ESSAY Adrian Osbourne

NWR Issue 114

The Poet, The GP, The Publican and a Pig Named Wallis

It is in the nature of Dylan Thomas that even at this late date, he is still capable of springing surprises on us. The centenary of his birth, 2014, saw the discovery of a hitherto unknown fifth notebook, containing handwritten poems from 1934–1935, which was auctioned at Sotheby’s. Just a few months afterwards, in 2015, John Goodby, the editor of the new Collected Poems, was alerted to the existence of Thomas’ poem ‘A dream of winter’, unpublished in the UK since its first appearance in January 1942, and had it republished in PN Review. A trio of extraordinary discoveries was completed later in 2015 when Charles Barber, a retired GP living in King’s Lynn, sent Goodby the manuscript of a previously unknown memoir of the Thomas family. The story behind this discovery, now published for the first time here, is almost as convoluted and intriguing as some of the tales told about Dylan Thomas himself.

It began in early 1961 when Charles Barber, himself the son of a GP, was in his final year at Marlborough College. He had recently become interested in literature, and wished to give a paper on Dylan Thomas to the school’s literary society. He may have chosen Thomas as a subject because his father was a good friend of David Hughes, a GP based in St Clears, Carmarthenshire, who had tended to Thomas and his family in Laugharne. Between 1938 and 1940, when the newly wed Dylan and Caitlin made their first home in the town, and from 1949 onwards, Hughes was doctor to the Thomas clan, which, by 1949, included the Thomas children, Llewelyn, Aeronwy and Colm, as well as Dylan’s parents, DJ (‘Jack’) and Florrie Thomas. Charles’ father passed on his son’s request for help and David Hughes responded generously in the shape of a twenty-six-page handwritten account of his impressions of Dylan and his family, up to the time of the departure of Caitlin and the children from Laugharne, and Florrie’s death, in the late 1950s.

After its use by Charles Barber in 1961, the memoir remained, forgotten, in his possession, until the latter end of 2014. It was then, during a reunion at his old Cambridge college, that he got into a chance conversation on the subject of Dylan Thomas with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a noted Thomas enthusiast. When Williams learnt of the existence of the Hughes memoir, he suggested that Barber send it to John Goodby so that some scholarly use might be made of it. The memoir was not the only piece of Thomas memorabilia he sent: David Hughes had also given the young Charles Barber a programme from a 1961 Laugharne production of Under Milk Wood and a copy of a letter from Dylan Thomas to his friend Phil Richards, the landlord of Laugharne’s Cross House Inn, made by Phyllis Hughes, David’s wife. (How Richards’ letter had come into Hughes’ possession is not known, and the original has disappeared; however, the letter is not included in Paul Ferris’ edition of the Collected Letters and was, like the memoir, a previously unknown item.) John Goodby’s first act on receiving the material was to ask me, as a PhD student recruited to work on the fifth notebook, to transcribe the doctor’s indistinct, faded blue-ink scribblings (imagine deciphering a twenty-six-page long doctor’s prescription and you’ll get some idea of the nature of this task.)

Once transcribed, it was evident that David Hughes’ memoir touched on and enhanced the understanding of many aspects of Thomas’ life, and as such was certain to be of interest to his admirers, academics and future biographers. Its range and nuance go beyond what one might expect, and reflect the fact that Hughes was a person of varied abilities and accomplishments. He was, for example, active in helping to implement Bevan’s plans for the NHS in Wales, and was devoted to his patients in the best tradition of the country doctor. Moreover, as David Thomas remarks in his transcription of Colin Edwards’ brief interview with him in Dylan Remembered, David Hughes’ full name was David Mendelssohn Hughes, and he was, aptly enough, ‘a man of learning and culture... a gifted painter’ whose friends included Philip and Richard Burton and Arthur Giardelli.

