Dylan Thomas in London

"Promiscuity, booze, coloured shirts, too much talk, too little work."

Dylan Thomas on London

Dylan Thomas met and fell in love at first sight with Caitlin Macnamara in the first week of April 1936 at the Wheatsheaf pub, 25 Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia (W1T 1JB), a favourite haunt of writers and artists at the time. Legend has it that, laying his head in her lap, a drunken Dylan proposed to Caitlin that first evening.

According to Caitlin, they spent the next five or six days at the nearby Eiffel Tower Hotel, leaving the bill to be picked up by her occasional lover, Augustus John.

Also at The Wheatsheaf he met many of the leading figures of the British Surrealist movement, and was published in the June 1936 issue of Roger Roughton’s Contemporary Poetry and Prose featuring Breton, Bunuel, Char, Dali, Eluard, Jarry, Mesens, Peret, E.E. Cummings and Humphrey Jennings.

At the International Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington Place (also in June 1936), Dylan handed out cups of boiled string, enquiring politely, ‘Weak or strong?’

"When I do come to town, bang go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and clothes over the doorsteps and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London".

David Archer, who also published David Gascoyne and George Barker, published Dylan’s first collection, Twenty Five Poems, through his Parton Press in July 1936.

dylan thomas and the french house

Many of the pubs in which Dylan drank and caroused, and which are intimately connected with his life, such as the French House, The Highlander and Pillars of Hercules in Soho, and The George and The Stag’s Head in Portland Place, still exist. A tour is eminently possible.

The French House, at 49 Dean Street, is still very much an idiosyncratic Soho institution popular with writers and artists. The pub was originally called The York Minster but was affectionately referred to as The French by its regulars owing to its popularity with members of the Free French during the Second World War - and the fact that it was founded and run by Victor Berlemont, the first Frenchman to hold a publican's licence in London. After the war Victor retired, handing over to his son Gaston. 

Shortly before his last American tour of October 1953 Dylan Thomas lost the original hand-written manuscript of Under Milk Wood. It was eventually found under one of the bench seats at The French.

a poet at war

The outbreak of war created a problem for Dylan. Whilst in his youth he had been ardently left wing, by 1939 he only really wanted to write and wished the war would leave him alone. Although he failed the medical for military service, he was still eligible to work in a munitions factory. But this did not appeal: "[I would] rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer". 

But money working as a poet proved in very short supply; he needed a job. And he found one with Strand Films, at the time one of the biggest producers of documentary films in Britain. He began working for Strand sometime in the autumn of 1941, scriptwriting propaganda films for the wartime Ministry of Information. This was was a financial lifeline and, during the next few years of his life, it also became an important new creative outlet. There is a good BBC page on this period of Dylan's life here.

In the autumn of 1942 Dylan and Caitlin moved to 8 Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road in Chelsea, recently vacated by the poet Alun Lewis. This became their base for two years whilst Dylan was working for Strand Films writing propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Caitlin used Dylan’s drawings and any art posters she could find to decorate the rather drab room and turn it into a home.

Dylan and Caitlin were photographed here in the Manresa Road flat 1944 by one of the leading photographers of the age, Bill Brandt.

dylan in camden town

In the early 1950s Dylan and Caitlin were back in London, now with their three children. They lived at number 54 Delancey Street, Camden Town, in a three-room basement flat from about October 1951 until they left for a lecture tour in America in January 1952. In December 1951 he wrote of “our new London house or horror on bus and night lorry route and opposite railway bridge and shunting station.”

Their landlady was Margaret Taylor, wife of historian AJP Taylor. She installed a Romany caravan in the back garden as a place for Dylan to write away from the clamour of the children, but apparently he found it too cold and damp. The caravan was still there at the time of the unveiling of an English Heritage blue plaque by Dylan's widow, Caitlin, in 1983.

back to the thirties...

In the thirties, Cornwall was the holiday destination of choice for the London bohemian set, and Dylan’s friend, the poet Norman Cameron, ensured he met the writer Wyn Henderson, who invited him to her cottage, Polgigga at Porthcurno, near Penzance, between April and May 1936. [Read more ... ]

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