Thursday, January 11, 2018
When Dylan Thomas drank with Kingsley Amis
My first reaction was to ask whether the two had even been in Swansea at the same time, however a bit of googling soon verified the claim, though any suggestion that the drinking session was repeated is soon disabused by Amis himself.
The story is set out in the Shiraz Socialist blog from Kingsley Amis' own account, which was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs:
I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened. I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.
Unfortunately, Amis' expectations were left unmet:
Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry.
Thomas stuffed a couple of bottles of beer into his pockets and headed off with his entourage to give the talk he had been engaged to deliver:
The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)
His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.
Once the talk is over, Amis records that they retraced their steps:
Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.
‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’
‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’
We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.
It is possible to feel Dylan's presence wherever you go in Swansea (and of course where he lived in West Wales), but not every establishment he patronised sees fit to record the fact. Kudos to the Uplands Tavern then, for doing so and causing me to find the account of this incident online.