As we have just passed the birthday on April 28 of Dylan’s mother, Florence, it’s timely to wonder just what she made of her famous son. In July 1958, she invited the radio journalist, Colin Edwards, to travel to Laugharne to take tea with her. She encouraged Edwards to write about the “real Dylan, the Dylan of the years of growing up and maturing…before what happened towards the end.” This is the first publication of the interview edited by David N Thomas.
We motored the thirty miles to Laugharne through the hedge-lined Carmarthenshire country roads. We stopped at the little parish church to pay homage at Dylan’s grave, a grass-sided mound, it’s open face of dry, plain earth adorned only with a vase of pink flowers beneath a small, white, wooden cross.
Driving on through the narrow streets, between the grey stone and whitewashed homes of Laugharne, we reached the head of the cliffside lane that is now called Dylan’s Walk, parked our car, and walked along until we reached a small, wooden hut in which Dylan did so much of his writing. Through cracks in the planked walls, we could see a plain wooden table, a chair or two, and some unpainted shelves. Further on along the lane was a blue-painted wooden gate, and from it a shingle path led steeply down to a square courtyard with a neatly-cut lawn in front of a whitewashed, typically Welsh, two-storey cottage. This was the Boat House.
Mrs Thomas was already in her seventies. She had suffered three broken legs and was enduring three or four heart attacks a day, but she met us at the door. She had silvery-white hair, eyes that were alive with humour and interest, and a firm, no-nonsense chin. There was prettiness in her features. She was about four feet six inches tall and rather thin but her posture and movements suggested wiriness rather than frailty.
With Mrs Thomas was her cousin Rachel, who conducted us on a quick tour of the interesting, lighthouse-sturdy Boat House, which turned out to have four levels. At the bottom of a steep, rope-banistered, stone stairway we found a snug dining room and opposite it a kitchen. Everywhere in the house the woodwork gleamed richly. Mrs Thomas insisted on taking us out on the wooden board walk that hugged the sea-facing corner of the Boat House in order to show us the view of the wide, sandy estuary outside. Around to our right, lay the stony edifices of Laugharne town and the ancient castle where Dylan had wooed Caitlin Macnamara. On the other side of the estuary, were rolling hillsides of soft-textured green with, here and there, the white speck of a farmhouse wall.
Mrs Thomas spoke of Caitlin in friendly terms. Obviously she did not share the bitter feelings that have been expressed against Caitlin by some of Dylan’s friends. When we returned with Mrs Thomas to her sitting room, we found a generous tea laid out for us. On the mantelpiece above were small items of bric-a-brac and family photographs, including some of Dylan on his own, and others of him with Caitlin and the children. Across the hearth from Mrs Thomas stood a television set, a gift from the BBC, and she remarked on its usefulness during evenings when she had no visitors and was alone. As we finished tea, she turned to the microphone and tape recorder that I had set up: ‘Now, what do you want to ask me?’
When Dylan was born, was he a very small baby?
No, not particularly, about six pound and three-quarter, something like that. But he wasn’t what you’d call a very robust baby. He was always having accidents. You know, he’d fall – anywhere. He was terrible that way. When he was about ten years of age he’d had a new bicycle. So his Daddy said: ‘You’re not to go on the Mumbles Road whatever you do’, because there was a regatta in the Mumbles that day – so he promised he wouldn’t. Well, he went to Cwmdonkin Park, he went round the Park on his bike and he was quite all right…so now he was coming back from the Park and he met some boys who were older than he was and they were coming back from school. So they said ‘Come on, Dylan – let’s go down to the Mumbles’…Well, he went. Then while they were going down he had this new bicycle which was rather big for him, you know? But the boy that was with him had a bicycle that was rather small for him – he was a bigger boy than Dylan. So they exchanged. Well, now when they were going along West Cross – you know, down towards the Mumbles – there was a bus stopping there, in front of the bicycle, and it was rather a narrow part of the Mumbles road…
And when he looked, he didn’t have a brake on his bicycle at all. So now he tried to swerve round the bus, and in doing it there was one of Ben Evans’ big vans coming up. And of course he was knocked off and he was run over. Well, then he was taken into hospital; he was in hospital then for three weeks or a month. And his wrist, or his arm, was smashed to bits. Well, he wasn’t willing at all to go and have the operation. He had to have an operation, you see, and he wasn’t willing, until he’d seen his father and his father had forgiven him.
