Monday, 30 November -0001

Dylan Thomas, our family friend

Few knew Dylan Thomas better than Hilly Janes's father. Here, to mark the centenary of the poet's brith, she tells Rebecca Wallersteiner about his many faces

Dazzling, hellraising and anarchic, Dylan Thomas was one of the brightest literary stars of the 20th century and remains the best known of all Welsh poets. If he hadn’t selfdestructed at the age of 39 he could well have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. A new memoir, The Three Lives Of Dylan Thomas, by writer Hilly Janes, gives a fresh and largely sympathetic view of the poet, telling his story through the eyes of her late father, the painter Alfred (Fred) Janes, a lifelong friend.

‘Dylan had many faces, but few people knew them as well as my father,’ says Hilly. ‘Most biographies of Dylan have been written by men of an older generation, but as a wife and mother I hope to bring fresh perspective to the story of his personal life.’ Hilly grew up on the Gower Peninsula, and the landscapes of South West Wales and Swansea evoked so beautifully in Dylan’s poetry were those of her childhood. She has been able to draw on a fascinating personal archive that includes letters, diaries and paintings to bring a rare insight to the story of Dylan’s extraordinary life.

Both Fred and Dylan were born in Swansea, ‘an ugly, lovely town’, where they heard the local sing-song dialect that inspired Dylan’s poetry and plays. A slight boy with a halo of golden curls and big, brown eyes, Dylan suffered from asthma and at the first sign of a wheeze was tucked up in bed by his adoring mother, Florence, who fretted about tuberculosis.

Both boys went to the local grammar school, where Dylan’s formidable father taught English. ‘Thanks to his father, Dylan acquired a masterful knowledge of English and the rhythm of words, and he devoured the books that lined his father’s bookshelves at home,’ says Hilly.

Fred’s hard-working father ran a local ‘fruit and flower shop’. As talented young men the two became members of the bohemian circle that hung out at Swansea’s Kardomah Café.

When Dylan first came to London he lived with Fred in a squalid flat in Earls Court, scrounging food and drink and sleeping on a rolled-up mattress, while Fred, who was studying portraiture at the Royal Academy Schools, painted him. ‘At the time, my father and Dylan were very young and broke; in fact, they didn’t have any money at all,’ says Hilly.

But here they spent some of the happiest times of their lives. ‘The floor was scattered with beer bottles, fag ends and large pieces of cardboard covered in the poet’s writing.’

DylanThomas-Dec19-02-590Alfred Janes and Dylan Thomas sunbathing at their London home

The oven looked like a biscuit tin and their only chair had been modified for use as an easel, where Fred worked painstakingly painting Dylan, whose mouth was stuffed full of jelly babies, and who wore a large checked overcoat and a pork-pie hat to keep warm in the unheated room. Fred was in charge of the rent and Dylan often failed to contribute his share. When the situation became desperate, Fred resorted to turning Dylan upside down to see if there was any money in his pockets.

Fred first painted Dylan in 1934, looking rather like ‘a frog in his salad days’ (in Dylan’s words). He painted Dylan a total of three times – hence the title of Hilly’s new book. Nineteen thirty-four proved to be Dylan’s breakthrough year, as his first volume of poetry, 18 Poems, was published to great critical acclaim.

Life with Dylan was exciting and chaotic. A frequenter of Chelsea’s many pubs, he made friends wherever he went – including a struck-off solicitor, a couple of jockeys and a suspect doctor. He had the wonderful knack of making them feel that they had known him all their lives, and they were happy to pay for his drinks. It helped if they were chatty and liked drinking.

He liked to meet his first girlfriend, the poet Pamela Hansford Johnson, who later married the novelist CP Snow, at the Six Bells, in Chelsea. Inexhaustibly gregarious, Dylan never minded chatting to people he had never met before. Always restless, he would often disappear from Chelsea for days – sometimes even weeks – on end, to the dismay of his friends. ‘On one occasion he went out to get a haircut and the next time I saw him was in Swansea,’ Fred told Hilly.

Meanwhile, the bard wasn’t an early bird! Another friend, Mervyn Levy, recalled that he habitually found Dylan asleep fully clothed at around nine in the morning. ‘I would shake Dylan awake, hand him a cigarette and a light and wait for the first low rumble of coughing to build up to a shattering, purple-faced crescendo,’ said Levy. Rather romantically, the poet liked to pretend that he was dying of TB.

