A Traveller’s Christmas In Wales

November 30, 2012

When I was sixteen I showed my mother a poem I’d written, and she said, "That sounds like Dylan Thomas." I’d never heard of him, but she went to the library and checked out his Collected Poems and brought it home for me. In the front was a picture of Thomas, and I thought he was the saddest looking man I’d ever seen. It kind of put me off of his poetry, so I didn’t read it for a while, but I kept his name in mind and just before I went to college and bought a copy of his Selected Poems. And I read a brief biography of him in a reference book and learned about his heavy drinking and early death.

Before I read his poetry I was intrigued by his life. He was a rock star of poetry: he drank heavily, acted outrageously at parties and in hotels, and beat up his wife. (She hit back, but that doesn’t make it right.) From some of the stories people tell about him it’s a wonder Thomas survived as long as he did. But I wasn’t just interested in his biography. He was the first poet whose work I read seriously and deeply, and I thought I wanted to be a poet like him. Well, not exactly like him. I hoped to live to be older than he did, and so far at least I’ve achieved that. Shortly after his thirty-ninth birthday, supposedly after downing eighteen whiskies, he collapsed.

One night, in a British pub, I foolishly decided I wanted to live like Dylan Thomas, and drank most of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Fortunately I had friends who made sure I woke up the next morning. That was a couple of weeks after I’d I’d made a special pilgrimage across England and into Wales to visit his home. I knew he was born and spent his early years in Swansea, then moved around and finally settled in a little Welsh town called Laugharne. I set out from Grantham, England, home of Sir Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher. Find Grantham and Laugharne on a map and you’ll see I was cutting diagonally across most of Britain, from northeast to southwest. Although you might not find Laugharne on a map. I couldn’t. At least it wasn’t on any train schedule I could find, so I set out for Swansea. And then what? Look for Mumbles Road and Mermaid Park, I thought, and let the rest take care of itself. I figured in Dylan Thomas was the Welsh Elvis, so I thought Swansea would be like Memphis, just with different accents, and everyone would know how to get to Dylan’s equivalent of Graceland. I settled into my seat on the train and watched the green English countryside and little brown shacks in the middle of nowhere.

Stepping off the train in Swansea I started to realize that I had no clue what I was doing there. There were no signs, no posters, no Dylan Thomas impersonators in wool jackets belting out "In The White Giant’s Thigh". So I did what any sensible person would do: I set off in a random direction, walking around Swansea late in a winter afternoon. I went by about two dozen pubs, wondering if I should go in. On his first trip to America Thomas came over on a plane. He seemed to be a friendly guy who liked talking to people, but he was scared to talk to any of his fellow passengers. As I walked down a Swansea street I tried to ignore the cold and wind and growing dark. Finally I stepped into a travel agency thinking I might ask someone where I should go, but I was scared to speak to anyone and instead looked at a wall of brochures where, of all things, one advertising the Dylan Thomas Boat House And Museum jumped out at me. I checked the map on the back, and there was Laugharne, just a short way from Carmarthen, which was just a short way from Swansea. It looked like I could almost walk the distance. Maps on the back of brochures, by the way, can be extremely misleading.

I headed back to the train station thinking the Welsh train system must go to Laugharne, and if it didn’t, well, maybe there was a bus, and if there wasn’t maybe I’d catch a lift with some complete stranger with a hook for a hand and an eyepatch and a scar. Laugharne still wasn’t on the train station map, so I decided to go for the next best thing and go to Carmarthen and maybe meet up with the hook-handed, one-eyed stranger, or possibly a bus, there. The train to Carmarthen was smaller than the other trains I’d ridden, and rickety. It was night by this time and sometime before I got to Carmarthen a heavy rain had started. I stepped out and realized it was the end of the line, and I’d just ridden the last train. There’d be no return trip that night, so whether I wanted to or not I was going to be spending the night in Carmarthen. As a young man out of school Thomas worked briefly as a reporter. His work, based on the notes he kept, mostly consisted of wandering around town and having an occasional pint. I’m pretty sure I spent at least an hour walking around Carmarthen. I passed at least a dozen very inviting pubs, but they were always either too crowded or too empty.

