Swansea, Wales, has a different meaning to a lot of people. For some, it’s about home, work, or the wide-reaching beaches in the Gower, the surf and swimming on hot summer days. For others, it’s about the copper once heavily manufactured in the city, having coined the name ‘Copperopolis’ in the 19th century. For others, it’s the poet Dylan Thomas, who was born and raised here. But for me, Swansea meant a journey.
I came to Swansea University to study for my Creative Writing MA. But I also came to find out about my grandfather. I wanted to understand him, and all I knew was that he was an electrical engineer and one of the first inventors of the cordless microphone the ‘Transamike’ and portable calculators. When I arrived in Wales, I found myself intrigued not only by my plans for research, but by another man who had transcended his family and home just like my grandfather and made a lasting impact on the world – Dylan Thomas.
All I knew was that Dylan was Welsh, and that his name choice had been influenced the musician, Bob Dylan. I also knew that he’d died from alcoholism.
‘Oh, no,’ said my tour guide at the Dylan Thomas Birthplace, Alun Gibbard, past Welsh broadcaster and current full-time writer. ‘He didn’t die of alcoholism.’ According to Alun, while Dylan was a heavy drinker, he’d had pneumonia when he went on his tour, and it was this illness that ended his life too soon.
Dylan didn’t come from a rich family, however I was struck by how many rooms his childhood home had and listened to the explanation that – hampered by society and their expectations of class, Dylan’s father bought a house that was a little too expensive for them, so they lived just above the poverty line. It was his belief that if they lived in a house such as this, then maybe high society would take the family and Dylan seriously.
‘… My own room is a tiny renovated bedroom… hardly any light, book-knife. No red cushion. No cushion at all. Hard chair. Smelly. Painful. Hot water pipes very near. Gurgle all the time. Nearly go mad. Nice view of wall through window. Pretty park nearby. Sea half a mile off. Lunatic asylum mile off…’
His desk was scattered with papers, much in the same way mine was. A sort of disorganized chaos of many projects.
From his family home, I travelled to Cwmdonkin Park where Dylan often went. It was a short distance away, with rare cedar and redwood trees imported by the keepers of Kew Gardens. The park is now part of the ‘One Historic Garden’ project. Back when Dylan knew it, this was the place he could scramble across to and play out his youth fantasies of freedom and poetry.
From there, I took myself to Uplands Tavern for a beer, sitting beside the mural of Dylan smoking a cigarette.
Inside the bar was dark, and the sharp scent of alcohol permeated the air. I came here often to sit and people-watch. If I was lucky, like tonight, an indie band would play in the back, singing 90s-themed songs. The music punctured the walls of the building as drinkers danced and laughed. I sat in the back wondering if I was experiencing the music in much the same way that Dylan may have; as he experienced life here.
The following day, I walked along Swansea Bay, then to the Kardomah cafe Dylan described it as ‘My Home Sweet Homah’. Here, I bought an English breakfast, with milk and tea. A hot meal to start my morning hike through the city.
I visited the Dylan Thomas Centre, with its plethora of Dylan Thomas letters, manuscripts, publications, and recordings of the Dylan’s poems I loved. Then I went to Dylan Thomas Square and stood beside a statue, staring into those forever vacant eyes. From there my path went over to Mumbles, to where ‘Swansea Little Theatre’ was once based in a church hall on Mumbles Road. Now it’s back in its own brick building, sitting in the Maritime Quarter.
Dylan used to rehearse and perform as an amateur actor, though often getting distracted by the close location of three pubs: The Mermaid, The Antelope, and The Village Inn that was open today and ready for business. I popped in quickly and had had Chicken with truffle mash and green beans. Very good!
Dylan Thomas was a poet of Welsh and English, whose flair and passion for the written word earned him a place in history. His grave is in St. Martin’s Church graveyard in Laugharne, and his last words were: ‘I’ve had 18 straight whiskies… I think that’s the record.’
My research into Dylan gave me the opportunity to meet many people who love his poetry as much as I do. I was lucky enough to receive an unexpectedly internship at the Welsh publisher Seren and had a painting done for the artist Seimon Pugh-Jones’ Under Milkwood project. But the best part was that my explorations into who Dylan was; had brought me closer to my own work. Dylan was one of the greats when it came to picking the most perfect word to mean many different things at once. I wanted to emulate that and was delighted when one of my Dylan-inspired poems was accepted into an anthology – The Still of Winter, which will be published soon.