Published in Quadrant Magazine/June 2003 - Volume XLVII Number 6  - Australia
The Colour of Saying
Peter Thabit Jones



Once it was the colour of saying
Soaked my table the uglier side of a hill …
—Dylan Thomas
The Colour of Saying

As I park outside 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands, Swansea, I still cannot quite believe I am about to tutor poetry in the birthplace of Wales’ most famous poet. As a fifteen-year-old unpublished poet, from Swansea’s poorer and industry-spoilt Eastside, I had stood outside the semi-detached suburban house many times. In my grandparents’ working-class home, where my ex-soldier grandfather was dying in a bed in the parlour, my tidy row of J.M. Dent paperbacks of Dylan Thomas’s works had pride of place on the narrow mantelpiece in my boyhood bedroom. In those days 5 Cwmdonkin Drive was privately owned, and all one could do was stand and stare at the round blue memorial plaque on the front wall. Installed by Swansea City Council, the plaque states in white:

POET 1914–1953
was born in this house

It was the first physical acknowledgement by the culture controllers of Swansea of the poet’s importance. The City Council, encouraged by the success of the Dylan Thomas Centre, which opened in 1995 close to the River Tawe and the Marina development, started to utilise the house. The present private owners were receptive to the council’s ideas and it was not long before it was a home to literary and educational events. My employer, the Department of Adult Continuing Education of University of Wales Swansea, via the enthusiasm of my co-ordinator Anna-Marie Taylor, started to make use of the birthplace for courses that are modules of the University’s Higher Education Certificate in Literature and Writing. For me, the opportunity to tutor my Poets and Poetry I and II courses at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive was manna from heaven. My courses include a study of the life and poetry of Dylan Thomas, along with studies of writers such as fellow Welshman R.S. Thomas and the American writers Vince Clemente and Sylvia Plath. Apart from Dylan Thomas being my first literary hero, my third book of poetry, Clocks Tick Differently, was published in 1981 by Celtion Publishing Company, the publisher of Dylan’s daughter Aeronwy’s first book of poetry, Later than Laugharne. Also, in November 1997 I visited New York and New Jersey to give poetry readings (one in the Bronx, with the Blues poet Raymond R. Patterson) and poetry workshops in schools. They were organised by the late Patricia Hochron, a wonderful Swansea woman and Dylan Thomas fan who had lived in New York for decades. I stayed in the Chelsea Hotel, where Dylan tragically slipped into fatal unconsciousness, and I wrote a series of articles entitled “Postcards from New York” for the Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales. The “Postcards”, commissioned by Rian Evans, the daughter of the late John Ormond (another Swansea poet who made a film on Dylan for the BBC), included an interview with David Slivka in his Hell’s Kitchen sculptor’s studio. David, a New York friend of Dylan and Caitlin, made the famous death mask of the self-proclaimed “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”.

Standing outside 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, holding my bulky black canvas briefcase, I think: this is where it all started. It was to this house he returned, young and easy, from his childhood visits to Fern Hill, his beloved Aunt Annie’s unkempt farm in West Wales. It was in this house, between leaving school in 1931 and moving to London in 1934, that he wrote many of the astonishing early poems. It was from this house that he sent out the hypnotic The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, which was to win the Sunday Referee’s Poets Corner prize of book publication that resulted in his first book, 18 Poems. In fact, a third or more of the poems in his Collected Poems were written in Cwmdonkin Drive. It was also in this house that he first read his work to that other Swansea poet, Vernon Watkins. Vernon was aged twenty-nine and Dylan was twenty-one. Dylan read from a big folder labelled “Poems”. Watkins said later: “I was aware that I was in the presence of a poet of extraordinary genius.” After Dylan’s death he wrote:

Climbing Cwmdonkin’s dock-based hill,
I found his lamp-lit room,
The great light in the forehead
Watching the water’s loom,
Compiling there his doomsday book
Or dictionary of doom.

