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How Dylan Thomas Found Inspiration In A House

I’ve long been curious about the lives of authors. Their writing routines, the writers that inspired them; their quirky habits and the places where they lived, worked and died.

So I thought I’d start a series of posts about the homes that provided shelter, solace possibly, inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents.

Let’s kick off with the most famous literary export from Wales – the poet and playwright Dylan Thomas.

From his “wordsplashed hut”, perched on a cliff, Dylan Thomas watched eagles and egrets wheel and cry above the river mouth, and composed what were to be his last poems.

Dylan Thomas Falls In Love

Dylan Thomas boathouse
View of The Boathouse from across the estuary

Thomas lived with his family in The Boathouse in the Welsh village of Laugharne for four years. He’d fallen in love with the place when he first saw it on a day’s outing with a friend. He became, he said one of these residents who arrived by bus and simply forgot to leave. And it wasn’t simply because the village had seven pubs! 

Rather, it was the “timeless, mild, beguiling” nature of Laugharne that appealed to Thomas. 

In one of the prose pieces published the collection Quite Early One Morning he described it as a place:

of herons, cormorants (known here as billy duckers), castle, churchyard, gulls, ghosts, geese, feuds, scares, scandals, cherry trees, mysteries, jackdaws in the chimneys, bats in the belfry, skeletons in the cupboards, pubs, mud, cockles, flatfish, curlews, rain, and human, often all too human, beings.

From The Boathouse (“My seashaken house / On a breakneck of rocks”) he could look across the  estuary of the Towy where it flowed into the vast Carmarthen Bay and beyond it to the cliffs of the Gower peninsula. 

Laugharne
View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

The four years he lived in Laugharne coincided with  a creative surge for the poet. He used a shed a little further along the lane from the house as his study.

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

A Poet’s Inspiration

It was here that he wrote some of his most famous poems, including Do not go gentle into that good night, and Over St John’s Hill, which depicts hawks swooping over the river mouth in search of prey.  

The sounds and sights of the estuary were captured in another poem, written in 1944 to mark a walk he took on his thirtieth birthday to the shoulder of  Sir John’s Hill. 

Dylan Thomas lived in The Boathouse for four years from 1949. It was from Laugharne that he departed for his ill-fated trip to New York where he died suddenly in 1953.

Follow in Dylan Thomas’ Footsteps

Today visitors to Laugharne can experience both The Boathouse and Thomas’s Writing Shed. They are well worth a visit.

The house is now a museum which contains memorabilia from the family and some of the original furniture, including Dylan’s father’s desk.  The interior has been returned to its 1950s appearance, with a recording of Thomas’s voice playing in the background.

When you’ve finished in the house and enjoyed your cream tea, do take a moment to walk around the side of the building from which you get a fantastic view of the estuary. The way the light plays on the water is simply magical and hard to leave behind.

Dylan Thomas house
Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthanshire

You can’t go into the writing shed itself but you can get a good view just by peering through the window. It’s just one room that has been set as it looked when Dylan Thomas used it – even down to the scrumpled sweet wrappers on the floor amid discarded sheets of paper (early drafts perhaps?)

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne,

Explore further

If a visit to both these places gives you an appetite for more Dylan Thomas connections, you are in luck.

You can re-tread the route Dylan Thomas took on his birthday (celebrated in the Birthday Walk poem). It skirts the castle ruins and runs along the estuary with information boards along the way.

Or you go into the town of Laugharne to visit Brown’s Hotel (one of his favoured watering holes).

You can listen to Thomas reading with almost too much gusto, via  this recording for the BBC).

#12Days of Christmas book game: day 8

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me

 Eight Maids a-Milking

Day 8 of the 12 Days of Christmas game and giveaway.

We’re into the section of the song where people feature more prominently than feathered creatures. Doesn’t make the selection of titles any easier though. I suppose they mean by maidens not ladies in frilly aprons who serve high tea or do the dusting for you? Wonder how many of those can also milk a cow – an unusual skill to show up on your CV…

Booker Talk Titles for Day 

Milking takes me to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy which was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I haven’t read it – the furthest I got was chapter 1 which featured a dialogue about stinging jelly fish which bored me so much I didn’t feel inclined to read any further.

The other association would of course be the ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood by my countryman Dylan Thomas. If he’d stuck to drinking milk instead of spirits and beer he might be alive today. Then again maybe he wouldn’t have produced such distinctive poetry…..

