The West

Poet Dylan Thomas as a young man.

Sixty years ago the portly, roistering Welsh poet Dylan Thomas set out from New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel to a local bar, the White Horse. At just 39 years of age, it would be his last mortal round.

Today, a commemorative plaque beside the Chelsea's entrance honours Thomas " . . . who lived and laboured here last . . . and from here sailed out to die." The lyric genius, best known for his celebrated "play for voices", Under Milk Wood, expired on November 9, 1953, although not (as legend incorrectly has it) due to consuming 18 straight whiskies.

His demise was probably precipitated by medical incompetence and undiagnosed diabetes, all exacerbated by his long-time arm-wrestle with the bottle.

Thomas has posthumously drawn visitors to his homeland in such numbers that if he hadn't existed, Wales Tourism would have had to invent him. In his two hometowns, Swansea (the first) and Laugharne (the last), he features as firmly on their balance sheets as their tourist maps.

The Dylan Thomas "trail" is awash with pub coasters and tailor-made quotes. I pick it up at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, where he bawled his first unpoetic syllables on October 27, 1914. A small plaque is all that indicates the home where the poet-to-be lived his first 20 years. Across the road is Cwmdonkin Park where he declared that he "endured, with pleasure, the first unrequited agonies of love, the first slow boiling in the belly of a bad poem".

I have a beer at his early watering hole, the No Sign Bar, which is venerated as the oldest pub (established 1690) in Swansea. Nearby in a modest alley with an ambitious name, Salubrious Passage, the aptly named Dylan's Books stocks rare editions of his works. A few blocks away, beside the harbour in Dylan Thomas Square, I find a bronze statue of the young poet, of which one literary guidebook caustically conceded: "The chair is a faithful likeness."

Swansea's homage reaches its apogee in the beautifully curated Dylan Thomas Centre. "I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me, and my enquiry is to their working," declares a quote above displays. Meanwhile a familiar, recorded voice recalls that "Dylan looked like an unmade bed". The mellifluous tones are those of the poet's fellow Welsh hell-raiser, the late actor, Richard Burton.

"The strangest town in Wales," was Thomas's early take on Laugharne (pronounced "Larne"), a village facing the Taf River, where he lived with his wife Caitlin and their two children from 1949 until 1953. Laugharne's 13th century castle looks like a shell-shocked Camelot but literary pilgrims head past it, striding instead towards a whitewashed, three-storey building overlooking the shore, the Boat House. It was Thomas's last home and he lovingly dubbed it: "My seashaken house / On a breakneck of rocks."

The Boat House looks out over the Taf River and the richly verdant landscape on which Thomas drew / Picture: John Borthwick

The Boat House manager, Lorraine Scourfield, shows me the family parlour - polished floors with rugs, mismatched furniture, a 1950s radio (playing Dylan's own rich recitations) and a balcony with views across the estuary. For me it is one of those "Elvis-has- left-the-building" moments, with the poet's ghost, his muse, his family and their century all long gone except for the wishful recall of the visitors.

Nearby is a green, garage-sized shack known as The Writing Shed. This was the engine room of Thomas' "craft and sullen art" - his "word-splashed hut" and "long tongued room" - where Under Milk Wood and other works wrangled their way into magical life. A small window lets us peer into this incubator of what Caitlin called "his fiercely belaboured lines". On the shelf is a file cheekily labelled "Lives of the Great Poisoners" - a reference, as Milk Wood fans know, to the secret readings of one character, the henpecked Mr Pugh, who dreams of dispatching his already toxic wife. Even a presumed poetic chaos has been artfully recreated, with the shack floor littered by crumpled pages and their throwaway lines.

In Under Milk Wood, his last and best-loved work, Thomas transmuted Laugharne - "this timeless, beautiful, barmy (both spellings) town" - into the eccentric village of Llareggub. That is, "bugger all" spelled backwards. Laugharne remains an old, worn cardigan of a town and although he parodied it as, "This small, decaying watering-place, which may indeed be called a 'backwater of life'," the town is now prospering, discreetly, from the windfalls of Thomas-inspired tourism. I head to Brown's Pub, once his local - he used to give its telephone number as his own - where the shingle displays a portrait of its most famous former tippler.

The pub's front parlour looks as though little has changed since Dylan and Caitlin would sit at a corner table, sometimes squalling "like two terrible children" (as was said of them) and at other times just enjoying a quiet pint or four. The carpet and walls carry a fuggy patina that's worthy of heritage listing and both the atmosphere and the beer are warm. The clientele is a mixture of walkers and locals with lilting accents straight out of Milk Wood. The jukebox goes off like thunder and, appropriately, it is that other great bard who borrowed the Dylan name, Bob.

"Laugharne is a lovely town, but full of creditors," the poet lamented to a friend. In order to out-step his debts he undertook four exhausting reading tours of the US in his final three years. Thomas' recitations and his partying ways, along with ardent female attention, made his tours sound like a precursor to the excesses of the British rock musicians that followed to the States a decade later. Like him, many of the next generation's "madmen across the water" often stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, a rambling, Victorian-era folderol on mid-town Manhattan's 23rd Street, which is still frequented by artists and musicians.

Thomas' nights there were in damaging contrast to those in his snoozy hometown of Laugharne/ Llareggub, with its "shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds, and all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town sleeping now".

It is autumn and the revolving door of Welsh weather brings 14 seasons in one day. As the rain begins (again), I turn my back on Laugharne's time-wracked castle and head up the hill to St Martin's churchyard where Dylan and Caitlin (who died in 1994) lie side by side. Of it, Thomas quipped in Under Milk Wood: "The one place of worship, with its neglected graveyard, is of no architectural interest."

Ironically, thanks to him, the graveyard is now of considerable interest and very well tended, too.

Fittingly, the final marker for this sublime and garrulous wordsmith is a simple white cross that bears no epitaph, although he had already penned the perfect one in his great poem, Fern Hill: "Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea." It is as if Dylan Thomas on this occasion had declined the temptation to out-shout Death's dominion with one last, lush, jocular, genius word.

Instead, a spot-on epitaph from his Poem in October comes to mind. It evokes both his enduring dominion in language and, equally, the soggy Welsh weather that watered his lyric brilliance: "I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days.", and

The West Australian

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