And it was from this house that he went down to Mumbles to act, alongside his sister Nancy, who was eight and a half years older, in Little Theatre productions. Later, of course, that magnificent voice would be heard across America. D.J. and Florence, Dylan’s parents, moved into the then brand-new property in the summer of 1914. It was the first house they owned. Florence had been born in Delhi Street, Saint Thomas, on my side of Swansea. Dylan was born in the best bedroom of 5 Cwmdonkin Drive on October 27, 1914. He was to write later to Pamela Hansford Johnson, a writer and his first proper girlfriend: “I first saw the light of day in a Glamorgan villa.” He spent half his life living in this house. Physically, it is not as romantic as The Boathouse at Laugharne, his “seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks”. It is, though, a desirable middle-class property, as it sits along with its uniform neighbours on the slanting road. Number 5 is one of three pairs of houses.

Outwardly it remains as it was when the American photographer Rollie McKenna, who was responsible for so many of the immortalising images of Dylan, visited it not long after his death. She was accompanied by Vernon Watkins. She recalled in her book Portrait of Dylan: “Number five Cwmdonkin Drive was, like its neighbours, wood-trimmed and constructed of grey stucco and plain slate. Its only concession to decoration was three rows of fish-scale slate in the pediments of the two gables on the street side.” 

The main entrance to the house is at the side. The buildings manager at the Dylan Thomas Centre comes out and greets me. He informs me it is all mine and reminds me to pull the door tightly to ensure it locks properly at the end of my first lesson. Two steps lead me to the open white door, which boasts a dulled brass knob, letter-box and knocker. The white-painted porch is windowed on the right side. A half-glass door, also white, allows access along the side of the house to the backyard. A white glass-squared door leads me into the actual house. The first thing I notice is that it is a narrow, long property. The corridor is broad and painted beige. The open stairs, on its right side, are wide and inviting. Large framed pictures of Dylan, with quotations from his poems, hang on the walls. In Dylan’s day most of the walls were decorated with flowered paper, and there were plaster reproductions of Greek statues about the place, displayed by cultured D.J. The white wooden door to the front room, the parlour, has a stained-glass window. The room is predominantly beige with a narrow white border close to the ceiling. An impressive, unused, tall wood-surrounded fireplace dominates the room. There are chairs and a lectern for readings and talks. Large framed photos of Dylan decorate the walls. This room was used by D.J. and Florence for special get-togethers, such as the gathering of relatives at Christmas, captured in Dylan’s memorable A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

The front room’s large bay-window offers a view of the insignificant concrete front garden and its short concrete wall, new posh houses opposite and to the left, the steep slanting road of Cwmdonkin Drive littered with the rusted rags of autumn, and a tall naked tree. In a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1934, he described Sunday morning from the front room window: “the rehearsed gestures, the correct smiles, the grey cells revolving around nothing under the godly bowlers, I see the unborn children struggling up the hill in their mothers, beating on the jailing slab of the womb, little realising what a smugger prison they wish to leap into …”. To the steep right is the terraced face of the grand houses of Cwmdonkin Terrace. Directly opposite is a fenced-off grass area, owned by the council. Beyond, in the near distance, is glorious Cwmdonkin Park.

The park, of course, is where the hunchback sat and where cherubic curly-haired Dylan played. He wrote in Reminiscences of Childhood: “And the park itself was a world within the world of the sea-town. Quite near where I lived, so near that on summer evenings I could listen to the voices of the older children playing ball ...”

A memorial stone, chosen by Vernon Watkins and the sculptor Ronald Cour, the late husband of Swansea artist Glenys Cour, sits snugly on a part of the park’s landscaped greenery. Ronald Cour engraved on it the closing lines of Fern Hill: Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea. Behind the front
room is the middle room, which was Dylan’s father’s study. D.J. taught at Swansea Grammar School, a middle-class fee-paying establishment, for thirty-six years. Dylan started his education there in the autumn of 1925. He recalled in his radio piece Return Journey that “he looked like most boys, no better, brighter or more respectful; he cribbed, mitched, spilt ink, rattled his desk and garbled his lessons with the worst of them”. The middle room is decorated with flowered wallpaper and has a high ceiling. It is fairly roomy and the wooden door has a stained-glass window. The open fireplace is unused.

