The Ugly, Lovely Town

In which I attempt to understand the Welsh literary device of cynghannedd.

Mrs. P and I like to take our time when we travel. We meander across the country, stopping at interesting looking places, following brown tourist signs to locations off the beaten track, maybe seeking out somewhere to have lunch or maybe a drink or two. The upshot of this is firstly, that it takes us a really long time to get anywhere and, secondly, we discover some pleasant places to pass the time that we would otherwise never have found. That is why, on leaving Laugharne on a bright April morning, we decided to continue our Dylan odyssey and have a look around Swansea.

I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War. An ugly, lovely town, or so it was and is to me. Crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore…

Dylan Thomas described his town in his Reminiscences of Childhood, written in 1937, before the town as he knew it was devastated by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.  He witnessed the bombing, watching with Caitlin and his old friend Bert Trick but wasn’t able to write about the experience until 1947. Return Journey to Swansea is a masterpiece: Dylan returns to his home town and tries to find his younger selves, asking the characters he meets if they knew where he might find ‘Young Thomas’. His writing about childhood is beautiful and imbued with a nostalgic longing; a sense of loss.

It’s an attractive town, Swansea, with the usual collection of shops and a plethora of bars and restaurants. It has a very ‘studenty’ feel, being home to the third largest university in the country. It grew around harbour and docks, now largely given over to leisure use, and by the maritime quarter and the marina you will find the Swansea Museum and the National Maritime Museum, along with an Art Gallery and theatre. Dylan Thomas Square sits at the heart of this quarter, with cafés and bars it’s a fitting place to begin your Dylan Thomas tour of the city. A statue of the Man himself sits at the centre of the square. To his left, the marina, complete with statue of old, blind Captain Cat from Under Milkwood, who rings his bell to wake the town.

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“Blind Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds”

To his right, the Dylan Thomas Theatre. Inside, a display commemorates Dylan’s time as an actor with the Swansea Little Theatre, which was based in Mumbles, a little seaside town a short drive (or tram ride, in Dylan’s time) along the splendid curving shore. Dylan eventually fell out of favour with the theatre group – his pre-rehearsal drinking session increased in length until it blended in with his post-rehearsal drinking session – but in his time he was, by all reports, a fine actor. The theatre has now moved to its permanent home in Swansea and is a thriving community theatre, with regular performances including plays, musicals and concerts. Their display has photographs of Dylan’s performances as well as reminiscences of his time with the company.

Leaving the theatre, I walked back towards the town, past the Queen’s Hotel, where Dylan drank frequently during his time as a journalist, and on to the Dylan Thomas Centre, a permanent exhibition dedicated to the town’s greatest son. The Centre is housed in an old art gallery, has exhibition spaces, shop and café and is an essential visit for the Thomas devotee; at least as necessary as a trip to Laugharne. The permanent exhibition has a bewildering range of Thomas artefacts on display: notebooks, manuscripts, photographs, belongings… even the original door from Dylan’s writing shed, rescued from a skip in the 1970s. The exhibition is magnificent: it is child friendly & has interactive displays and audio and video recordings of poems and performances. throughout the exhibition, there were children actively engaging with the exhibits, parents desperately trying to provide context or patiently waiting for their charges to finish playing so that they could move on to the next display. It gave the whole thing a family feel which I liked: it is not stuffy or overly formal. I particularly liked the video of a performance of Under Milkwood in New York, in which Dylan exhorted his actors to “love the Words” (hence the name of the exhibition). They have education outreach events, creative writing workshops and tours of the City and are doing everything they can to engage people, particularly young people, with Dylan’s work and to appreciate the extent to which he could manipulate language and the effects he could achieve. Which is exactly how literature should work: children love words and word games and we too often mystify poetry which is, after all, ‘playing’ with language. Love the words.

I bought a couple of guides (Uplands trail and Swansea town trail) in the gift shop and these have proved invaluable in my research. I had a really nice conversation with the young woman behind the till, who had a genuine enthusiasm for Dylan and was charming and friendly. In fact, everyone I met during my trip to Wales was charming and friendly. I reluctantly left the museum (and it’s café; it was now well past midday) walked reluctantly past the Queen’s Hotel and back into the town where I walked reluctantly past the No Sign Wine Bar (another of Dylan’s favourites where they, apparently, serve a really good lunch) and met Mrs. P by the leaf sculpture – a beautiful glass and steel sculpture, depicting a leaf floating on a stream – in Castle Square at the heart of the City.  Mrs. P had had an exhausting morning’s shopping and was herself ready for lunch.