And then he came out…he was supposed to use his left hand to write now to practise because his right arm was still useless…so I looked out through the bedroom window and looked down on the bit of lawn we had at the back of our house, and there was Dylan. I’d put a table outside for him…and some notepaper and pencils, and I said ‘Now you try and practise with your left hand.’ So I looked through – smoking a cigarette for all he was worth out there…we never saw again any smoking until he was quite – well, nineteen or twenty.
Oh, then another time…they were building a house then, just at the bottom of our road, and you know how there are some houses with the back bedroom level with the garden in the back…you’ve got to go up steps to get to the garden. Well, there was a plank from the garden into the back bedroom. So he and his little pal decided that they would have a see-saw. So they put another plank across on this one. And so now Dylan went and walked on his end; he thought the boy would be walking on the other end. But instead of that the little boy didn’t go, so down Dylan went! Well, he was knocked out unconscious, of course, brought home.
Then another time he was with a friend Hughie Williams. It was Crwys Williams – you’ve heard of Crwys Williams, have you? Well, now this was his son. And he lived in a house down on the way to St James’ Gardens and the house had a spiral staircase. And on the top of the stairs was the nursery. So these two kids were playing up there and Hughie came along and oh, he had a pain in his tummy. He had to go and see his mammy. So Hughie went down. Well now, Dylan leaned over the banister, and was poking fun of Hughie and saying ‘Ooh, I got a pain in my tummy, mummy.’ With that, Dylan was down first! And went flat on his nose – well, his nose was flat to his face. So he was rushed to a hospital and that was put right… of course, the nose was rather squashed, and never came really to be the proper nose again.
He was always going in for some major repairs!
Always, always. Now what did he do another time? Oh, yes. The same buildings, as before. He was there playing…and he saw these boys climbing over this wall, see, and so Dylan – you know how little kids are, rather cheeky and perky – he shouted and said ‘I’ll tell!’ With that, this boy came over and dipped him into the tub of lime! Dipped him right in. Well, if it wasn’t for the people who were coming round the steps and saw it – of course, they rushed to him and took him right out and brought him home.
Did he continue to be accident-prone?
Well, he was always in plaster more or less. He was most unfortunate in that way…he’s broken his arms, well, more often than I’ve broken my legs. Oh, he was a very delicate little boy… and then when he was about fifteen he had a haemorrhage rather badly. Oh, he was always very weak in the chest. And had asthma very badly up until he died. He wasn’t very strong – he didn’t go to school until he was about seven.
Did he have lessons at home?
Well, I used to read to him and all that. But he really taught himself to read by such as Rainbow and Puck, those papers. Well, I couldn’t spare all my time to be by him all the while he was in bed, and eventually he got to read himself.
He must have been a very bright child.
Oh, he was. And then, whenever it was wet or anything, you had no trouble in entertaining him. Give him plenty of notepaper or pencils, he’d go into his own little bedroom and write and write and write. And reams of poems.
At what age did this start?
Oh, he started about eight, I should think. And he’d ask his sister, Nancy, sometimes, ‘What shall I write about now?’ And you know what sisters are, they’re not very patient with their brothers, and she’d say, ‘Oh, write about the kitchen sink!’ He wrote a poem, a most interesting little poem, about the kitchen sink. Then about an onion.
Do you have any of these now?
No-o. Well, I tell you what, I put them somewhere, on the mantelpiece I think, the following day, I was tidying up, and I sorted them out. There was one lot I was going to burn, one lot I was going to keep. Well, I burnt the wrong ones. So, of course, I was very disappointed…but you couldn’t keep all his stuff he was writing, because – well, I’d have had the house full. We wouldn’t have had a room to live in. We never thought he was going to be a poet or anything else in that way.
Did they note his talent in school?
As regards English, he was always top. But as regards everything else, he didn’t bother. And of course, it was so awkward for his Dad, being the English master. Do you know, I’ve seen Daddy looking through his papers when he’d been marking with them at home. He’d be looking through them and he’d try to see some fault, but he couldn’t. And then he’d have to give him top marks. He couldn’t do otherwise.
Dylan passed his examination to get to the grammar school. His mathematics and other subjects as well as English must have been fairly good, too.
Oh yes, he got through all those. Yes, they weren’t bad then, you know. But, of course, he dropped that kind of thing, see.
He didn’t go on to university?
