Expert to donate Dylan Thomas papers to British Library

A memoir of Dylan Thomas by his family’s doctor and a copy of a letter by Thomas are being donated to the British Library by Professor John Goodby, an expert on the poet, who said that they convey a more nuanced account of Thomas’s last years in Laugharne.

The memoir, which covers Thomas’s years in Laugharne (1938-40 and 1949-53), is hitherto unknown.  The letter does not appear in the 1985 or 2000 editions of Thomas’s Collected Letters and is not known to other Thomas experts.

Both items have been transcribed by Ade Osbourne, a Ph.D. student supervised by Professor Goodby and funded by Swansea University to work on the Dylan Thomas notebook which the University acquired in 2014.

Ade Osbourne explained:

“The 26-page memoir is by Dr David Hughes, the St Clears-based G.P. for the Thomas family, and was written in 1961 for Charles Barber, a Cambridge medical student who had recently become interested in literature and was due to give a paper on Dylan Thomas to the Literary Society; his father, a friend of David Hughes, asked him to help his son, and the two papers were his response, the memoir being handwritten by Hughes himself, the letter being a copy made by his wife Phyllis Hughes from the original, which was addressed to Thomas’s friend Phil Richards, the publican at the Cross House Inn, Laugharne, and dated 8 December 1950.

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Picture:  the GP's memoir of Dylan Thomas, and his "shy and self-effacing demeanour".

David Mendelson Hughes was himself a man of culture, an accomplished painter and a friend of Philip and Richard Burton. His relationship with Thomas was a doctor-patient one only, but his cultural interests tinge his account in places. Thus, he admits that his first impression of Thomas, in 1938, was of someone acting as a Chelsea bohemian in order to give the impression of being an artist.

But this jaundiced view had changed by 1949; Hughes stresses Thomas’s ‘shy & self-effacing’ demeanour, habit of drinking only in moderation, and dedication to his parents, on whom he called every day before visiting Brown’s Hotel (‘before the Pint, the Parents’) where he would have a drink before heading to the Boathouse to work all afternoon.

For Hughes, whose attitudes to women were the patriarchal ones of his era, Caitlin is the villain of the piece; ‘fast’ is the kindest word he uses to describe her, and he speculates that she was responsible for driving Dylan to his death in New York in 1953.

To some extent, Hughes’s account is also that of a local man determined to defend Dylan’s reputation against the lurid accounts given in John Malcom Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America (1957) and Caitlin’s Leftover Life to Kill (1958). He finds Dylan sad rather than humorous and adopts a protective attitude towards him.

For all the limitations of its time and place, however, this is a striking first-hand account of the poet which adds colour and detail to the others we possess, from the Thomas’s packing-case furniture to Dylan’s taste for pork pies and fear of the dark. For all that Hughes’s Dylan ultimately cuts a sad figure, his account is insightful and full of humorous incident.

The short letter is in typically whimsical vein; it refers to Thomas’s forthcoming trip to Persia of January 1951, and to a pig named Wallis, bought by Thomas with his friends Bill McAlpine and Phil Richards to fatten up for Christmas. The memoir references the letter, and tells us that when the time came to slaughter Wallis, Thomas found ‘Wallis’s dying words’ too much to bear, and sought refuge in the Cross House.”

600 x 400Picture:  Professor John Goodby with the papers

Professor John Goodby said:

"The David Hughes memoir, and the Dylan Thomas letter, both kindly donated  by Charles Barber, mean that Dylan Thomas lovers and scholars now have a more nuanced account of his last years in Laugharne, all the more vivid and trustworthy since written by someone who was on the scene.

They flesh out the background to the relatively sedate and orderly way of life which yielded the poetic masterpieces of his later years - 'Over Sir John's hill', 'In country sleep', 'Lament', 'Do not go gentle into that good night' and 'In the White Giant's Thigh' - and his comic masterpiece for radio, Under Milk Wood.'"

The documents were kindly donated to Professor Goodby by Charles Barber at the suggestion of His Grace Rowan Williams during a Marlborough College reunion in 2015.

They have been on display at Swansea Museum, and will then be donated to the British Library.   They also form the basis of a feature article to mark International Dylan Day in The Times by Hilly Janes, the daughter of Fred Janes, Dylan’s close friend, and author of The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas.

The paperback edition of Professor Goodby’s centenary edition of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas was published on Tuesday, 10 May, and is to be launched on International Dylan Day, 14 May, at The Wheatsheaf, Fitzrovia, in London.

The original hardback went through three reprints and topped the British and Irish poetry bestseller lists; it also made the Independent's 10 Christmas poetry recommendations list in 2014. The new paperback edition corrects all errors in the original and carries a new poem, 'A dream of winter'.

 Swansea University College of Arts and Humanities