Jeff Towns and Dylan Thomas; exhibition at Swansea University, May 2015.

Fifty years ago, I settled in Swansea from London via college in Cardiff, got married and opened a used bookstore. The city of Swansea and Swansea University played an important part in its development. Back then I was a bibliographic tyro and much of my trade centred around buying textbooks from the departing graduates and then offering them to the new intake of students, but speed of change in academia, the growth of digitising technology and the Internet soon put paid to that business model.

Luckily I was quick to learn my trade and I was soon selling rare and antiquarian books and many of my earliest customers came from Swansea University’s academic staff, in particular Professor Cecil Price, the head of the English Department. Cecil was a proper bibliophile and I learned much from him – he was a serious collector of Chesterfield and edited Sheridan’s plays for publication, but he was also very keen on Welsh Writing in English (which I had begun to specialize in). It was Cecil who had invited Dylan Thomas to speak to Swansea staff and students during which Dylan traded insults with Kingsley Amis. A year or two after Cecil died his books appeared at a Sotheby’s auction in London and I bought many good lots including his Dylan Thomas books which included a fine unpublished letter to Cecil from Dylan himself!

Dylan Thomas has gone on to be a constant link between our business and Swansea University. In the 1980s a Japanese professor, Naomi Matsuura came to Swansea University on a sabbatical to study Swansea’s great literary son. Naomi had published translations of Dylan’s poems in 1960 and he had returned to prepare a book length study. He haunted my bookstore and we became good friends. On his return to Kyoto University he was instrumental in acquiring my first serious Dylan Thomas collection for his University Library. I then approached Swansea University’s Professor M Wynn Thomas with a catalogue of a very extensive collection of Dylan Thomas writings in translation in some 20 languages. In view of the international reputation and reach of CREW, the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales led by Professor M Wynn Thomas at that time, he and the then librarian decided to take them.

However it was when Swansea University took on the management of the international Dylan Thomas Prize that my relationship became more defined. I knew Founder and President of the Prize Professor Peter Stead when he was a History tutor at the University and was sat next to him at a Swansea Arts development meeting back in 1994 when he described his vision for the Prize. Peter was a long-time supporter of Dylans Bookstore and a good friend and he immediately got me involved with the Prize – I was appointed International Ambassador (alongside a local actress – Catherine Zeta Jones!)

In 2013 Peter remained President of the Prize when Swansea University took over as the main partner and began to subtly enhance its scope and reach as well as developing its strong educational programme, DylanED. I stayed involved too, becoming an honorary patron and I began to work closely with two of the Prize’s Directors, Dr Elaine Canning and Professor John Spur.

We were fast approaching 2014; here in Swansea [and in parts beyond] this was to be Dylan Thomas’s Centenary Year – to be celebrated via a multitude of events; various and curious, traditional and avant-garde, frivolous and serious; which were being mooted and heralded, pitched and planned.

In these parts Dylan Thomas rose to a new level of ubiquity. And the University was to play a huge and significant role. As what turned out to be a rich and exciting year was drawing to a close, Sotheby’s London Auction House announced that in its forthcoming December 14th sale of Books and Manuscripts they were offering for sale a remarkable, previously unknown Dylan Thomas manuscript poetry notebook, which contained working early drafts of 19 poems never seen by critics, scholars or biographers.

What an amazing and unexpected climax to the year! Coincidence? Random synchronicity? Or maybe it was a poetic Yeatsian gyre? Whatever it was, it definitely had an impact. Dylan had sold four of his early notebooks to a London dealer in 1941 and being seriously stretched for cash due to wartime constrictions he accepted what, even allowing for inflation, was a very paltry sum. They were eventually sold to the Lockwood Library at Buffalo, New York State University. And now in his centenary year, backed with a curious provenance that centred on a ‘Tesco Bag’ that it came in, this great document was up for grabs.

Sotheby’s sent me a standard heads-up e-mail about the sale and a print-out of their detailed description and illustrations and I set about trying to raise some interest and a commission bid. The pre-sale estimate of  £100,000 – £150,000 made it beyond my means to buy it for stock but I quickly exhausted my usual contacts for this kind of material who, all for various reasons (most were lack of funds in austere times) declared they were not bidding. To my complete surprise and extreme joy and excitement, Swansea University worked its magic and produced a very strong bid. And it proved strong enough that on the day I was able take on a persistent telephone bidder – I think from the States – to make the winning bid!

Swansea University had secured this important and significant manuscript for Swansea and Wales. And they didn’t stop there – shortly after, Sotheby’s in New York contacted me about a significant group of worksheets for two more early poems which Swansea acquired. And then I had the sale of a significant archive from Dylan’s publishers, J. M. Dent, which was full of interesting and hitherto unseen materials on the content and publishing of his later works, and they purchased those too.

L-R: Prof John Spurr; Dr Elaine Canning; actor and screenwriter Celyn Jones; Swansea University Honorary Fellow Jeff Towns – Dylan poetry manuscript exhibition, Swansea University, May 2016.

Celyn Jones and Jeff Towns, Dylan poetry manuscript exhibition, Swansea University, May 2016.

Two Swansea Alumni – John Goodby and Adrian Osborne – have already published a detailed study of the Fifth Notebook to great critical acclaim and they kindly gifted me a copy. Upon reading it, I realised that Swansea University had very quickly built a very significant holding of fresh Dylan Thomas primary source materials and it moved me to speak with Steve Williams and Sian Williams of Swansea University Libraries about my own pretty vast remaining Dylan Thomas Holdings. My collection is now joining theirs and I couldn’t want it to go to a better new home.

Part of Jeff Towns’ Dylan collection; Swansea University, May 2015.

Swansea University should be justly proud of what they have achieved in advancing Dylan Thomas Studies – I for one am very proud to have been involved.

Jeff Towns Dlit. [Swansea]

Watch: Inspiring people – Jeff Towns

**Jeff Towns is an Honorary Fellow of Swansea University and a Patron of the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize.

Find out more about the new Dylan Thomas digital collection, a collaboration between the Dylan Thomas Trust, Swansea University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.