No, he wouldn’t go…when his Dad used to ask him, he used to say ‘Well, there’s no need of it.’ Because, he said ‘Look, there’s Bernard Shaw’ – he mentioned names of people who’d never been to university – ‘well they’re on top.’
Mr Thomas, his father, must have given him great encouragement and guidance in his writing.
Oh yes, he did, oh yes. When he was very small, I used to say ‘Oh Daddy, don’t read Shakespeare to a child only about four years of age. He doesn’t understand this.’ And he used to say, ‘Well, he’ll understand it. It’ll be just the same as if I was reading an ordinary thing.’ So he was brought up on Shakespeare. But he did love poems. And of course, Daddy did have a good library of books. A tremendous library. Well, I’ve still got it, in Carmarthen, in the rooms I’ve got there, but I’m bringing them all down here.
Dylan wasn’t a reserved young boy was he?
Well, he was reserved in a way. He had to know you first before he would let himself go. No one knew that there was so much humour in him when he was a young lad, only his friends because if he met somebody, he would sort of close up, until he got to know them. Then he would start.
He didn’t make friends quickly?
Oh no, he didn’t
But he made them well.
Oh yes, he did. He stuck to the old friends, they were always his friends.
His friends, of course, appear in his works. He mentions them by name, as well as basing characters on them. People he knew in his boyhood and in his life here in Laugharne, weren’t they?
Yes, yes they were. Oh yes…now you’ve heard of the story of Grandpa?
A Visit to Grandpa’s?
Now that was a story that his father told him when he was only a very little boy. He couldn’t have been more than about four or five. And it must have got imprinted into his little brain, you know. And when he grew up, of course, he wrote it.
And there was that wonderful story, The Outing.
Well, that again was only what he’d heard. He’d never been on one of those outings in his life. But he’d heard people repeat what they did when they were on these outings. Then he imagined all this. And he did have an uncle, see, but of course this uncle, to our knowledge, never went to one of those outings.
Do you remember another thing that he said? He was born in 1914. Well, during the First World War, I used to come in, I’d been down to the shop, and I’d come into the house and I’d say, ‘Well, Dad, do you know who’s gone to the Front today’? We always spoke of the men going out to the Front, and Dylan used to go out to the front and couldn’t understand where the people were. Because the front of our house was the only front he knew. He’d only have been four when the War finished, and yet he remembers me telling his father that.
What did he think of as a future for himself? Was it as a poet?
Oh, writing. And poetry he wanted most of all. If he’d write anything else, articles or anything, he had to do it, because he got married so he used to write what he called hack stuff. But when he made a little bit of money, he used to say ‘Oh wouldn’t it be nice now, mummy’ he said, ‘if I didn’t have a home to keep. That I could keep this money, I’d have money and go and do my love poems.’ But, of course, it never came to that. He used to go to America – he did make quite a decent bit of money there. When he’d come home, he’d hope that he could concentrate then on his poems. But instead of that, it was heavy bills meeting him when he got home. Well then, by the time he’d paid those, he’d have to start again. And write, or go round and lecture and all that.
What about Dylan’s brothers and sisters?
Well, only a sister, Nancy, he had. She died seven months before Dylan.
Did she write at all?
No, but she was just the same as he was. She was all English and all poetry – she loved it.
And why did he choose Laugharne?
He always liked Laugharne. He used to come down to stay with me, and to stay with his aunts
Dylan had taken this house, the Boat House, and I was still an invalid and couldn’t do for myself. So he said, well, if you can find a house in Laugharne, you come down here and live. Well, we said, if you can find a house and then we can have somebody to look after us, we’ll come. So like that, he came down – he was coming down to see to the decorations of this house. And when he came back, he said ‘I’ve found the house,’ he said. ‘There’s a job for Nancy now, to go down and find someone to look after you.’ So she came down here then and she found a family that were living in a condemned house. They were glad to come to look after us. Because we had taken one of the bigger houses in Laugharne [Pelican]. That was the only house that Dylan could find for us. And he used to come in every day to see his Daddy when he was home – twice a day. Come in the mornings, see him for a few hours, and then he’d come in again about eight to half-past eight…my husband had got very delicate. He had angina for about fourteen years before he died and, of course, couldn’t move from the house at all. So Dylan used to come in – when he was in Laugharne – he used to come in every day and they used to do The Times crossword. That was the starting of the day.
