Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 12/11/03

Portrait Of The Piss-Artist...

Dylan Thomas is shite!

There, I've said it. The sort of thing that Welsh people are not supposed to say. The noted Swansea lush is, after all, a stated favourite of our cultural tourism industry; a handy talisman for those who are desperate for anything, anything at all which can convey our nation to a heedless world, especially the English-speaking bits of it. We must have someone who is well-known, irrespective of the way in which their image actually reflects on our country and culture.

Thomas detested the nation from which he sprang. "The Land Of My Fathers - my fathers can keep it!" was merely one of his more frequently quoted aspersions on the place of his birth. This was not, contrary to received wisdom, the statement of a man who felt that he was a 'citizen of the world' (whatever the hell that may mean); it was a remark typical of the children of the inter-war years for whom their nation was something to escape from, to overthrow, to regard as backward or irrelevant in the modern Anglo-American world.

I don't know whether Thomas' father spoke Welsh. I suspect that he did but, like so many in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, was too full of that national inferiority complex which manifested itself in a headlong rush towards cultural deracination to pass the language on to his son. Just as we saw in S4C's slavish lather-fest of adulation for Sir Goronwy Daniel a few nights ago - a man by all accounts so in love with his nation's language that he kept his affections to himself and wouldn't allow his offspring to partake of it.

Much of Thomas' bile towards his roots no doubt springs from that psychic trauma best illustrated in the story of the fox who had his tail cut off and went around insisting that all other foxes should lose theirs too; after all, it was such a wonderful thing to do, quite aside from the fact that it would stop him from feeling different. Here was a man who had become deracinated before he even had any real knowledge of his roots.

His view of Wales is also that of the spoiled little brat in a warm nursery in a comfortable middle-class home - a combination of the twee and the self-indulgent. Thomas (in his short stories and his poems) seldom appears but that he is centre-stage, and the sort of Brigadoonification illustrated in such as Under Milk Wood is scarcely much more than the overactive but ill-disciplined fantasising of the Clever Little Boy.

So why has DT (and were there ever more appropriate initials for such a one?) gained so much adulation in the world? Is he any good as a poet?

Certainly not in a Welsh context. In both the languages spoken in this land, we have produced (and continue to produce) many poets who, emotionally, aesthetically and technically are his superiors by some way. Just consider a few names from the English-language side: R.S. Thomas, Nigel Jenkins, Harri Webb; and from the Welsh-language stable one could name a few dozen, from Dafydd ap Gwilym all the way to Twm Morys. All of these produce more light than heat - the converse of Thomas, whose own dim light seemed to shine from his own posterior orifice.

So (to ask the question a second time), why has Thomas become so lauded? The answer may lie in the connections he made in the circles of English literary dilettantes whose acquaintance he made on his journey to immortality. Bear in mind that those circles were extremely insular in terms of their inability to cope with the notion that non-English cultures in general (and those of these islands in particular) had anything worthwhile to offer them. The native cultures of Wales, Scotland and Ireland were seen as provincial at best, at worst backward and belonging to times which should be forgotten, as being counter-modern. To these people, the idea of taking cognisance of other cultures was beyond them.

Dylan Thomas must, therefore, have been a godsend to them. Here, after all, was someone who appeared to speak their language, and write it in interesting ways, but who also conformed to the convenient Central Casting stereotype of the Celt - a moody drunk, by turns melancholic and florid, a verbose, beseeching sponger off the Chosen People of literary fashion.

The sub-literati who championed him (and who continue to do so - Thomas seems to have reached that stage defined by Robert Graves when he said that "popular adulation of Shakespeare has rendered even his shabbiest work sacrosanct") did not, therefore, need to adjust their mind-set in dealing with him. Nor did they have to resort either to a knowledge of another language, or to any deep thoughts regarding the value of their own, before turning this stage-Welshman into a sort of totem, icon or mascot for their own (as they no doubt saw it) open-mindedness and modern sensibilities.

Add to this the deep mistrust of the overtly intellectual or literary in English culture (it was a wise man who said that the word 'poetry' could disperse an English crowd faster than a fire hose), and you have the secret of Thomas' success - you could be lulled by the empty sounds without ever once having to engage the brain.

It is therefore utterly appropriate that an entire industry has grown up around the legends which Thomas weaved about himself, in which task he was ably abetted by those who one would have hoped should have known better.

What little there is of intellectual life in Wales, too, is so lacking in self-confidence and so full of provincialism, that this facile mutterer has yet satisfactorily to be debunked. It is time to make a start.

(For further thoughts on this, see Hywel Williams' article in The Guardian of 27/10/03).