Dylan Thomas’ Last Train Ride and a Long Lost Poem

Recently, when I was looking for something else, I found a yellowing typescript at the bottom of an old box file — a transcript of an interview with Wynford Vaughan Thomas made 40 years ago, for an almost instantly defunct magazine that closed even before its second issue. For those who don’t know of him, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, who died in 1987, was a distinguished war correspondent for the BBC during World War II, who became a sort of de facto voice of the establishment — albeit one with a mellifluous Welsh tint. Along with much else, he was also one of Dylan Thomas’ literary executors. And the subject of the interview? A poem. Not a great poem, not even a good one — but nevertheless a poem at least partly composed by a great poet. And one which carries the traces of a Swansea that is long lost. It was a bit like finding a wine stained Picasso doodle on a napkin. But if anything, this is a story of lost stories, of two lost poems and of a lost poet.

I found Wynford standing at the far end of the bar, surrounded by a group of people he’d just made laugh; small and white haired, he had the aura of an elderly elf on the lam. But he was clearly having fun, launching himself into a story about how, as war raged all around, incredibly, he’d stumbled on Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ in a deserted Castello in Tuscany along with dozens of other treasures from the Uffizi, concealed under dust sheets in a dimly lit room. And then straight into another, where he stood at the beachhead of St. Raphael, during Operation Anvil whereupon, as the smoke and murk from the bombardment cleared, an immaculately dressed Frenchman emerged from one of the few still undamaged Riviera villas, carrying a tray of champagne and announcing, “Bienvenue, Messieurs!”, before adding in English, “Even if you are a bit late.”

If somehow Wynford’s war sounds jolly, it wasn’t always. He delivered a powerful commentary from Belsen shortly following its liberation and some people said he became a gentler person after bearing witness to that inexplicable brutality. But he was, perhaps, best known for his broadcast “Air Raid over Berlin” which aired in September 1943, and which made him a household name. And the air raid leads me back to my theme when he told the story of the first lost and found poem given to him by Dylan Thomas — this is directly from the transcript:

“…Suddenly the telephone rings as I was trying to put the bloody thing together, and he says, ‘Hello Hero!” “Who’s that?’ I said. He said, “It’s me I’m in the last pub in the Kings Road, bring the money.”

I used to get these calls, I mean we all did. “Right I’ll get there straight away” I said, “you stay where you are.” So, I did my broadcasting “Air Raid Over Berlin” and all the rest of it. I then get a BBC car which was as rare as radium in those days. And they get me down there, to the last pub on the Kings Rd…”

It was a good hour before he could get there and by then Dylan was in full flight in his role as a roaring boy from Wales, reciting a poem about the strange goings on, one Saturday night in New Quay, a small West Wales seaside town. Knowing he was singing for his supper Dylan had begun to set it down clearly enough, but as the beer flowed the manuscript became increasingly illegible.

He continued,“In the final lines you have to look at it sideways… it was obviously prepared, it starts beautifully… as he waited he thought he’d better complete it. In the final lines you have to look at it sideways. And its my rarest Dylan manuscript, where you see the poet not exactly at work, but getting tighter and tighter and tighter, until he decided not to work anymore…”

As they left Dylan pushed the crumpled the poem into Wynford’s pocket which he thought was lost in the “reeling King’s Road”. Until many years later coming across the notes he had made at 20,000 feet during the air raid, when out fell a stained and crumpled piece of paper on which was written in Dylan Thomas’ unmistakeable schoolboy scrawl, “Sooner than you can water milk or cry Amen”, which you can find in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas Centenary Edition.

New Quay, Ceridigian, Wales where “Sooner than you can water milk” is set

Wynford and Dylan had been friends since they both went to Swansea Grammar, as did my father, who, when reviewing a documentary about Wynford for The Spectator in the 70s, described their school as “…an eccentric and lovable school where no-one was made to do anything much if he didn’t feel like it …”

Before going to tell how the then head master, Trevor Lloyd, on spotting Wynford and Dylan “mitching off” to play billiards when they should have been in school, yelled out the classroom window, “I hope you get caught, you wicked boys!”

Although they were at there at the same time Wynford was a little older, in the sixth form when Dylan was in the third or fourth. The late Peter Williams, who was closer in age to Thomas, was able to give me a first-hand impression of what Dylan was like as a boy. Describing him as, “a cherubic boy with black curly hair, who to everybody’s surprise, because the last thing he looked was athletic, won the school mile when he was 12”.

Which was a feat newsworthy enough to feature in the Cambria Daily Leader and that the clipping was still in Dylan’s wallet when he died in New York, shows that the triumph really mattered to him. Perhaps Thomas’ story, Extraordinary Little Cough” echoes this odd combination of fragility and resilience, when George says ‘I’ve been running on Rhossilli sands! I ran every bit of it! You said I couldn’t, and I did! I’ve been running and running!’

