Staying in Dylan Thomas’s house

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In the few good nights that Tishani Doshi spent in the poet’s gentle Welsh home, she found a return to childhood, a religious experience, and a resting place unlike the rest.

“I’ve longed to move away,” he wrote to one of his friends, but he kept coming back, because “it is still the best place.” | Tishani Doshi

7 July 2018

You wouldn’t go swimming in Swansea Bay, because the sand there is like granny’s custard, bitty and unsavoury. So a local tells me. I can see the bay from the window of the house the poet Dylan Thomas grew up in, on 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, and the sea looks far from bitty. I want to dive into it. I’ve been invited to stay in the house for a few nights, (poet’s perk). Rather than choose the small bedroom next to the boiler room where Dylan wrote two thirds of his work, or the front bedroom where he was born, I choose his parent’s Florrie and DJ’s room because of the sea view, and because it catches the most sun. But it doesn’t stop me from wandering through the house Goldilocks-style, taking turns to lie on each of the beds.

I keep expecting to bump into Dylan in the corridor on my way to the loo. At night, the experience of being in the house alone is sacred, bordering on spooky. It feels sacrilegious to lie in the tub reading Andrew Lycett’s biography of Dylan, to take my morning coffee into the front parlour, which was reserved for posh guests. As if it wasn’t enough that a poet give everything in his poems, we must prise open his life, occupy the rooms of his house, willing the ghost to reappear. It is the closest to a religious experience I’ve ever had.

 

 

It is also a strange return to childhood. A corridor back to my maternal grandmother’s house in Nercwys, North Wales. My family would make the summer trip from Madras every three or four years. There were magical things then. Milk in glass bottles that arrived on the doorstep each morning, the playground down the street where the sun set at 10 0’ clock. Once, there was even snow, ageing the fields across the house into whiteness.

Dylan’s house reminds me of my grandmother’s house — tall and narrow, standing in a group of row houses. Carpeted floors and lace curtains, one bathroom with the toilet in a separate room, coal shed and small garden out back. Middle-class Welshness. These were aspirational houses. For Dylan’s father, who was a school master and son of a railway guard, moving to the Uplands (as the area is still called) was literally a step up. For my grandfather, who worked in a quarry, moving his family of six from what was essentially a studio to Tan-y-Rhos, was a similar climb. These were houses coded for manners and a kind of containment. No wonder then, that the rebellious Dylan had the protagonist of Adventures in the Skin Trade smash all his mother’s crockery and deface his father’s school essays before leaving Swansea for London.

 

 

How it is that even when we’re home we can never feel at home. As Dylan put it, “Everywhere I find myself seems to be nothing but a resting place between places that become resting places themselves.”

 

Dylan Thomas opened a window in the house of poetry for me. Part of it had to do with his Welshness, and my need to associate myself with that which was mine but not fully mine. But it was also shared affinities — his love/hate for Swansea mirrored mine for Madras.

He called it “an ugly, lovely town…crawling, sprawling…by the side of a long and splendid curving shore”. In the way that this sea-town was his world, middling Madras and her Marina was my world too. “I’ve longed to move away,” he wrote to one of his friends, but he kept coming back, because “it is still the best place.” I understood well the comfort of the familiar, which quickly turns oppressive, the seductive call of the great elsewhere. But it was also his rapaciousness for words themselves, his obsession with the inevitability of decay, his placing the body in the centre of the universe. “My body was my adventure and my name,” he wrote in The Peaches.

 

It is strange to sit in his father’s study, where Dylan would have regaled friends with recitations in his sonorous, elocution-trained voice (Enid Starkie said of his voice, “I wouldn’t have minded if Dylan Thomas had read the telephone directory”). To stare at the wall in his tiny bedroom where he dreamed of Greta Garbo and flying in the air over mountains and trees. You can feel the desperate ambition, the constant worries about money (“poetry would not keep a goldfinch alive”), the swell from languid rail of a boy to alcoholic whale of a man convinced of the destiny of an early death. It feels deeply heretical and anachronistic to bring my computer cables into this scenario. But after a few days the house accepts me. I march through the corridors reading poems of my own.

 

 

One day I take off on Dylan’s coastal trail — past Oystermouth, where his family would walk to on Sundays, and the Mumbles mile, where one of his favourite pubs, The Mermaid, still stands. This is where, after a rabies epidemic, Dylan and a friend went about on all fours, biting people on their ankles (he was shooed outside where he bit a lamppost and chipped a tooth). We are also passing surf schools and the house that Catherine Zeta Jones grew up in and the house Bonnie Tyler bought for her parents, but stay with me, we are still in the late Edwardian era, and we’re passing small wooden cabins hiding in the woods, in which Dylan might have conceived Under Milk Wood and his famous town ‘Llareggub’ (backwards for ‘buggerall’). Now we are at Caswell Bay, where he most definitely canoodled with his first girlfriend Pamela, and there is the smell of farms and grass, and what Dylan described as “the odour of rabbits’ fur after rain”. We are passing charming country pubs dotted around the coast. One of them, The Valley Pub, claims to have thrown Dylan out for misbehaving, but this is a bit like pointing to a house in Venice and saying Casanova once slept there.

We look for connections where we can. Back at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive I read how Dylan’s mother Florrie grew up in a house on Delhi Street. How his sister Nancy shocked everyone by divorcing her husband and marrying an officer serving with the army in Poona, and returned to live in India because she loved it so, only to fall ill and die of cancer. Some years ago, a band of poets and I believed we saw Dylan Thomas climb into a yellow taxi in Calcutta and we wrote a verse for him:

Were you far gone on whisky,

Solan No. 1, DSP, Royal Stag, Dylan?

Which of your rivers

did you drown in last night?

How it is that even when we’re home we can never feel at home. As Dylan put it, “Everywhere I find myself seems to be nothing but a resting place between places that become resting places themselves.”

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