There are several photo-portraits of Dylan as a “young dog”. There are some book-packed modern bookshelves, and a few sparse rugs have been spread out on the wooden floor. The large, splendid window looks onto the neglected backyard. Dylan’s father loved the room, which was made cosy by a gas fire and his much treasured books. Dylan told Pamela Hansford Johnson: “Dad has a room full of all the accepted stuff, from Chaucer to Henry James, all the encyclopaedias and books of reference.” The young poet made use of the books and wrote in the room. It was also D.J.’s sanctuary from Florence and her coterie of gossipers.

The two other downstairs rooms, the breakfast room and the kitchen, were Florence’s domain. The breakfast room also has a high ceiling. It is painted beige with a narrow white top. The door is glass-framed, and two large windows create extra light. There is a delightful brown leather chaise-longue resting against one wall. The walls offer more photo-portraits of the “young dog” and a framed print of Picasso’s startling Guernica, which seems appropriate when one thinks of Dylan’s war poems and his dabbling with surrealism. The kitchen is painted Van Gogh yellow, and has the usual modern paraphernalia of domesticity. The glass back door and windows encourage in plenty of morning light. The kitchen was where Florence discussed local gossip with the paid maid, who helped her in the house, the woman who was hired to wash the family clothes, and her clutch of tea-drinking friends. I stand looking out on the neglected backyard, which is enclosed by red-brick walls. The dilapidated outhouse was once the family’s wash-house. The cemented floor is wrinkled with cracks. Toddler Dylan would have staggered across it on tipsy legs, while proud Florence chatted over the wall to a neighbour.

The stairs and landing of the house are covered in a bright, red-patterned carpet. The walls of the wide landing display more large, framed photos of Dylan and quotations. Two half purple-stained windows break up the wall. I make my way to the back bedroom, which was Dylan’s “bedroom by the boiler”. It is poky and displays an original single-bed frame, which takes up most of the room. The fireplace is painted white and is unused. The floor is wooden and the walls are beige with a narrow border of white. He told Pamela Hansford Johnson: "My own room is a tiny renovated bedroom, all papers and books, cigarette ends, hardly any light. Very tiny. I really have to go out to turn around. Cut atmosphere with a book knife. No red cushion. No cushion at all. Hard chair. Smelly. Painful. Hot water pipes very near. Gurgle all the time. Nearly go mad."

His walls at the time displayed pictures of Robert Browning, Rupert Brooke, Walter de la Mare, and Shakespeare. He describes a typical day for him to Miss Johnson. It begins: “At half past nine there is a slight stirring in the Thomas body, an eyelid quivers, a limb trembles.” And later on: "After lunch, I retire again to the fire where perhaps I shall read all the afternoon—and read a great deal of everything, or continue on a poem or story I have left unfinished, or to start another or to start drafting another ...". I look out of the large bay-window, which allows a bard’s eye view of the outside world. The neglected backyard is below, and to its left are the neighbouring gardens and the posh houses and treed and bushed gardens beyond. To the right there is a view of less grand gardens and houses, roofs and chimney tops, and a spectacular view of a stretch of grey Swansea Bay and a miserable October sky. There is a teasing glimpse of Swansea Marina, the County Hall, the Docks’ pier, and distant Port Talbot. Florence would have looked at the pier with affection because it is a symbol of her side of Swansea; Dylan, though, rarely crossed the iron bridge spanning the River Tawe to “rough” Saint Thomas and Port Tennant, the ugly side of his “ugly, lovely town”.

