Caitlin and Dylan : At War and Peace

Week III

Dylan and Caitlin Thomas in a favourite drinking spot, Brown’s Hotel, Laugharne. The photograph is one of many of the couple taken by Nora Summers.

Dylan and Caitlin Thomas in a favourite drinking spot, Brown’s Hotel, Laugharne. The photograph is one of many of the couple taken by Nora Summers.

In the closing two years of the war most Londoners thought that the worst of the bombing raids were over. Instead, for a brief and intense period, a more sinister chapter of death from the skies opened. Flying bombs, launched from occupied Europe, flew into London. They were pilotless and practically without sound, except for a wail as they descended. They terrorised a war-weary people.* Many, who had braved the previous raids, felt that this was a horror too far. They sought refuge in quieter rural areas.

Dylan and Caitlin Thomas left their one-room flat in Chelsea, and rented a small bungalow at New Quay, in west Wales. They had no money but fortunately met an old school friend of Dylan’s (probably his first girlfriend ), Vera Killick, who lived near-by. A warm friendship developed among all three. Kind hearted Vera spent her family savings on food, and mad drinking parties with Dylan and Caitlin.

Vera’s husband, Captain William Killick, was fighting a brave and dangerous war with the Resistance in Greece. He came home on leave and was astonished to find that his hard-earned savings had virtually disappeared. He was incensed to discover that, while he was away, Vera had indulged in wild drinking parties with the Thomases. Somehow he had a sub-machine gun in his possession. He walked up to the Thomas’ bungalow, and sprayed the house with bullets. Luckily no-one was hurt. He then burst in with a hand-grenade and threatened to pull its pin. Dylan pleaded with him to desist. The poor man collapsed.

Later when the police heard about the incident, Captain Killick was arrested, and put on trial for attempted murder. Dylan and Caitlin were called as witnesses. But just before the trial started the army authorities managed to have the case dismissed. It pleaded that the captain was suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome, and was not responsible for his actions.

Dylan and Caitlin came from very different social backgrounds. Dylan’s mother was a respectable seamstress, while his father was a teacher of English, with a poetic talent who had dreamt of better things. He taught in the Swansea grammar school where Dylan attended until he walked away at 16 years of age determined to become a poet. Caitlin came from a careless Anglo-Irish background, who still owned property but had no money. She had practically no formal education. Abandoned by her parents as a child, she lived a free and uninhibited lifestyle with the John family in Dorset and the New Forest. Dylan would have had a conscience about the Killick incident, and possibly some regrets; but as a friend remarked, “Caitlin wouldn’t have cared a bugger”.**

Lovers and benefactors

Dylan’s childhood was spent in a red-brick semi-detached house in the posher end of Swansea. There were summer trips to Carmarthenshire to visit Fernhill, a dairy farm owned by his maternal aunt Ann Jones. The memory of these holidays are recalled, in what critics acknowledge as his greatest poem, Fern Hill which laments his lost youth, acted out ‘In the sun that is young once only’. He suffered from asthma and bronchitis in childhood, and struggled with these throughout his life. He was indulged by his mother and enjoyed being mollycoddled, a trait he carried into adulthood. He showed his romantic soul, and was skilful in gaining attention and sympathy from women, both as lovers and as benefactors.

His first school was at Mrs Hole’s private school, and I love his description of that experience which he wrote in Quite Early One Morning:

‘Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime - the pulling of a girl’s hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature...’

Their soulmate

Before he met Caitlin, two volumes of Dylan’s poetry had already been published. He was still a teenager when many of the poems for which he became famous were written. These included ‘And Death shall have no dominion’, ‘Before I knocked’, ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,’ and The Hand That Signed the paper’. These had attracted attention from major figures in the literary London scene, such as TS Eliot, Geoffrey Grigson, and Stephen Spender.

But if he was a published poet, there was very little money in it. He earned meagre fees for writing and reviewing, and some broadcasting with the BBC. He borrowed heavily from his friends and acquaintances to survive, but mainly to support his drinking.

Dylan and Caitlin were both 22 years old when they met in a Soho pub that evening in April 1936. Both believed they had found their soulmate. And while that feeling was to turn sour, spiteful, and even violent in the years to come, it never disappeared.

Calmest period

Probably the calmest period of their lives was when in May 1948 Dylan, Caitlin, and their three children, Llewelyn Edouard, Aeronwy Bryn, and Colm Garan, moved into their final home, the Boat House at Laugharne, purchased for them by a lady admirer at a cost of £2,500. Above the house was a wooden garage on a cliff edge, which Dylan turned into a writing shed.***

There were to be periods of great turbulence, particularly when Dylan embarked on his American tours later, but in Laugharne he found a kind of peace. Looking out from his window, back at the village, he wrote his wonderful and magic Under Milk Wood: A play for Voices.

An amused narrator invites the audience to listen to the dreams and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of a fictional small Welsh fishing village Llareggub ("bugger all" backwards ).

They include Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, relentlessly nagging her two dead husbands; Captain Cat, reliving his seafaring times; the two Mrs Dai Breads; Organ Morgan, obsessed with his music; and Polly Garter, pining for her dead lover. Later, the town awakens and, aware now of how their feelings affect whatever they do, we hear them go about their daily business.

It was first broadcast in January 1954 , a year after Dylan’s death. When the actor Richard Burton did the narration, the recording became a world best seller.

Next Week:

A Child’s Christmas in New York

NOTES: * Between June 13 1944 and October 1944, more than 100 flying bombs fell on the south east of England every day. However following the D-day invasion, June 6 of that year, the launch pads along the French and Dutch coasts were soon overrun by the Allies.

** A film The Edge of Love was made in 2008 about this incident. Starring Keira Knightly as Vera, Matthew Rhys as Dylan, Sienna Miller as Caitlin, and Cillian Murphy as Capt Killick. I haven’t seen it but I am told that it was good. But that some poetic licence was taken with the story.

*** About 40 kms from Hollyhead there is a sign for the Thomases’ Boat House at Laugharne. It is all preserved as it was, even papers scattered on the floor of the writing shed. Well worth the detour. I have done it several times.

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