Despite this – or perhaps because of it – his first impressions of Dylan and Caitlin, in 1938, are decidedly negative. Dylan, he decided, was merely ‘an eccentric trying to be somebody. A boring man puffed up with a wrong idea of his potential & capability & trying to ape in his background & beginnings the great men of letters & music that had gone before.’ Caitlin was equally suspect, ‘a flashingly attractive Titian-blonde who obviously had led a rather fast life.’ Hughes’ candour is admirable in its own right, of course, but also because it allows us to chart his change of heart. By the end of the memoir it is clear that he feels Dylan is a notable writer and a personally modest, ‘shy and self-effacing’ family man who would visit his parents daily and ‘look over father’s shoulder & supply often the missing word [of the Times crossword]’. He vigorously defends Thomas against the wild-man myths then circulating – ‘Before the pint his parents!’ – and exonerates him of licentiousness by noting that ‘in the whole of the time that Dylan lived in Laugharne – there has NEVER been a breath of scandal involving Dylan with other women! Dylan was not immoral – if he had weaknesses – this was certainly not one of them.’ He also punctures the legend of the alcohol-soaked spewer of verse by describing Thomas’ writing routine: four hours every afternoon in the Boat Shed, with orders to his friends not to ‘come near this bloody place till 6.30 pm.’ ‘It is’, as he firmly states, ‘quite untrue to say that he wrote when he was tight or drunk.’

David Hughes’ first impressions of Caitlin, however, did not change; indeed, they became more negative over time. The tag of being ‘immoral’, from which he absolves Thomas himself, is among the kinder ones he applies to the woman Dylan referred to as ‘the Duchess’. Hughes, naturally, could have had no notion of what lay behind Caitlin’s unstable sexual behaviour – paternal abandonment, maternal neglect, her rape by Augustus John at the age of sixteen – and he is inevitably guilty, to some degree, of the sexist and paternalistic bias of men of his generation, a bias which has been continued by Dylan Thomas’ (all male) biographers; as Hannah Ellis, Caitlin and Dylan’s grand-daughter, has put it, ‘I would very much hope that family doctors today would be more sympathetic and understanding of Caitlin’s behaviour.’ Hughes’ generational and professional reserve also means that he says almost nothing of Thomas’ health problems, although he does mention his blackouts. Even so, this does not diminish the sympathy of the memoir in other directions, and it is a striking first-hand account of the poet that both confirms and adds to our knowledge of Dylan’s filial piety and work routines, not to mention his taste for pork pies, fear of the dark and dread of returning to the USA. It sheds light on his life at the time when he was writing some of his most splendid poems – ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Over Sir John’s hill’ among them – as well as Under Milk Wood. For all that David Hughes’ Dylan ultimately cuts a rather sad figure, the humour and contentedness he also exudes is at odds with the doom-ridden figure served up by many of the biographers.

The short letter to Phil Richards, dated 8 November 1950, is in Thomas’ best whimsical vein; it refers to his forthcoming trip to ‘Persia’ [Iran] in January 1951, and to a pig named Wallis. It had been bought by Thomas with Phil Richards and another of his friends, Bill McAlpine, early in 1950 to fatten up for Christmas that year, and was kept in a yard behind the Cross House. The memoir references the letter, which is presumably why David Hughes sent both to Charles Barber, and it gives an amusing account of how, when the time came to slaughter the beast, Thomas found his screams – Wallis’ ‘dying words’ as Hughes called them – too much to bear, and sought refuge in the back room of the pub.

John Goodby recommended to Charles Barber that the memoir, letter and programme be donated to the British Library. This was agreed and, after being exhibited at Swansea Museum, the documents were duly handed over at a ceremony in the boardroom of the British Library at King’s Cross on 13 May 2016, the day before International Dylan Thomas Day, with Charles – despite being seriously ill – and Trefor Ellis, Aeronwy Thomas’ widower, in attendance. Hilly Janes, the daughter of Dylan’s great friend Fred Janes, the painter, was also present, and her account of the memoir and letter appeared in The Times the following day. Sadly, Charles Barber – himself a warm, witty and unassuming man – died later that year. This article is dedicated to his memory, as well as to that of David Hughes, who wrote this touching and insightful memoir for him.

Adrian Osbourne is a PhD student at Swansea University, and his research focuses on the recently discovered fifth poetry notebook of Dylan Thomas. Handwritten between 1934 –35, the notebook was acquired by Swansea University for its archives, and Adrian is co-producing with Professor John Goodby a critical edition for publication. Adrian is also working on the relationship between Dylan Thomas' mid–1930s poems and short stories, a period when Thomas saw himself as a writer equally of prose and poetry.


previous essay: One Foot in the Water
next essay: Memoir of Dylan Thomas


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