Williams, who ran cross-country with Thomas at school, recalled that Dylan had genuine ability as a long-distance runner, despite being incongruously frail and avoiding any form of physical training. But other than that, Dylan, hardly stood out as a young boy Williams said, but nevertheless described one event more in keeping with Dylan’s later, somewhat more transgressive persona. A friend called Glyn visited the Thomas’ house on the day of the week when Dylan’s mother habitually invited a group of ladies from the neighbourhood over for afternoon tea. In Peter Williams’ words:

“And as the two boys politely sat there amongst the guests, Dylan turned to Glyn and said, “They talk so much they don’t hear a word anyone else says.”

“I’ll show you…”, he said.

So, these quite small boys sat at the tea table as the women chatted away — Mrs Thomas, of course, principal in the pecking order as the hostess.

Then Dylan turned to Glyn and said, “Pass the fucking cake”.

Without hesitation and without a hiccup in the conversation, Mrs Thomas passed them the cake.

So Dylan said, later, “I told you, didn’t I!’’

I asked Wynford, who, as I mentioned, was one of the triumvirate of Dylan Thomas’ literary executors, whether Dylan courted the aura which was fuelled by these sometimes apocryphal stories. He responded by saying that not only were most of the stories not apocryphal, but that they existed was indicative of the scale of Thomas’ achievement as a poet, adding, “The interesting thing about the whole Dylan saga, I mean you can’t pin down stories to fact, but the fact that the stories are there is fascinating. The whole of the business of Dylan hangs in the air. He left a mad legacy behind.”

He then described the dark comedy of Dylan Thomas’ last night in Swansea, just before his fateful final journey to the United States. Make of this what you will, because it contradicts the better known account given by Daniel Jones who wrote movingly of Thomas’ last night in Swansea in My Friend Dylan Thomas”, where he described how he ran with the departing train along the platform at Swansea High St, as Dylan stood at the compartment’s open window, as Jones put it,“… waving one hand slightly with exaggerated weakness and smiling an odd little smile.”

Wynford’s account is a little different. Wynford says, he received an urgent call late one evening from Daniel and Irene Jones. En route to America, Dylan had got drunk, disgraced himself in some way while staying with the Jones’, and then passed out. They’d had had enough, “Get him out of the house and he can’t stay here again,” they said. In Wynford’s own words, “…this was about ten thirty at night, and the buggers deserted me. There I had this poet. And Dylan when he was drunk wasn’t easy to cart around. It was all very well people taking great romantic views about it. But a drunk with sick over him. I thought what in God’s name do I do? … as I drove around Swansea, I thought I’d get him in a hotel, so I went to the Mackworth which was still open then, but they said, “No bloody fear!”

Luckily, as a senior journalist for the BBC, Wynford had a car, which was unusual, since still Britain was, even in 1953, suffering post-war austerity. So he drove from hotel to hotel, but Dylan’s reputation went on before him. The bald truth is, during the great poet’s final night in Swansea town, no one would have him. Wynford continued, ‘And then a brilliant idea struck me, so I drove to the station. I said to the station master have you got a warm train? And he said, “ Well Mr Thomas there’s a train that goes off and wanders all over the bloody place, but I think it ends up in Darlington.” I said I’ve got a man who wants to go there. So I bought a ticket with another back to London and I put some money in his pocket. I carried him past the the station master at the barrier and I said, “my friend’s very ill”, and he knew Dylan, so he said “as always”. So we put him in a corner of this train which disappeared off into the dark, and that was the last I saw of the great poet. And I feel… Well no, I did very well by him…. I don’t feel guilty at all about it. I posted him to Darlington!’

The next time Wynford would see Dylan, would be in McLean’s funeral parlour in New York City. But even then the theatre continued when the Scottish poet Ruthven Todd, (another good friend of Dylan Thomas’), took Wynford to see Dylan at the undertakers, where, as Wynford said, “Of course he’d been done up like ‘The Loved One’.”

Then Ruthven looked down and he said “God! Dylan wouldn’t be seen dead in a tie like that!”

So the black farce went on. Appallingly, they then lost Dylan Thomas’ body after it had crossed the Atlantic on the RMS Media. The undertaker, Phil Evans “the Death”, who had been sent from Laugharne to collect the remains from Southampton, simply disappeared with the corpse. Panicky cables were dispatched all around the country from the undertaker’s head office in Chepstow, until finally Mr Evans was “headed off”, driving his hearse westwards through Taunton, in Devon on the way to Cornwall. Wynford said, “Evans bach, ‘what were you doing in Taunton?’ ‘Well Mr Thomas’ he said, ‘Do you know I’ve never ferried further east from Laugharne than Blaenau in my life and nobody told me this bloody country forked!’

