I took part in a tour guides’ quiz last week. Our team did respectably and we sent our best member Janet up for the individual knock out round, although she did not win. Last year I was chosen and made the final where I was runner-up and even won a prize. Tour guides rarely miss an opportunity to show off their knowledge and it was a fun but competitive but evening with money raised for Go Make It Happen, a charity which gives young people a helping hand to establish themselves in tourism and study for the blue badge.
One question I did know the answer to was “How old was Dylan Thomas when he died?” I often talk about Thomas when we go to Wales and quote the evening prayer by the Reverend Eli Jenkins from his ‘play for voices’ Under Milkwood which represents a day in the life of the people in a small Welsh town. There is a lot of humour in the play but also sadness and even tragedy in stories of lost love and unhappy marriages.
I compare Thomas to Robert Burns, the favourite poet of most Scots, both of whom died before they could celebrate their fortieth birthdays, Burns at 37, Thomas at 39. His demise took place at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in 1953 (the year I was born) after Thomas claimed to have drunk eighteen straight whiskies saying “I think that is the record.” However, it is a myth that he drank himself to death. Thomas was a very sick man, suffering from pneumonia and emphysema, and 200 people died that month in New York from breathing difficulties in the smoggy air of New York. It is only now that burning coal has been banned that we can enjoy better air quality and realise how unhealthy big cities were in the 50s and 60s.
Burns and Thomas both live up to the image of the live-fast die-young poet. Neither enjoyed a university education and struggled to make ends meet for much of their lives. Both married and had children but did not observe their marriage vows with much rigour. Burns was notably promiscuous while Thomas did have extra-marital affairs on his trips to America. His feisty Irish wife Caitlin, arriving in the New York hospital is reported to have said, “Is the bloody man dead yet?” She, incidentally, lived on for another forty one years and took a younger Italian lover, with whom she had a son at the age of forty nine, before dying in 1994 and being buried next to Thomas in Laugharne (pronounced ‘Larne’) their home in Wales.
Towards the end of his life the fellow Welshman and famous actor Richard Burton led a group of mainly Welsh actors in a recording of Under Milkwood for the BBC. He was playing Hamlet on stage at the time but used a free Sunday for the recording, which was done in a day, and this is how Thomas is remembered by most people. I have a copy on cassette tape (remember those?) and you can buy it on CD or as a DVD, made as a film with Peter O’Toole when Burton became successful in Hollywood. Another admirer of Thomas was the American folk-singer Robert Zimmerman, who did not feel he would sell many records with a name like that and so he changed it to – Bob Dylan.
For more on Burns go to: https://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.com/2016/01/burns-night-for-wimps.html
For more about the Go Make It Happen charity, go to: http://gmih.co.uk