For a while I wondered if I should find a comfortable ditch to sleep in. Finally I got up the nerve to ask a couple of guys coming out of a pub if there was a place I could get a room. They were very friendly and tickled that an American was visiting Carmarthen and directed me to a place I never did find, mainly because I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying. I spent the night in a place called the Old Priory Guest House, in a room in the very back of the building, at the end of a dark hallway. When I woke up in the morning I was a little disturbed to look out the window and see a graveyard. The next day was Sunday. I left the Guest House early and skipped the complimentary breakfast. I’d gotten a bus schedule at the train station the night before and had confirmed absolutely that there was a bus that went to Laugharne. What the schedule didn’t tell me was that Wales completely shut down on Sunday. It listed the times for the buses, but not the days, I guess because everybody just knew the buses don’t run on Sundays. The train back to Swansea didn’t leave until after one o’clock.

So I spent a lot of time walking up and down the banks of the River Towy, and finally got back to school in Grantham very late that night, having to make the last leg from Nottingham in a taxi. I’d spent the night in the Nottingham train station once before and didn’t want to repeat the experience. In the middle of his life Thomas moved to London, and almost completely gave up writing poetry. He wrote a few film scripts, but almost nothing of any lasting value. He wouldn’t start writing poetry again seriously until he and his family moved to Laugharne, where he produced his best and his best-known works. The trip, and my one-night bout with Jack, still left me feeling unsatisfied. I felt like Dylan Thomas and I still had unresolved business, so I did what any sensible person would do: I went again. The second time I was better equipped: I had the train schedule figured out, I had the bus schedule, and I knew how to find the Old Priory Guest House, and I was going to ask for a room facing the street. I also wasn’t going to spend any time wandering around Swansea. This time I was on a mission, and headed straight to Laugharne. It was late afternoon when I stepped off the bus in Laugharne, and the first thing I saw was a sign that said, "Dylan’s Walk" Ah, I thought, they knew I was coming.

I set off down Dylan’s walk which led me around to a steep cliff, past a cemetery, past the little blue shed where he wrote "Fern Hill" and "Do No Go Gentle Into That Good Night". Thomas was known for being late for every appointment he ever made. He was never on time for anything. There’s a Broadway play based on his tours of America. In it someone asks him, "Will you be telling jokes at your own funeral? He replies, "Of course not. I’ll be late for it." I went right up to the door of the Dylan Thomas Boat House And Museum. And it was closed. For the weekend. It had closed half an hour before I arrived. I had a few hours in Laugharne before the last bus to Carmarthen, which I made sure to catch. I’d return to Carmarthen in time to attend the lighting of the city Christmas tree. Unsure where else to go or what to do in Laugharne I wandered around and stopped in at a small convenience store across from the Brown’s Hotel Pub-the place where Thomas spent a lot of his days. I bought a copy of A Child’s Christmas In Wales. The man behind the convenience store counter, somehow guessing that I was a Dylan Thomas fan, insisted that I had to have a pint in Dylan’s old pub. I told him I was scared to go in. Dylan’s wife Caitlin described Laugharne as a rough, dangerous place. "Someone was even shot here once," she said. Still the convenience store owner assured me that it would be all right. Outside the pub I could hear what sounded like a pretty raucous, Friday night crowd, which reassured me. I thought I’d slip in unnoticed, have a pint and leave. I opened the door and stepped into dead silence. I’m pretty sure every person in Laugharne except the guy who worked in the convenience store was in that pub, and since they knew I wasn’t him they knew as soon as I opened the door that there was a stranger among them.

I walked across the room to the bar with everyone staring at me, a short, long-haired guy in a hat and long coat with a backpack. Only the bartender, a bald, round-faced man who looked like he just might be old enough to have known Dylan Thomas, who probably even played cards with him back in the day, smiled at me and asked me what I wanted. I asked for a pint of Guinness. I needed the familiar, heavy stout. He poured one and I walked over to the only empty corner in the room. I sat down and pulled out my copy of Dylan Thomas’s Selected Poems. And it was as though I’d flipped a switch. Everyone in the room turned away from me and started talking again, apparently picking up their conversations right where they’d left off. I looked out the window, then looked at the wall to my right. There was a picture of Dylan and Caitlin on the wall. The wallpaper had changed, but, without realizing it I’d sat in his chair. After finishing my pint I set off for one last walk, this time with a clear destination in mind. I climbed a hill, passed through a gate, and walked in total darkness, lighting a match as I went and finding that there was nothing around me. Then I turned and came into the dim light of the town below and walked up to Dylan himself. A simple wooden cross marks the spot. I sat down in front of it. I looked out over the lights of Laugharne and then talked to Dylan for a while.

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