But thats exhausted my list of associations with milk so I’ll switch to maids. Now I could go with the bestselling The Help by Kathryn Stockett which though it doesn’t feature the word maid in the title, is in fact all about maids. More particularly maids in the deep south and how badly they were treated in decades past. Far more enjoyable than I expected it to be – pride of place has to be the set piece where one maid takes revenge on her boss because she wouldn’t let her use the same toilet as the family.

I shall give a bonus today and add a fourth title – Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster. I love Forster’s work for its blend of fiction and non fiction and this was one of the earliest experiences of her work. It’s a fictionalised account of a woman who goes to work for the poet Elizabeth Barrett and becomes a close confidant of her mistress, even helping in her secret marriage to Robert Browning. It gives a fascinating insight into the life of the poetess who now would probably be diagnosed as suffering anorexia and into Victorian life and culture.

Now over to you – here’s How to Play:

Come up with book titles or book images or anything book related (could be the name of a location mentioned in the book or a character) that matches with maids, maidens, milk or milking.  Let’s see how creative you can be. I’m looking ideally for 3 titles/images etc . You can mix and match your nominations.

Put your titles into the comments field of that day’s post. Don’t just give me the name since you could easily get that from a Google search – tell us something about the book itself. Why did you choose these titles – are they from your TBR or ones you’ve seen mentioned on a blog. Please try not to just use lists from Goodreads etc.

Feel free to blog about this on your own site or via Twitter using the #12days hashtag

The Giveaway

There’s an incentive to play along with this which is a giveaway of a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository

To participate, your list of books must be in the comments field by 10pm GMT/5pm Eastern Standard Time on Monday, Dec 12.

Day by Day Prompts

Day 1:   Partridge in a Pear Tree
Day 2:   Turtle Doves
Day 3:    French Hens
Day 4:   Calling Birds
Day 5:    Gold Rings
Day 6:   Geese a-Laying
Day 7:   Swans a-Swimming
Day 8:   Maids a-Milking
Day 9:   Ladies Dancing
Day 10:  Lords a-Leaping
Day 11:   Pipers Piping
Day 12:   Drummers Drumming

Rules of the Game

1.Each day a post will go live on booker talk.com matched to the task for that day. All you to do is post a comment with your list of books on the page

2. Each day try to come up with 3 titles. No need to think of 11 books featuring pipers or eight with maids in them. This is meant to be fun not mission impossible…..

3. Participants are encouraged to be creative with the names of titles matching each day. But the books do need to be in existence – no scope here for making up your own titles.

4. The number of contributions per person will be totalled and the one with the highest number will win the prize. So if you post three titles for day 6 and 5 on day 11, that gives a total of 8 points.

5. Contributions should be entered on the page within the time limit stated each day – typically I will give 48 hours between the time I post the day’s challenge and when comments will be closed.

6. You don’t need to play every day in order to be entered for the prize. Some days will be easier than others – and anyway you have all that shopping and packing still to do

7. There is only one prize – available internationally. The Prize winner will be announced on the blog around about the 15th of December.

6. The prize is that you get to choose a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository that I will arrange to ship to you. This will probably not arrive until next year given the last postage dates for international mail.

 

The View from Here: Good reads from Wales #WritingWales

viewfromhere

 

A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go. 

 Let’s meet Booker Talk

My real name is Karen.  I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?

I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour.  Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.

Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic  but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.

Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers  like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with  The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.

A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf SolentA Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.

Coming more up to date you’ll find  someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.

Q. Why don’t we see more Welsh language fiction available in English? 

Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.

 

 

 

In a poet’s footsteps

This weekend I finally got to visit the visit of Laugharne in West Wales where my fellow countryman Dylan Thomas lived in the final three years of his life. I’m almost ashamed to admit that even though this village is only 90 minutes drive from my home, I’ve never made the pilgrimage. A birthday treat courtesy of Mr BookerTalk rectified that omission.

We got to look around  the riverside house where he lived with his wife Caitlin/

Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthenshire

Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthenshire

It looks cosy but in reality was rather damp apparently. Still it had the advantage of occupying a spot on the estuary with some wonderful views from the windows and the garden. We sat and watched clouds scudding across the sky, creating constantly changing  patterns of light and shadow on the sand and reflecting back in sparkling drops of water.  For a few seconds all sound seemed to be suspended.

View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

The small exhibition about his life and the audio recording of Thomas reading some of his poems made the visit special. But an equally memorable part of our visit was the chance we had to peek inside the small garage just along the lane where he actually did his writing. It’s been renovated and restored to give a glimpse of the rather chaotic conditions in which he composed Under Milk Wood. Sweet wrappers lie scrumpled on the desk, sheets of paper are scattered along the floor and on the back of the chair hangs a rather scruffy jacket as if Thomas had just popped out for one of his legendary drinking sessions in Browns Hotel and would be back soon.

