Rating 3 stars
My Father’s Places is Aeronwy Thomas’s memoir of growing up in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, on the south coast of Wales. I read it while we were on holiday in Laugharne, which is a beautiful little village on the Tâf estuary.
I learned a couple of things that I didn’t know – there used to be a cockle processing factory on the town square, a triangular patch known as The Grist, and the donkeys used by the women whose job it was to pick the cockles used to graze on the patch of grass at the foot of the castle. During our stay, I never once wished that the cockle factory was still there, sending out its smell of vinegar, but I did wish that the donkeys still grazed by the waterside. A friend of my husband’s told him about a mad donkey that bared its teeth and brayed if you went near it, encountered by him on a childhood holiday in the 1970s. Reading about the cockle donkeys made me wonder if that mad donkey was the sole survivor of the cockle industry in Laugharne.
Laugharne is a small place, and our own experience of holidaying here is how friendly the villagers are. Aeronwy, known as Aeron, found them the same, growing up among them from 1949. It made me laugh, though, that they found her mother Caitlin somewhat outrageous in her dress sense and her freewheeling nature. Whenever she burst into Brown’s to reclaim her husband, Aeron recalls, the regulars were appalled.
The memoir is poignant because, although Aeron has called it My Father’s Places, most of those places were away. I suppose that the late ’40s and early ’50s were a period when children didn’t see much of their fathers, but when your father is Dylan Thomas it seems that this is triply the case. Dylan’s places were at his writing shed on the cliff above the family home, in Brown’s with one or other of his loves (beer or gossip with landlord’s wife Ivy Williams in this instance), in London, Cardiff or touring America. Only occasionally was he present with his family, and even then he was still mildly absent, either entertaining guests or ineptly looking after his children in Caitlin’s absences while she entertained guests. More often Aeron was left on her own, playing with a friend or looking after her baby brother Colm.
Caitlin, you can tell, was never going to be the frustrated homebody. She held most of the caring responsibility, freeing Dylan up to write and promote his work, but she equally neglected that responsibility. If she didn’t leave Aeron and her younger brother alone (older brother Llewellyn makes occasional appearances but wasn’t fully part of Aeron’s childhood, as he was away at public school for most of the year), she left them in the care of Dolly, the housekeeper at the Boat House. Aeron writes about the time she and her mother spent sunbathing and swimming in the estuary, and it is more like Caitlin is another child with Aeron, or an older sibling with minimal responsibility. There’s a moment when, during a shopping trip to the village that added to their mounting debts, Caitlin pops into the Cross House Inn, which still stands on The Grist, to see the landlord, Crossmouse. She leaves Aeron standing outside with the dog. We are led to understand from their farewell embrace that Caitlin was romantically involved with Crossmouse, perhaps in revenge for the time spent by Dylan in the back room of Brown’s in Ivy Williams’s company.
It seems that, when such parenting is all you know, it doesn’t seem strange. Aeron loves both her parents and does not criticise them for what is, effectively, neglect. It’s for the outside observer to draw conclusions based on a more modern concept of good parenting. Today’s standards are bound up in fear of harm coming to children if they aren’t supervised at every moment. The same dangers existed in Aeron’s childhood as today. One of Dylan’s friends, a professor, takes an unhealthy interest in Aeron. Writing as an adult, Aeron claims that she knew what his game was and did everything in her power to thwart him. Maybe that’s true, but she was a mature six year old if so. There was also a known paedophile living in the village, about whom the adults would talk but not warn their children against. As Aeron tells it, it was for the children to deal with if he tried to interfere with them.
On the other side of the lack-of-supervision coin is the huge freedom Aeron and her friends had to roam around in the outdoors. I remember a similar freedom in my own childhood in the 1970s. I wasn’t as independent at such a young age as Aeron. At six one of my older siblings would have been expected to keep an eye on me, but from seven onwards I remember spending long hours away from home with my friends, playing on the fields and exploring the grounds of old cotton mills. As long as somebody’s parent knew where we were going, it was fine. For Aeron, there wasn’t even the need to let a parent know. Perhaps because Laugharne is so small.
Dylan’s absence even when he was physically present led Aeron to stage childish interventions from time to time, such as riding noisily past the writing shed to force her father to come to the door and shout, and hiding her baby brother behind a gravestone before his christening. On family outings or the rare occasions when Aeron was alone with Dylan, his thoughts would gradually come into focus on his daughter. It seems that even then Dylan’s attention was a distracted attention, though, and Dylan is described as puzzling over who this child is and where she has materialised from. Aeron remembers how the merest sliver of attention from Dylan was a reward, usually earned by being attentive to his needs. Charitably, you could put this down to the poet inhabiting another world. Less charitably, it must have been hard for a functioning alcoholic to retain the facts of his own life.
The memoir is peppered with the names of Dylan and Caitlin’s famous friends, the artists and writers who moved in the same circles. On the day I started reading the book, we had visited Laugharne Castle where Dylan’s fellow writer Richard Hughes lived and worked for a period. During the visit we learned that it was at Castle House that Dylan made clear his feelings for Caitlin. The back story is that Caitlin had been romantically involved with Casper John, leading to his father Augustus John painting her portrait. Augustus John had a habit of forcing himself sexually on the women he painted and Caitlin became his mistress-muse. John had introduced Dylan to Caitlin at a soirée in London and the pair had clicked. When John and Caitlin travelled to Laugharne to visit Hughes, Dylan followed. The interpretation panel describes his visit as uninvited. Dylan won Caitlin from John, but not without a fistfight, and a year or so later they were married. None of this detail is mentioned by Aeron, just that John was a regular visitor, Caitlin was friends with John’s long term mistress Dorothy, and John would reportedly, and perhaps with some bitter schadenfreude, comment on the way Dylan and Caitlin apparently lived on air.
