This week I want to stop and take a step back. I feel I may have been a little pretentious in assuming that people would want to read a blog written by Dylan Thomas’s granddaughter. I’m not an expert on poetry or on Dylan Thomas in fact – many, many, many people know more than me. Truthfully, my life is a bit boring. I like nothing better than a hot bubbly bath followed by a large glass of red wine and a film on Netflix. I’m a mum and my weekdays are spent teaching and writing. I know just how busy life can be and that every second counts so I really appreciate it that people find the time, and set aside five precious minutes to read my blog. For that reason, I would like to explain how I discovered my grandfather’s writing and why that has spurred me on to want to share his beautiful words with others.
Let me take you back seven years to April 2009. I’ll be honest with you, at that point, I knew very little about my grandfather and even less about his work. I suppose you take these things for granted when it has been there your whole life. And then, wham, bam, in an instant my life changed. I didn’t see it coming but the impact of it was indescribable. I was six months pregnant, already enormously big, or so it felt, and was struggling to get about. I’m 5ft (with heels) and the added weight, and where my son had decided to sit (right above a slipped disc) was causing constant pain. But that paled into insignificance when I received the phone call. It was my mum…she had Leukemia and only had six months to live. Oh gosh, even writing it down takes my breath away – I remember it all so clearly. I desperately wanted her to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light ”, to fight this killer disease and defy the odds and live on. But that was selfish of me. She was extremely sick and I needed to let her go.
I was so very, very lucky to be there when she died and I had the chance to promise that I’d tell the baby all about her – and we have done as not a day goes by without a mention of Nonna. From diagnosis to death it was just three months in the end. Mum died on the 27th July and then my son Charlie was born a few weeks later on the 19th August. Everyone had told me that it was going to be a boy, something about the shape of my bump apparently, but I had thought it would be a girl. With hindsight, I’m pleased he was a boy because it could have been very confusing otherwise.
I then had a year of rollercoaster emotions. I was so happy with my newborn boy and then so sad at the same time. I didn’t know what I was doing – I suppose no first time parent does – but all I wanted was my mum to guide me with a few wise words or just a bit of common sense. There were other feelings too. I was incredibly resentful whenever I heard people grumbling about their mums – how dare they! I was just so bloody jealous. I was all over the place. Maybe it was the hormones, perhaps the lack of sleep, or more than likely, the excruciatingly painful grief.
But the worst feeling by far was the unbelievable frustration that all I could remember about Mum was the last months of her life when she was frail, vulnerable and terminally ill. What about the thirty years and nine months before that? I knew she had been a strong, sensitive, dignified and intelligent woman … where would I find her again?
Well, strangely, it was through my grandfather’s words. It was the one-year anniversary of mum’s death and I read the epitaph inscribed on her slate plaque. “How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.” This line pointed me towards “The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” It’s only now, with hindsight that I realise that it was that poem that helped me accept Mum’s death. It demonstrated to me the closeness of life and death, and that mortality is just part of life – it was a turning point for me.
It also lead me to read more of my grandfather’s writing. I started with the prose – his stories, broadcasts, screenplays and letters. I was a bit concerned that the poetry may be a bit beyond me. Though I did eventually find the courage to read his poems and I’m so pleased I did. Now I understood what all the fuss was about!
But there was something bugging me as well. Throughout my life whenever I had mentioning my famous grandfather to friends they had looked up puzzled and casually said, “Who?” It got to the point that I just told new friends that we had writers in the family – fearful of the indifferent reaction.
So, when the opportunity of the centenary arose, and the chance to raise my grandfather’s profile, I jumped into unknown waters fully clothed. Promoting Dylan Thomas became my full time job for four years. It wasn’t easy. I was travelling back and forwards to Wales, often with my young son. Unfortunately, he didn’t always cope with the windy Welsh lanes or the upheaval to his usual sleep routine. But when things were bad – vomit in the car or a 5 a.m. Charlie call (who needs an alarm?) – I remained resolute and driven by a determination to introduce my grandfather’s writing to new audiences.
I was unwavering and consistent with my message – bring the focus back to Dylan Thomas’s work. I repeated my mantra whenever and wherever possible; sounding increasingly like an annoying stuck record. I generally got a very positive response but I did get a few unhelpful comments with the implication that, “the lady doth protest too much methinks.” I ignored it though, developed a thick skin (rhino hide Mum called it) and stubbornly continued, undeterred.
There are many opinions about the success of Dylan Thomas 100 but it certainly helped increase awareness. But I couldn’t leave it there. That is why I created the website DiscoverDylanThomas.com and why I write this blog. I’m not a Dylan Thomas expert, I’m not an academic but I am a fan. I want other people to experience the tingles down their spine as they uncover his writing for the first time. Or for the tenth or hundredth time in actual fact because the thing is I still find myself when I re-read his writing, peeling off layer upon layer, and at each level I feel I gain a deeper understanding of his poetry.
I am exceptionally honoured to be related to such a wonderful wordsmith and I do not take this responsibility lightly. From now on if people say to me, “Dylan Thomas? Who?” I will stand tall and proudly admit that he is my super talented Grandpa.
Hannah Ellis – 17th October 2016.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com