Then — and if this story didn’t happen, as Wynford put it, it should have — when at last the funeral could finally begin, Vernon Watkins, poet, friend and contemporary of Dylan Thomas’, arrived at the church a little late, carrying a posy of Gower primroses in one hand, and being frugal, a packet of sandwiches in the other. Absorbed in composing a suitable tribute to the poet, as speaker after speaker insisted on his turn, Watkins nodded off. So when the moment arrived, as the pall-bearers made their way along the aisle, the mourners to his side had to whisper sharply, “Vernon! Vernon!” Vernon Watkins woke with a start, moved forward and with great reverence placed his sandwiches on the coffin, as they carried it past.

The writing shed at the Boathouse in Laugharne, West Wales

The ghost of Dylan the younger consistently haunts Dylan the older. Thomas’ story Return Journey, is strongly redolent of the lost pre-war Swansea, which is made all the more poignant because the town has just been blitzed. But the narrator isn’t only searching through the rubble for the vanished town, he is also searching for his lost Swansea self, who variously,

“…speaks rather fancy; truculent; plausible; a bit of a shower-off; plus-fours and no breakfast, you know;…worked on the Post and used to wear an overcoat sometimes with the check lining inside out so that you could play giant draughts on him. He wore a conscious woodbine, too…and a perched pork pie with a peacock feather…”

The self portrait is well drawn, but it’s as if each characterisation becomes another prop in the Thomas mythology. It’s tempting to suppose this is because he was a keen actor as a schoolboy, but I suspect the instinct for transgression was purely a carapace, and that the roaring boy role in some way cocooned the fragile Dylan the younger.

Peter Williams recalled that Dylan began to drink when he was, “I suppose about sixteen or seventeen… I remember to my amazement seeing Dylan one night in the billiard room of the YMCA and he was obviously plastered, and he told me that he’d been drinking whisky. But that was almost shocking — it really was, because in those days for schoolboys to drink was almost unheard of.”

“I only started to know Dylan seriously” Wynford said, “When I came back from Oxford to Swansea, I was unemployed and I was trying to find a job. I met Dylan, the young man about Swansea, the reporter…And suddenly I said I remember you and we used to drink together in the pubs.“ Which was during the period described in “Return Journey”, when Dylan was about seventeen, had just left school and was working on the local paper, the Evening Post.

So, it was during one of those nights a year or so later — in the Plough and Harrow in Murton, Gower– where the second lost poem was born. Dylan, Wynford, Daniel Jones and possibly Fred Janes, the painter, had all been indulging themselves. Talk was running free and the conversation turned to the gentleman’s urinal in Pell St — which was according to Wynford “a splendid structure of complicated iron work”, near the Albert Hall cinema and the art school. Which had been swept away, as Wynford put it “in an act of vandalism by the town council.” That triggered the poem, and they decided a vampire should return to haunt the town councillors — incidentally echoing a passage in a long letter Dylan wrote to Daniel Jones from Ireland some years earlier where, “Count Antigarlic a strange Hungarian gentleman …in a cloak lined with spiders” who leaves, “only the thin mouth-print of blood on the window-pane, and the dry mouse on the sill” in the morning.

So, line by line, with Dylan orchestrating, pointing to each in turn, the poem was produced, and here it is in print for the first time, as recited by the late Wynford Vaughan Thomas at the Savile club in 1981:

At the corner of Pell Street a vampire appears

Singing garlic, sweet garlic, it’s sung there for years.

See it taps at the window of councillor Rees

And he sings as he taps a most sinister piece.

Councillor’s jugulars suck I with glee

Oh for the veins of a scrumptious JP

Tremble ye alderman! Town clerk beware!

As I hoover the veins of your succulent mare.

In the Guildhall bloodorium the council convened

The motion re Pell St and the blood sucking fiend.

Proposer Rev Samuel, Labour, Llandor

Went WHOOP through the window, as the vampires roar

Singing, councillor’s jugulars suck I with glee

OOOOOH for the veins of a scrumptious JP

Tremble ye Aldermen! Town Clerk beware!

As I HOOOOver the blood of your succulent mare!

As a postscript — no doubt the drinkers would be pleased to discover, that seventy-two years later the council would come to regret that earlier act of hubris. In 2011, the Evening Post — the same paper Dylan worked for — carried this short report:

A DESPERATE council has installed open air urinals to stop boozy locals relieving themselves….in Swansea city centre following escalating complaints about yob drinkers. A spokesman for the city authority said, “There is nothing more unsightly than irresponsible people urinating in public ….” Mike Weaver, manager of the La Prensa tapas bar in Wind St, said: “My mother taught me to keep it in until I came to a toilet.”

© Nick Gammon, Amsterdam 2022


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