Reading about the lifestyle of Dylan and Caitlin made me think about how society holds poets and other artists in a romantic regard, imagining that living such a life is an endless freedom, unlike anything that the rest of us experience. The way Aeron describes it makes it clear what a hard existence it was for everyone in the Thomas family, whether they acknowledged it or not.
Beyond her life at the Boat House, Aeron writes about her relationship with her paternal grandparents, in particular her Granny Flo, who would speak in Welsh with her sisters and cousins until she remembered that Dylan didn’t want Aeron to learn Welsh. Aeron would escape to her Granny when things got too much at the Boat House. Here she would sit and draw, eavesdropping on the conversation in English, loved in a different way to at home.
There’s a wonderful passage describing how Granny Flo’s sisters behaved whem Dylan dropped in for tea.
My father was first in for tea and was offered the second best chair – the best upright Queen Anne was always Grandpa’s. He pecked Granny on the cheek and then the aunties. The sisters were flying around like a flock of starlings, alighting on the table then rising, wings flapping, on their return flight to the stove where the water boiled. My father was asking after relatives and family friends and being given the awful details of births, illnesses, marriage and death as Grandpa entered, his hat and glasses obscuring his thin, pinched face. He was greeted with plumped-up cushions and a rug which he rejected. Several deaths were reported by the women, who had come to rest on the hard dining-room seats.
She also describes the house her grandparents lived in, across the road from Brown’s. The Pelican is still there, a broad sturdy building painted a rich dark green today. As we passed it, I was struck by how much it mirrored Aeron’s description of her dour Grandpa who, by all accounts, was not happy to have left Swansea and retired to Laugharne. Perhaps living in such a small community and across the road from the evidence of his son’s alcoholism left D J Thomas unable to avoid any disappointment he might have felt about how Dylan’s life was going. On a drive over to Tenby, my husband and I discussed how everyone in Dylan’s life indulged his lifestyle rather than intervening, including his parents. Caitlin managed his daily routine, ensuring that he worked every afternoon, but she was also an alcoholic, joining him in the evening and doing her own share of drinking separately from him as well. Perhaps there was an expectation that this was how a poet ought to live. It’s little wonder that Dylan never saw the age of 40.
Towards the end of Dylan’s life, the strains on his marriage to Caitlin began to tell. He had an affair with an American journalist on his first tour of America, meeting up with her in London and Brighton. When news of his betrayal reached Caitlin, it was almost the end of the marriage. Aeron was eight years old and more aware of the tensions, but her childhood had already been so unusual up to that point that it seems to have barely caused her any concern. When Caitlin accompanied Dylan on his second US tour, Aeron went to stay with Dylan’s benefactor, Margaret Taylor, and had no expectation of her parents coming back to reclaim her.
… I never presumed they were going to collect me from Margaret’s. I hoped that one day my parents would reclaim me but these hopes could be dashed. The alternative, staying with the Taylors, was not an entirely bleak prospect and with time I’d forget Mum and Dad.
I found this a terribly sad thing to read. The very least that a child should grow up feeling is that their parents want them and won’t abandon them. This short passage sums up the undercurrent of the book that cuts through all the bravado of what a free and adventurous childhood Aeron wants the reader to think she had. She certainly comes across as resilient, but uncertainty is the wrong source of resilience for a child. Resilience in life ought to stem from the security of knowing that your parents have your back and will help you survive the difficulties life throws your way. I wondered whether Aeron was even aware of how much she felt and absorbed her parents’ rejection. On the basis of this account, it seems that she buried it very deeply.
The memoir suggests that Dylan’s final year was affected by his father’s death in a way that might have contributed to his own early death. Aeron demonstrates through the conversations she overhears in the days and months after her Grandpa’s passing that all of Dylan’s writing was an attempt to impress his schoolmaster father, and without him he was lost. It humanises him. When my dad died, I remember the feeling of unanachoring that I experienced, despite dad not being the parent I was closest to. Perhaps similarly to Dylan Thomas, I felt a remoteness from my dad that I felt had to be overcome by impressing him. The lack of him, I remember, felt like a lack of definition of who I was. Perhaps it was the same for Dylan. That final year, he was frequently ill, coughing badly and suffering blackouts, but in the end it was the alcohol that ended his life.
The first time I visited New York City, I went on a literary pub crawl around Greenwich Village. I recommend it, it’s great fun. The tour I attended started at the White Horse Tavern, site of Dylan’s final drinking excess. The story the guide told was that Dylan drank a skinful before staggering back to the Chelsea Hotel and collapsing in the street. There was a strange mixture of awe and mockery about it. Dylan Thomas at that point seemed a legendary figure, not a human being. Now that I’ve read Aeron’s memoir, I feel more keenly what a tragic figure he was, and what a terrible way for a life to end. We don’t see the effect of celebrity on the famous person’s family. We don’t think of celebrities as private persons. They are our property, and the more outrageous their behaviour, the more entertaining we find them. This book made me realise how shy Dylan Thomas was, how lost without Caitlin in the room, and how ill-fitted for life as a parent. He couldn’t look after himself, let alone three children.
The book is wonderful, full of the atmosphere of Laugharne, and holds a similar golden aura of the past about it to other memoirs, the most obvious being the childhood memoir of Laurie Lee, who was a friend of the Thomas family. It’s also extremely sad and I will read Dylan Thomas’s works differently now.