Dylan didn’t ever write in Welsh, did he?
Oh no, oh no.
Did he ever express a sadness at not being able to express himself in Welsh?
No, I don’t think he ever did. Oh no, not in that way.
Rachel: There was a lot of Welsh in Dylan, you know.
Oh, there was a great love of the Welsh…tremendous love, although he didn’t speak it.
Do you see Dylan’s children?
Oh yes, they were here just last week, the two older ones. The eldest boy, Llewelyn, and the middle girl, Aeronwy. And she is, to my thinking, the most like Dylan to look at. And she’s got the love of poetry, more than the others. I don’t know what the little one, Colm, will be.
They used to stay a lot with me, the last year that Dylan lived. They used to come and sleep with me, because my husband had died just before the Christmas. Colm would come and sleep with me and do you know he used to wake very early in the morning and he’d say ‘Gran – tell me a story.’ So I’d say ‘I can’t open my eyes yet.’ So then he’d go and be quiet for a long while and then he’d say ‘Gran – shall I tell you a story?’ Then he’d start and try and make some wonderful stories up and then, of course, after he had done it for a little while he’d turn and he’d say ‘Gran – tell me about the three bears.’ Or something of that kind. And I’d have to enlarge on it.
Then the little girl Aeronwy, she always wanted stories about her father. Always wanted to know ‘What did he do when he was young?’ That was always her cry. And Colm used to come in and he used to say, ‘That’s my Daddy. When is he coming back?’ Always used to ask me when he was coming back.
When his grandfather died, he came in and he asked about him, and I told him that Grandpa had got tired and he was too tired to live, that he’d gone where he could have more rest. And then I tried to tell him the same thing had happened to his father. That Dylan had got ill and was tired and that he’s better off where he is. ‘But isn’t he coming back?’ ‘Well, no’ I said ‘because if they come back, they’ll only suffer again.’ But still, when he sees his father, he says ‘That’s Dylan’.
And he carries the name Dylan as well.
Yes, oh yes. And he’ll tell you, too. When people ask him, I’ll say, ‘Oh, this is Colm’ But he’ll say ‘Colm Garan Dylan Thomas’ He wants his Dylan in, you know. He’s proud of his Dylan. All the children are.
Were there any unfinished things that Dylan left?
Well, I think there were a few poems, there was the poem in memory of his father. That was not quite finished. And I think that there were a few things that he had on the go.
You must have quite a collection of his original drafts of manuscripts.
No, funnily enough. Well, I gave several of them to Emlyn…and he’s taken care of them. And there’s no one I would like to have them better than he.
Emlyn Williams, an old friend of his, I believe.
He’s an old friend of mine, more than an old friend of Dylan’s.
He didn’t know Dylan. He’d never met Dylan…he was supposed to have, they were both in Hollywood the same day – this is a few years ago now, several years ago. And he was supposed to have met him that particular day, but Emlyn was going somewhere else and Dylan was going back to San Francisco. So they didn’t meet.
One day perhaps this house, the Boat House, will be a museum to Dylan Thomas.
Yes. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised at that, because there are crowds coming here all the time. I get such a lot of letters. I can’t reply to them all…if I write a letter or two now in a day, that’s as much as I can do. And I may write, say, three today; perhaps it’ll be a week before I can settle and write one letter again. It’s gone too much.
Are you getting tired? If you’re tired, I’ll wind it up.
It’s been a pleasure for me to talk. Because I love to talk about him. Because it brings back happy memories. And I’m very, very proud. I miss him terribly, but yet I don’t wish him to come back, because he was suffering a lot the last few years, with his chest. He always felt that he had to get out from this country because of his chest being so bad.
After he died, we saw that nearly all his pockets had bits of bread in, and we found afterwards what it was. That from his hut he would open his window, and was throwing these bits out. And still the herons come, and I really believe that they are coming to see if Dylan is up there. Because they always seem to stand just outside there.
Diolch yn fawr, Mrs Thomas.
Florence Thomas died a month later, on August 16 1958.
- The unedited interview with Florence, as well as her photo, are in the Colin Edwards archive at the National Library of Wales. This edited version was done by David N. Thomas ©. The protocols used for editing the Edwards interviews are given in Dylan Remembered 1914-1934 (2003) pp26-28, which also contains a short biography of Colin Edwards.
- Crwys Williams: see http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s2-WILL-WIL-1875.html