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Dylan Thomas in a Tesco bag

A rare notebook returns home to Swansea

Jasper Rees | May 15th 2015

In late 2013 I visited the bookdealer Jeff Towns, who is the human face of the Dylan Thomas industry. Many rare books, manuscripts and other collectables associated with the poet have passed through his hands, and some are still hoarded in his home in the Mumbles on the western flank of Swansea Bay. He showed me a first edition of “18 Poems” (1934), the slim volume with which Thomas announced himself at 20. And he recalled being on the phone to a potential buyer when, casually flicking through its pages, he found that the poet had graffitied two critiques of his own work: “one’s worst poem ever” on one page, and a few pages later, “Welsh masturbating Swinburne”. With its rarity value all of a sudden vastly enhanced, Towns withdrew the copy from sale.

This week, on May 14th (remember the date), it was on display at Swansea University for one day only at a pop-up exhibition in celebration of the inaugural International Dylan Thomas Day. There, running vertically up through the text of “All all and all the dry worlds lever” in a bibulous hand, was the allusion to onanism. It was lovely to see it again. Other intriguing oddments from Towns’s collection filled a couple of display cases. However, pride of place was reserved for an exhibit that only recently came to light: a school exercise book containing 19 poems written in 1934 and 1935. There are four of Thomas’s notebooks in Buffalo, New York, but the existence of this one was unknown until the ownerswhose identity has not been disclosedbrought it to Sotheby’s in London last year. They perhaps noticed that Thomas was getting a lot of attention in his widely celebrated centenary year, and decided to cash in.

Sotheby’s made much of the fact that the notebook came in a Tesco bag, and claimed that it had narrowly dodged incineration: it was once in the possession of Thomas’s mother-in-law, Yvonne Macnamara, who had apparently ordered a servant to burn it. Towns thinks this story has “got some holes”, and cites the many expressions of mutual affection between the poet and Macnamara in letters and inscriptions that he has seen first-hand. But how the notebook survived is neither here nor there.

It came up for auction last December. Towns first offered to act as an intermediary for the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, but they chose not to add to their considerable Thomas collection. Then the college of arts and humanities at Swansea University persuaded the vice chancellor to make available funds to buy it, and asked Towns to act on its behalf. There was another potential buyer on the phone, possibly from America, but when the hammer came down on £85,000, Swansea had won. I ask Towns how long the bidding lasted: “35 seconds or something!” he says. As well as the university’s representatives, there were some “no-good boyos” (as Towns calls them) on a jolly from Laugharne, where Thomas lived during his final years. The auctioneer wrote to Towns to say he’d rarely experienced such unfettered high-fiving in the saleroom.

And here it is, back in Swansea after Thomas took it from his childhood home in 5 Cwmdonkin Drive up to London, then Cheshire and Donegal. The page is open on a heavily annotated “Altarwise by owl light”. Thomas’s tidy hand is unrecognisable from the Swinburne scrawl. There are childishly looping, joined-up Ls, a double T resembling a Greek pi, and many careful crossings-out. The pre-eminent Thomas scholar John Goodby tells me that his left-slanting hand was similar to Emily Brontë’s. The notebook surfaced too late in the centenary to have an impact on Goodby’s new edition of the complete poems. I ask how he felt when he heard of its existence. “Kind of like a hot flush,” he says.

My minor link to Thomas is via my grandfather, who was his dentist when he moved to Laugharne, and from my lowly perch I share in the high fives and hot flushes. This is a glorious acquisition for Wales and for a Welsh university. The Welsh government, who is funding International Dylan Thomas Day for the next three years, hopes May 14th will take its place alongside Burns Night and Bloomsday. The date, by the way, marks the first reading of Thomas’s drama “Under Milk Wood” on stage in New York in 1953, a few months before his death aged 39. 

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