Since this was a birthday treat, it was entirely appropriate that we trod in Thomas’ footsteps along The Birthday Walk – a path threading through trees and undergrowth along the estuary, that Thomas took on his 35th birthday.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed at Laugharne

Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave
He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
Herons spire and spear.

Under and round him go
Flounders, gulls, on their cold, dying trails,
Doing what they are told,
Curlews aloud in the congered waves
Work at their ways to death,
And the rhymer in the long tongued room,
Who tolls his birthday bell,
Toesl towards the ambush of his wounds;
Herons, stepple stemmed, bless.

Suggestions for authors from Wales #WritingWales

St Davids Day 8 Cardiff 2015

St David’s Day parade, Cardiff City Center 2015

Since today is the patron saint’s day for Wales I thought I’d mark the occasion with some insights on authors who hail from my native land. The people I’ve chosen are all people who write in the medium of English rather than the Welsh language. Thats not out of disrespect to the language, but since many of my readers are from overseas, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if I pointed you to Welsh language texts.

DylanThomasThe most famous son of all is of course Dylan Thomas. A bit of a hell raiser was our Dylan; a familiar figure in the bars in Swansea (the city of his birth) and Laugharne, the fishing village where he lived with his wife Caitlin. His poetry is defined by his ingenious use of words, imagery and sound patterns which sometimes makes the meaning hard to discover. My recommendation: don’t worry too much  about the messages behind the words. Just find a recording of Richard Burton reading Thomas’s poems or his play Under Milk Wood, and revel in the sounds.

After Dylan, the other writers from Wales don’t have anywhere near the same reputation beyond our borders.  Many of these names will, I suspect, be ones that you might vaguely have heard of but more likely will be a complete mystery.

Gwyn Thomas:  author and  Tv/radio broadcaster from Barry (near my current home) whose black comedies focused on life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. He’s all but disappeared from the public conscience except amongst the literary elite in Wales. His autobiographical work A Few Selected Exits shows his passage fro the poorest of families in Wales to Oxford and the BBC. I’ve posted a few reviews of his works here: Reading a Welsh legend and here The Alone to the Alone.

Raymond Williams: If you’ve ever studied the work of Charles Dickens there is a chance you will have encountered the name of Raymond Williams who was one of the foremost Marxist academics active in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which examined famous British writers such as Wordsworth and Orwell to argue that culture, as we know it, developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake. His assessment of Dickens challenges Orwell’s contention that Dickens wasn’t a social reformer. Well worth reading is his work The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence which looks at the way historical and social changes affected the development of the novel through the works of eleven writers. He also wrote novels – perhaps the best known is Border Country which is set in the community Williams knew personally,  rural South Wales, close to the border with England,  There are lengthy flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.

Bernice Rubens was the only author from Wales to win the Booker prize. She was actually the first woman to win the prize with her novel The Elected Member.  It was one of the first books I read as part of my Booker Prize project – good in parts but not wonderful was my verdict at the time.

If those options seem a little heavy for you, the following authors may be more to your taste. 

Owen Sheers:  Although Sheers was born in Fiji, I’m classing him as a Welsh author because he spent his formative years here and has kept his close connection with the country not least because much of his work has a connection to Wales (including a role as the first writer in residence of the Welsh Rugby Union(. Sheers began writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1999. He was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets in 2004 but it wasn’t until his first novel Resistance was published in 2008 that he really came to the public’s attention.The novel imagines that the D-day landings have failed and Wales been occupied by the Nazis. it’s been translated into ten languages and was shortlisted for a Best Book Award.

Dannie Abse: a native of Cardiff in 1923, he trained as a doctor but began writing poetry and plays while working in a London hospital. His first novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve,  appeared in 1954, tracing the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the backdrop of unemployment, the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In 2002 his novel  The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas was long listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Ken Follett: author of highly-readable novels such as The Pillars of the Earth, Eye of the Needle and The Man from St Petersburg, was born in Cardiff (capital city of Wales). He worked as a reporter on the same local newspaper that once employed me, the South Wales Echo, though our paths never crossed.

Iris Gower:  a prolific writer of historical romances in the vein of Catherine Cookson. Gower set many of her works in her home city of Swansea and the adjacent coastal area of the Gower Peninsula from which she took her pen name. She was a prolific writer publishing one new novel (and sometimes two) almost every year between 1975 until her death in 2010. Her work doesn’t appeal to me but my mum loves her.

 

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