Dylan and Caitlin Thomas – A Child’s Perspective
Growing up in West Wales a couple of miles from Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas and his family lived on and off for fifteen years, the language of Under Milk Wood and ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ were part of my childhood. What Dylan Thomas did with poetry was revolutionary. He produced a musical language that evoked the idiom of South Wales. Thomas always had a complicated relationship with Wales, yearning for metropolitan life, the conviviality of clubs and pubs around BBC's Broadcasting House, but he always returned West. He was born 100 years ago, and the centenary of his birth has provided an opportunity to dig beyond the myth of the drunk and dissolute poet, dead at 39 in New York. One key figure to his achievement is his often overlooked wife, Caitlin MacNamara.
As a child it did not feel remarkable that I knew people in Laugharne who remembered Thomas and his family. My mother was the district nurse. I often accompanied her on those long school summer holidays while she went about her work.
Tommy Cockles was a regular patient. Tommy had a tracheotomy which meant that the stoma in his neck needed regular cleaning. This was done in privacy, but later I would watch in fascination as Tommy would smoke cigarettes by covering the small hole with a finger. He did the same thing when he talked. On one visit the conversation turned to Dylan Thomas and more particularly his wife Caitlin. She was known to be a racy one, at least according to Tommy's wife Edith who told us 'she never wore much for the Laugharne carnival’. Caitlin also trained as a dancer. Tommy and Edith remembered that much of the furniture on display at The Boathouse - Thomas' rented home in Laugharne and now a literary museum - was not their own.
An image of Caitlin stuck with me as a semi naked, perhaps bustiered woman dancing through Newmarket Street, imagining herself on a London stage, far from the indignity of living in a house with an outdoor privy and no running water.
Caitlin MacNamara was of Irish decent - the family home was Ennistymon House in Co. Clare, although she grew up in Hampshire. Her childhood was unconventional, if not traumatic. As a teenager, the painter Augustus John violently sexually assaulted Caitlin and claimed her as a lover. John curiously introduced Caitlin to Dylan in a London pub. She once referred to her marriage to Dylan as 'red raw bleeding meat'. Their marriage certainly was tempestuous - fuelled by physical fights, extramarital affairs and the difficulty of raising three young children on a precarious income. But without doubt Caitlin was a central force in the poet's life and art. She was the bohemian who recognised the necessity of his writing. Caitlin was the one who lit the stove early in the morning in Dylan's writing shed, above the Corran estuary, enabling his writing to take place. She became a widow with three children at the age of thirty nine and moved to Italy following Dylan's death.
George Tremlett runs a bookshop in Laugharne, Corran Books. Early on he was bitten by Dylan fever, he became an aficionado and moved to Wales. Crucially George also collaborated with Caitlin on her second autobiography, simply entitled, Caitlin. Her first self-penned memoir Leftover Life to Kill is a difficult read since it attempts to give shape to Caitlin’s overwhelming grief and anger at Dylan’s death. With the second, George told me that they would sit in the mornings with a cassette player in her home. This allowed her to break down her story, one stage at a time, into a manageable narrative. Some of the recordings were exceptionally painful recollections, and retelling did not come easily.
I remember the coverage of Caitlin’s death in 1994 - there was a sense of unease in the local papers. It was as though a flamboyant and difficult visitor had returned. In spite of finding love with Guiseppe Fazio and having a fourth child at the age of forty nine, Caitlin's wish was to be buried in the same plot as Dylan in the Laugharne graveyard. Their joint resting place is marked by the same simple white cross in St Martin’s Churchyard.
In her account of their life together, Double Drink Story, Caitlin reflects with great pathos on holding what she calls Dylan's 'little frail fish hand' in St Vincent's Hospital, New York.
Visiting the grave at the beginning of the centenary year, I found it had offerings: a small bottle of Guinness, pennies on the cross, a bucket of heather, a stone with a line of poetry transcribed in a child's hand. Amidst this bricolage is a small note on a bouquet of brown limp flowers. Curious, I looked and read. It is an elegy to the fury and energy of this most underestimated woman. The note is signed Francesco Fazio, Caitlin's fourth child.
'My apologies Cat, I did not mean to intrude.'