Of the many books I have read about Dylan Thomas, ‘My Father’s Places’ by his daughter Aeronwy, Hannah’s late mother, is undoubtedly one of the finest, being not only a valuable biography/autobiography but also an excellent work of literature. It is wonderfully well written, describing scenes and stories from the poet’s tempestuous life with a clarity and beauty that goes beyond description and takes the reader into the event itself.
Little wonder. Aeronwy Thomas was a writer and a poet, though very different in style to her father. The book describes the chaotic life with her maddeningly bohemian parents during Dylan’s final years in the Boathouse.
What marks this out as so much more than another account of her father’s life and pushes it into the realm of great writing is the approach Aeronwy took and the ten years she spent writing it. This is not an adult using her personal knowledge to examine her famous father. Aeronwy chose instead to write an account of life with Dylan, Caitlin, Grandmother Florrie, Dolly the family housekeeper, her brothers and Mably the dog through the eyes of her six to ten year old self!
Few authors have had the courage or the creative skill to write as a child. I know of only three who have done so with success and they are all talented writers. L.P.Hartley exposed the crippling restrictions of Edwardian class through the niaive vision of a small boy in “The Go-Between”. William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’’ is told through eyes of its fifteen characters each taking a chapter. (Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is the only other novel I have read to adopt this method in preference to a single narrator.) One of Faulkners is a nine-year-old boy! The magnificent Harper Lee in “To Kill A Mockingbird” needs no introduction for hers is one of the greatest modern novels, stunningly well written and intensely moving because it is delivered through the experiences and guileless understanding of a child.
This company is testament to how well written Aeronwy’s book is. Writing as a child rather than about a child is incredibly difficult for an adult to do, the empasse between childhood naivety and adult understanding is so vast. To do so whilst recalling your own past, not sullying it with subsequent experience and insight, is even more difficult, monumentally so. It is little wonder few writers have attempted and fewer still managed to achieve it or, that when they do, they are authors of considerable skill.
The result in ‘My Father’s Places’ is a unique and tender account of life in the “seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks”. Beautifully written, we observe the madcap life in the Boathouse, the eccentricities of Laugharne, the harsh and distanced loving Caitlin and Dylan provided for their children and life as a child in a time and place whose wonderful freedom and simplicity are sadly long disappeared.
Yet the significance of this book should not be underestimated! Whilst this is not a biography, Aeronwy provides an insight into both her parents no one else has, partially by virtue of her close personal experience but more so by the method she chose to relate them.
By writing through her six (to ten) year old self Aeronwy Thomas is able to comment on the faults and limitations of her parents with remarkable candour and honesty and without any subtext or judgement. The book is startingly frank about both parents drinking, about how life was structured to humour and engineer Dylan to work, about the rows and jealousies. Caitlin’s frequent harshness toward her daughter who described herself as “an aggravating child” and “the only person he [Dylan] lost his temper with” is not hidden and there is the comforting escape to the warm lenience of her grandmother.
There is also the indulgence. The account of Christmas is in stark contrast to the nostalgia that runs through ‘A Child’s Christmas’ but it is also contrasts the popular image of a life that made for a “warring absence”! Yes Dylan spent his mornings down at Browns” but it was in the company of his father (another rather distant parent) and it is warming to find that Dylan read Grimm’s fairytales, nursery rhymes and Struwwelpeter to his daughter before he and Caitlin set out to drink. One can only wonder on how magnificent it would be to have Dylan Thomas read to you as a child!
Did Aeronwy choose to write this way as a literary ambition? I suspect that this was the only way she could summon the courage to write about her parents. In interview she described how she never recovered from the shock of Dylan’s death, how she tried to block it out and never cried. Perhaps it was only as her childhood self could that she could revisit the past but, in doing so, she has given us a magnificent insight into her father, mother and grandmother, more nuanced and human than the stereotypes that too often masquerade as Dylan and Caitlin’s biography.
Josh Brown is a retired lecturer in Business and Marketing, a poet and a cook. His time is spent organising poetry events.
November 27th 2017.