By Jess Owen
Tales of Dylan Thomas are part of the legend of Fitzrovia. His association with the Augustus John circle fills a chapter or two in most of his biographies, usually recounting his drinking exploits.
But the area was crucial to his development as a writer in a more significant way. The carousing of the 1930s gave him the contacts that enabled him to find employment a few years later later, within the British film industry, then burgeoning under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Information.
With the help of John Davenport, he met Ivan Moffat, a former resident of Fitzroy Square. Moffat was an assistant to Donald Taylor, a film producer, whose company, Strand Films had a lucrative contract with the Ministry of Information, making films designed to soften up American opinion on the war.
Thomas’s film scripts are not too well known in England. Yet they, rather than the earlier poems, reveal his maturity as a poet. A poet who managed to merge his verse with a relatively new medium, film.
The unity of verse with imagery was not a new concept.
Classical Greek tragedians provided one of the first European models. They were revived by Elizabethan humanist playwrights. Two centuries later, at the prompting of deist writers, William Hone and George Cruikshank unified verse and popular iconography in a number of pamphlets drawing on the republican imagery of street balladeers like Richard ‘Citizen’ Lee.
The Fitzrovians, Clio Rickman and Thomas Spence occasionally resorted to chalking pavements with radical slogans and imagery. Blake, Linton, Morris and Crane were artists who also attempted such unities.
But Dylan Thomas, as poet, was amongst those who grasped the potential of a new medium. His radio script for ‘under Milk Wood’ is internationally performed as a “play for voices” and anticipates some of the work of Samuel Beckett (Thomas was aware of Beckett’s early writing by 1936).
Thomas’s behaviour on the fringes of Fitzrovia had not changed very much by 1944. A poem sent to Donald Taylor whilst correcting the script of ‘Our Country’, one of his more important texts of the period, confesses that;
“I may in the Gargoyle have fallen down plastered,
But I did see my publishers- twice.
You wouldn’t believe me were I to aver
That I never went out ‘on the bust’.
You’ll pardon the phrase? Ah, thank you, my dear.
And I did see an editor–just”
[Ferris Collected Letters to D Taylor c Oct 1944, Ferris p.525. Texas Mss ]
But this was Thomas ‘the playful poet’ confident in his craft and finding joy in his words. The script is a far more carefully sculpted piece of writing, and one of his finer achievements.
The film is an extended monologue, told through the eyes of an American merchant seaman beginnings in Glaschu, with the second movement shifting to London;
“and all the separate movements of the morning crowds
are lost together in the heartbeat of the clocks
a day when the long noise of the sea is forgotten
street-drowned in another memory
of the sound itself of smoke and sailing dust
trumpets of traffic signs and hoardings and posters
rasp of the red and green signal lights
the scraped string voices of overhead wires
and the owl sound of the dry wind in the tube tunnels
the blare and ragged drumroll of the armies and pavements
and crossings and street walls
the riding choirs of the wheels
the always to be remembered even though continual sea music
music of the towers and bridges and spires and domes
of the island city”
[Complete Screenplays Ed. Ackerman pp 68-9]
Thomas grasped some of the rhythms of the town;
“trumpets of traffic signs and hoardings and posters
rasp of the red and green signal lights
the scraped strings of overhead wires”
Possibly because he was looking at them as an ‘outsider’
Yet his familiarity with them informed his poetic insight, just as the miner poets of South Wales had set the context for his verse.
And Thomas, ever the poet who worked on (and with) his verse, also evoked the images from his earlier Among those Killed in the Dawn Raid
“And all the stones remember and sing
the cathedral of each blitzed dead body that lay or lies
in the bomber-and-dove-flown-over cemetaries
of the dumb heroic streets”
Thomas’s feelings towards the war had been less than enthusiastic.
But the exigencies of the conflict gave him the opportunity to refine his skills within its confines.
Dylan Thomas, along with Idris Davies and Edward Thomas, were as Cymric as Iolo Morgan. They had to ply their craft in London. Fitzrovia was lucky to have them around for a bit.
As migrants tend to do, they enriched the places where they are given shelter.
Who can imagine an English culture without our legends of Robin Hood, brought back to us by Vlaams merchants? Or our national poets, Clare and Blake, drawing from Scots and Druidic traditions?
The poetry, prose and letters of Dylan Thomas are © The Dylan Thomas Estate.
My thanks to the British Film Institute, The National Archives and the British Library for their assistance.