By Jeff Towns
I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War: an ugly lovely town (or so it was, and is, to me), crawling, sprawling, unplanned, jerryvilla’d and smug-suburbed by the side of a long and splendid-curving shore.
The opening words of the BBC radio broadcast Reminiscences of Childhood (1943), describing Swansea, and penned by the city’s ( Prince Charles declared it so in 1969) most famous, though more often infamous son, Dylan Thomas.
Swansea is a conundrum, a dichotomy, a mish-mash, it boasts a Georgian passageway grandiloquently named Salubrious Passage that was for 30 years home to my bookstore (never was there a better address for a bookseller!) In 1956 the adjacent Gower Peninsular became the first area in the United Kingdom to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it is still breathtakingly beautiful and unspoiled. But at the turn of the last century when it boasted of being ‘The Mineral Capital of the World’ and was known as ‘Copperopolis’, Swansea was a poisoned and toxic hell, and it is still recovering from this and the 44 air raid, in particular the dreadful ‘Three Nights Blitz’ of February 1941 when much of the town centre was levelled to the ground. Dylan Thomas was not the first nor the last writer to highlight the schizophrenic nature of the place, one of Dylan’s favourite poets Edward Thomas, who died in the First World War, was a regular visitor and he described Swansea as encompassing both ‘Heaven and Hell’ and he referred to it as being both a ‘horrible and sublime town’. More recently Dylan’s ‘ugly lovely’ was updated into a more modern patois in Kevin Allen’s cult noir-comedy film about Swansea – the aptly named ‘Twin Town’. In the opening scene at Swansea Station a bent copper recasts the place is as a ‘Pretty Shitty City’.
But Swansea folk have always enjoyed and celebrated this diversity and they are now preparing to do so with gusto and pride when the City takes centre stage in a year long
cultural and touristic shin-dig – the Wales-wide, hopefully World-wide, year-long –
DYLAN THOMAS 100 FESTIVAL.
Back in 2003 the city celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s tragic and untimely death in
New York City ( he was just 39 and died in a haze of whiskey and morphine). But now in
2014, not just Swansea, but the whole of Wales is preparing to celebrate his birth (he was
born at 5 Cwmdonkin Terrace on October 27 1914 and his birthplace is now restored to its
1930’s splendour and offers tours, themed dinners, events, and accommodation
(www.dylanthomasbirthplace.com )The programme of events has the backing of the Welsh
Assembly Government, The Welsh Arts Council, the local county councils throughout Wales
but especially in Glamorgan, Dyfed and Ceredigion – areas where Dylan spent quality time.
On top this the British Council has thrown its not inconsiderable weight into the mix with its
‘Starless and Bible Black’ initiative ( the phrase is from UNDER MILK WOOD but was also the title of a King Crimson prog-rock album) which is planning a Dylan Thomas inspired programme of literary, musical, theatrical, artistic and cross-cultural activities in five targeted countries around the world – Argentina, Australia, India, Canada and USA.
The year got off to an early and great start with the opening in November 2013 at the
National Museum of Wales in Cardiff of Sir Peter Blake’s LLAREGGUB (spell it backwards!), his marvellous, miraculous, nigh on 30 years in the making project to illustrate Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. The exhibition will stay until March then go to St David’s in Pembrokeshire before touring elsewhere in Wales but with shows in London and New York in the offing. Milk Wood will feature large in the year with a new touring production from Clwyd Theatr Cymru and a new al fresco experimental promenade production by The National Theatre of Wales which will take place during the second of four – yes four – Laugharne Weekenders in 2014. And you can be sure that Am-Dram groups, schools and village halls across Swansea will echo to Captain Cat’s ‘Parlez-vous jig-jig’.
At the heart of the literary celebrations is the desire for a serious economic return which will come from getting bodies in beds and appetites at tables in the humblest at B & B’s right through to the best boutique hotels throughout the principality with Visit Wales, Gwesty Cymru and Taste of Wales all getting onboard with new schemes, promotions and brochures. But perhaps the liveliest and most intriguing is the Literature Wales ‘A Dylan Odyssey – A series of unique Dylan Thomas-inspired literary tours’. With great attention to detail they have crafted walking and riding tours but also canoeing trips across Laugharne estuary with Dylan’s greatest poems read out – out on the water, Museum tours with the best guides probing into Dylan and his love affair with Surrealism, Ghostly tours of Swansea’s rich cinema architecture with the screenwriter Andrew Davies explaining Dylan’s love of Gothic Film and the Marx Bothers, A horse drawn carriage tour to discover Dylan’s roots in rural Carmarthenshire with Gillian Clarke – National Poet of Wales as your guide, Full Moon walks and Gower coast rambles the temptations are endless.
Gower is still a Swansea gem and it does offer visitors new charms – established award winning Hotels like Fairy Hill at the tip of the Peninsular and brand new beach restaurant The Coal House on the stunning Oxwich Bay set up and overseen by the Methuen-Campbell boys from nearby Penrice Castle ( which also has superb holiday cottages), it would not look or feel out of place in Santa Barbara or Malibu on the California coast and the sun does shine here in spite of popular prejudice, and the beach also hosts all manner of water sports for the more energetic visitors.
Back in town The old Port Authority Offices in Swansea’s Maritime quarter is now a fine boutique hotel – Morgans. The rooms and suites are named after the Square Riggers that left Swansea harbour for voyages around the world – When Catherine Zeta Jones came back to her home town she would stay in the ‘Zeta’ suite. And nearby Swansea Museum – the oldest in Wales, rejoices that it still lives up to Dylan’s description penned some 70 years ago, he wrote it was ‘The museum that should have been in a Museum’ and it is proud to stage a new exhibition ‘Dylan’s Swansea’ – largely based on what else but Dylan’s favourite Pubs. And one of the best and one of Dylan’s favourite haunts, The Queens is next door, offering lashings of Hywl (the superior Welsh version of Irish Craic), a fine selection of well kept ales and Desperate Dan sized pub meals!
Dylan Thomas left Swansea aged 20 and never really returned, but by then he had written over half his published poems and a few stories and had thought about Milk Wood. He experienced life-long Hiraeth for the place – a particular welsh feeling of longing and home-sickness, he wrote of wanting to be back , ‘ I have nothing to do but wait for Swansea, marble-town, city of laughter, little Dublin…’ Swansea is known locally as ‘The Graveyard of Ambition’ some say it is Dylan’s coinage – why not come and see why?
Jeff Towns has run Dylans Bookstore in Swansea for forty-five years He specialises in books on all things Welsh and Dylan Thomas in particular. He has recently published Dylan Thomas: The Pubs – a journey through Dylan’s life via his favourite pubs and bars in Wales London and America. He is the current Chairman of the Dylan Thomas Society of Great Britain.