DylanThomas-Dec19-03-590-quote

In 1936 Dylan met a beautiful dancer, Caitlin Macnamara, fell deeply in love and immediately proposed. Even wilder and more bohemian than Dylan, Caitlin had sat for the sexually predatory Chelsea painter Augustus John, who brutally raped her when she was 15. It was, she said, ‘like being attacked by a goat’.

‘Today, Caitlin would be perceived as a child raised by dysfunctional parents and the adolescent victim of a sexually predatory family friend,’ says Hilly. Her father abandoned his wife and young daughters for other women and Caitlin grew up in the truly bohemian world of Augustus John and his promiscuous entourage.

Dylan adored Caitlin and gave her the attention and love she craved, although their passionate fights were as fierce as their love for one another. Even more damaged, adulterous and alcoholic than Dylan, Caitlin tragically never achieved her dream of becoming a ballerina.

After their wedding, they rented a dilapidated bedsit in Chelsea, close to family and friends, where the skylight leaked and the kitchen was divided from the living area by a curtain. Here they enjoyed some of the happiest times in their tempestuous marriage. This was their much-loved base while Dylan wrote scripts for wartime documentaries. In March 1943, as bombs dropped, it became home to their new daughter Aeronwy.

At 22 Dylan was taken up by the eccentric, wealthy poet Edith Sitwell, who named him as the most promising young poet of his generation. ‘I have never known anyone so capable of endearing himself to others,’ enthused Edith.

Dylan’s vulnerable, cherubic looks were very deceptive, and women were often surprised to discover that he was a cunning sexual predator. Though he reeked of booze, tobacco and worse and was often too drunk to perform, he made many conquests. In America adoring women flocked to go to bed with the poet, which drove him off course. As even Caitlin pointed out, ‘Dylan was rarely the seducer.’ He died after allegedly downing 18 straight whiskies in New York and boasting, ‘I think this must be a record’, before falling into a coma a day later.

DylanThomas-Dec19-04-590Left: Dylan Thomas by Alfred Janes (1934). Right: Alfred's last picture of Dylan, drawn posthumously in 1964

Although Dylan has become legendary for being a drunken, womanising sponger, he was a complex, troubled soul. ‘Fred recognised the ugly side of Dylan, but he also saw his many other faces at close quarters,’ explains Hilly. Dylan was undeniably a charming and flawed genius, though a parasitic and disloyal friend. He rarely, if ever, exploited people who were worse off than he was, and was kind to down-and-outs.

‘A born actor, Dylan loved making mischief and being the centre of attention. His outrageous behaviour charmed, dazzled and appalled his friends by turn, especially if he drank too much,’ says Hilly.

He entertained his fellow drinkers and women he wanted to seduce with brilliant impersonations and shaggydog stories. Although his friends generously forgave Dylan’s bad behaviour and tried to save him from himself, he was doomed to die. Influential poet friends TS Eliot and Cecil Day-Lewis praised his work and appreciated his mischievous wit and charm, but usually didn’t experience his dark side. The writer Geoffrey Grigson put it nicely: ‘When Dylan disappeared it was a relief; when he reappeared, a pleasure!’

As wild and as celebrated as a rock star, Dylan was mobbed by literary fans wherever he gave readings. His lyrical voice held audiences spellbound. Although his public success was great, somehow he took little pleasure in it. What he liked best was the anonymity of the man in a bar. He often sounds like a Welsh bard speaking about the incredible joy of life, but also the darkness – one inextricably tied up with the other. ‘I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me,’ he confessed.

His celebrity lifestyle ruined his health, wrecked his family life and contributed to his early death. He predicted that he would die before he was 40 – a prophecy that he fulfilled.

Fred Janes turned his back on London and the pursuit of fame and returned to Wales to live quietly, paint and bring up his young family. He died at the ripe age of 87 having ‘raged against the dying of the light’. Dylan Thomas was buried in Wales. His memorial stone in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, lies fittingly next to that of Lord Byron.

The Three Lives Of Dylan Thomas, by Hilly Janes (The Robson Press, £18.99).


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