The window also lets me see the tower of Swansea’s Guildhall and picturesque Mumbles Lighthouse. A ship, slower than a snail, is crossing the sea. The next room is a toilet; and then there is a shower room, which momentarily spoils the history of the house. There is another toilet and then an average-sized bedroom, which is locked to the public—and poetry tutors! The front bedroom was the “best bedroom”, where newborn Dylan first screamed at the world. It is my tutoring room. It is a large room, painted beige with a narrow border of white. It is furnished with two old, rather dramatic, wardrobes, two old dressing-tables, a dozen or more folding chairs, a computer and table, and two plastic shelves of books (mainly poetry). Some potted plants are placed around the room. There is an overhead projector but no screen. The large bay-window teases me to look outside. Apart from more or less the same view as the one from downstairs, I note, on the left, the side of 4 CwmdonkinDrive; and I know that beyond the “barrier” of buildings and trees at the bottom of the road is the unseen sprawl of Uplands, unseen Swansea Bay, and unseen tourist-postcard Mumbles: the lovely side of Dylan’s “ugly, lovely town”. It is believed his parents left 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in April 1937, to live in a smaller house in Bishopston, a village in Gower, to the west of Swansea.

I plug in the overhead projector and unpack my bulky briefcase. I’ll be tutoring in this house each Wednesday, 10 a.m. to noon, for the next forty weeks. The course covers The Image of the Poet Throughout History, The Craft of Poetry (including Metre), Poetic Forms (ranging from the French villanelle to the Welsh englyn), A Study of Cynghanedd (the Welsh-language poetic devices favoured by Dylan and Gerard Manley Hopkins), Poetic Movements (including Anglo-Welsh poetry and Allen Ginsberg and the Beats), Art and Poetry, Poetry Criticism and Poetry Workshops, and (full) Studies of Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Vince Clemente. The students can achieve forty credits of a required 120 credits (plus a chosen project) for the University’s Certificate in Literature and Writing, which can be a step towards a degree in Literature and Writing. I open my file of acetated sheets and place the first sheet, The Poet—An Introduction, on the projector. I stand in the silence of the house, the home where Wales’ most famous poet entered the world. The place where he exercised his craft and sullen art, as he laboured by singing light. Outside, Cwmdonkin Drive’s quiet is disturbed by the struggling growls of cars climbing the steep road. The students start to arrive and settle in the chairs. I know several from my Writing Children’s Literature courses. I mark my register, and then project the lighted square of the projector onto one of the beige walls. I introduce myself and give an outline of Poets and Poetry I. The Poet—An Introduction takes us up to the tea/coffee break, which centres around the kitchen. 

Some students explore the house. Someone asks if it is haunted. The kettle hisses to the boil. After the break, I hand out three poems, one by Sylvia Plath, one by Vince Clemente and one by Dylan Thomas. There are voluntary readings of the pieces and an introduction to basic literary criticism; and then the students work in pairs to establish the style, the tone, the mood, the diction and the intention of each poem. A few questions fly towards me. We have started, tutor and students, to explore “the colour of saying”. The first lesson over, the students leave, some amused and some troubled by their first homework task. All, I feel, are impressed and inspired by 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. I explore the house once more, making notes. I stand still, again, in Dylan’s back bedroom; the bedroom of a young Welsh man who wrote strange and powerful poems that would amaze 1930s London and 1950s America. I listen and look intently, but there is no ghost. I slam the front door shut, to lock it. Outside, in the chilled October air, hundreds and hundreds of unwritten poems haunt the ugly, lovely city. 

Peter Thabit Jones writes: I would like to thank the
following for their helpful comments: Eryl Jenkins,
Chairman of the Dylan Thomas Society of Great
Britain; Gilbert Bennett, a respected authority on
Dylan Thomas and a founder and former Chairman
of the Dylan Thomas Society of Great Britain;
Anna-Marie Taylor, my Co-ordinator at the Department of Adult Continuing

© Copyright Peter Thabit Jones 2016