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The Dylan Thomas snug in the Uplands Tavern. Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spy my pint, hidden somewhere in this picture.

We decided to drive to Uplands in search of lunch. A slightly tentative drive across the

city (I knew it was more or less northwest) and we were there in no time. Uplands is very close to the university and, consequently, has a young, cosmopolitan feel. We had just finished lunch in a very pleasant vegetarian café when Mrs. P suddenly realised that she hadn’t set foot in a shop for almost half an hour; she left me to continue my journey alone.  The Uplands tavern, where Dylan used to come and drink while living at the family home, is a live music venue now but they have preserved a snug as Dylan would have known it. It is comfortable and nicely decorated with poems and photographs and I spent a very pleasant hour or so in there before walking up the hill to Cwmdonkin Drive and Dylan’s birthplace.

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The parlour at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive

5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a fair sized, comfortable suburban villa. It was a student house and in a fairy pitiful state in 2003, when it was bought by a local businessman who set out to restore and preserve it in Dylan’s honour.  It has been lovingly restored, at the owner’s own expense, to reflect the way in which it would have been decorated when Dylan grew up there. There are some remarkable rooms: the front bedroom in which Dylan was born in 1914, the little bedroom, complete with the desk on which he had already written about two thirds of his poetry when he moved out at the age of 19; the front parlour, recognisable from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”:

“Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”

It is charming and atmospheric but there is something a little uncomfortable about it: as if you are intruding in a family home and the occupants will arrive home at any moment to express their outrage at your trespassing. Perhaps we should have called in advance for a tour (as they advise on their website). They have regular guided tours of the property. Occasionally they will have a talk or a book signing and it is possible to rent out on a daily or even weekly basis; that would be quite an experience! There are details on their website, along with loads of information and photographs about Dylan and the restoration.

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We wandered back to Uplands via Cwmdonkin Park, where Dylan used to play as a child and with which many people are familiar from the poem “The Hunchback in the park”. The park is a large and well-used recreational space; it was the Easter holidays when we visited and a warm, spring afternoon: children were playing, young women with overladen pushchairs met for a chat while older folk rested in the café over tea and ice cream. Alongside beautiful, exotic plants – reminders of an age when explorers were sending back newly discovered flora from far-flung parts of the world – are the streams and rockeries from Dylan’s poem:

from “The Hunchback in the Park”

Eating bread from a newspaper

Drinking water from the chained cup

That the children filled with gravel

In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship

Slept at night in a dog kennel

But nobody chained him up.

Like the park birds he came early

Like the water he sat down

And Mister they called Hey mister

The truant boys from the town

Running when he had heard them clearly

On out of sound.

Past lake and rockery

Laughing when he shook his paper

Hunchbacked in mockery

Through the loud zoo of the willow groves

Dodging the park keeper

With his stick that picked up leaves.

Dylan’s family spoke no Welsh: his father was head of English Literature at Swansea Grammar School and Thomas jnr had grown up on a diet of English poetry.  His poetry, however, as well as displaying a deep connection with the Welsh landscape, reflects the lyrical cadences of the Welsh language.  The Welsh eschew English poetic devices of rhythm and rhyme and rely instead on ‘cynghanedd’. As I understand it – and I do ask forgiveness from my Welsh readers but it is a difficult thing to get your head around and I only have a basic grasp of it – Welsh poetry should ‘harmonise’, rather than rhyme. The important words in Welsh poetry are the stressed syllables and there is a great deal of alliteration and assonance. So a line such as “To begin at the beginning” displays cynghanedd because the two ‘g’ sounds are stressed and harmonise (now I know how my students feel when trying to understand iambs and trochees). This explains why his poetry is so beautiful and lyrical and the richness of his imagery. It doesn’t always rhyme but it alliterates and harmonises. Consider Fern Hill, another reminiscence of childhood, this time at his aunt’s farm in Carmarthenshire, and possibly be the most beautiful poem ever written:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

When the Luftwaffe obliterated Swansea in 1941, Dylan Thomas, turned to his friend and said “Our Swansea has Died.”  But the grand suburban villa in which he grew up and spent his remembered Christmases is still here; the the park in which he played and ran from hunchbacks is still here; the pub where he had his first drink is still here, as is the No Sign and the Queen’s Hotel. And Dylan is still here, in the epigrams on the statues and the monuments in the city centre and the marina; in the exhibits in the museum dedicated to him; in the minds of the children who play games with his poems and look at his photo and wonder who he was. He is still in the hearts of those of us who laugh at his stories and are moved by his poetry and love his words.

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