out of her system suggests that it was something she simply had to get right. She consulted her father’s biographer Paul Ferris, and academic Barbara Hardy ‘who never lost faith in the content of my own memories’. That the resulting book seems to contradict the diplomatically crafted public statements she made throughout her life, could mean that we have here a work that sheds important new light on the Swansea-born poet. Gone are the torch-bearing defences of the great 20th century bard, and instead we have a more muted, sometimes overly-sunny, Tizer and Welsh cakes idealisation of hopeful youth: as with so many children of celebrities, she didn’t particularly want a famous father, she just wanted a father.
My Father’s Places, despite its title – recalling the phrase from St John that would have been hammered into the young Aeronwy in the chapels of west Wales – is neither much about her father or geography. It’s really a memoir of her own childhood, with the years at the famous Boat House in Laugharne clearly the most important. There is the complex relationship with her mother, Caitlin MacNamara, former professional dancer upon whom motherhood sat awkwardly. Caitlin, though she undoubtedly loved her children and her husband too, was a hard-drinking exhibitionistic firebrand would pull her daughter’s hair until she screamed because she looked ‘so much like your father. The harder I pull your curls, the better I feel.’ Caitlin often beat her daughter so violently that she would run to her grandmother’s to escape, only to find that upon her arrival she was physically incapable of sitting down. And yet there were times when she’d go skinny-dipping with her mum, secretly pleased that they were shocking the neighbourhood.
The trail of writers and artists that drank and vomited their way through the Boat House of Aeronwy’s youth hardly made her life easier. One of Dylan Thomas’s many guests gave her a gold ring in exchange for her silence following an incident when he sexually assaulted her on a boating trip. Her father by special arrangement would be allowed into the local pub before 11 o’clock when it officially opened, and by lunchtime was often incapable of recognising his own child in the street (at her baptism he got her name wrong, giving it as Aeron Hart, instead of Aeronwy Bryn). At seven o’clock Caitlin and Dylan would go to ‘the Brown’s’ pub together leaving their daughter to look after baby Colm. On their return there were routinely fights, singing and slanging matches, and worst of all for the young Aeronwy, her mother would get dolled up and dance in front of the guests, doing cartwheels, showing her knickers and drunkenly knocking over the furniture. These are the memories of their only daughter in her final memoir.
Maybe none of this was so shocking in post-war rural Wales, but this disorganised and dysfunctional childhood was certainly a long way from the norm. And wistful, nostalgic and romantic as My Father’s Places may be, it’s also a bleak insight into a cracked family of unstable megalomaniacs with no parenting skills and no desire to acquire them. As she wanders around the emotional bombsite of her childhood memories, Aeronwy seems to become ever more desperate to put a brave face on things, make it all normal, make it all go away.
One of the ways she does this is to imitate her father’s prose style. Every phrase is well chosen, well turned and written to be read aloud. There is the same inebriation with language: the artful zeugma, transferred epithets and tumbling tricolons. There is the same compressed musicality of dialogue and the same searching for a (probably non-existent) primal Welsh lyricism, mixed up with the effing and blinding of the public bar at chucking out time. Of course, she’s nowhere near as good as her father, but of his many imitators, she’s the best.
Oddly My Father’s Places reveals almost nothing about Dylan that we don’t already know, although Aeronwy is very good at reminding us that he was of course very young. We tend to forget that. Even when he was old he was very young, and when he died he was only thirty-nine and not that much older than Keats. When she recalls that he hero-worshipped Henry Miller and thought Tropic of Cancer the ‘best fucking book’ ever written, it is a tremendous insight into the mind of the young poet, because only thrusting young men bursting with literary ambition are likely to admire Miller. For all the clichés of being locked in his writing shed by his fiery wife, hacking out every ponderous syllable with a Woodbine dangling from his lips, here was a man in love with words, who thought writers and writing were cool. For all the tangled over-written madness of the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ that was Under Milk Wood, here was a man with who loved experimental literature, whose legacy is a handful of the most profoundly glorious poems of the 20th century.
You leave My Father’s Places the way you leave much of Aeronwy Thomas’s father’s best work. Inspired and slightly depressed. In an appendix she has included a poem of her own that in some respects resembles her father’s terrific piece of occasional verse – ‘Prologue’ – that he wrote to introduce his Collected Poems in 1952. In ‘Later than Laugharne’ she writes of the ‘balmy, never-to-be-forgotten days, green and golden…’ a reference also to the final lines of ‘Fern Hill.’ Brave? Self deluded? Its rhapsodic, mellifluous, self-consciously Welsh tone can do nothing to cover up a little girl’s lost childhood subverted by her parents alcoholism and poverty. And yet she was the child of one of the great poets, and there are times when she seems to happily accept that this comes at a price.
Nick Smith was brought up in Swansea, Dylan Thomas’s ‘ugly, lovely town’ before reading English at Balliol College, Oxford. He now writes for the Daily Telegraph