Dylan Thomas: his part in my downfall

Ben Atherton is a Brisbane-based journalist, dad, misty-eyed expat and sometime blogger on books and bookmen at Biblioparrot. We welcome him to our small (and virtual) piece of the old country here at The Dabbler.

Back in the good old days, when I was trying to get my first job on newspapers, a standard interview question was: “Why do you want to become a journalist?”.

The standard answer always began with platitudes about an “enjoyment” of writing and “reading newspapers”, before being airily expanded to take in some sort of notion of “service to the local community”.

But if I’d been honest I would have told them that I’d been reading too much Hunter S Thompson and wanted to be like the young reporter from the Dylan Thomas story Old Garbo. Embarrassing but true.

I can remember when I first encountered Dylan Thomas. It would have been about 1980, in the pages of Look and Learn, a magazine for swotty schoolkids to which I was almost religiously devoted.

I’m not sure why the editors of Look and Learn thought that a profile of one of English language literature’s biggest piss-heads would be suitable reading for their audience of impressionable young scholars, but there he was, complete with a full-page drawing depicting the poetical menace – looking like a wild-eyed schoolboy – scandalising a dinner party by pelting the guests with bread rolls.

From memory, the article glossed over the role the demon drink played in this outburst, leaving me rather puzzled about (a) what a dinner party actually was, and (b) why grown-ups would act this way.

I think I put it down to an excess of poetical temperament, an as-yet-undefined quantity which exerted a growing fascination on me from then on.

Now then, where was I?

Old Garbo, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, is a loosely autobiographical tale about a young reporter trying to get in with Mr Farr, the senior reporter on his Welsh paper, the Tawe News.

“He was the senior reporter, a great shorthand writer, a chain-smoker, a bitter drinker, very humorous, round-faced and round-bellied, with dart holes in his nose.”

Mr Farr covers “all the big stories, the occasional murder, such as when Thomas O’Connor used a bottle on his wife …. the strikes, the best fires.”

Young Thomas plays court to Mr Farr and is rewarded with an invitation to a Saturday night pub crawl down the docks, where, slightly mysteriously, “you can see the sailors knitting in the public bar.”

The best bit for me comes at the start of the night, in the back room of the Three Lamps.

“I leant against the bar, between an alderman and a solicitor, drinking bitter, wishing that my father could see me now and glad, at the same time, that he was visiting Uncle A. in Aberavon. He could not fail to see that I was a boy no longer, nor fail to be angry at the angle of my fag and my hat and the threat of the clutched tankard. I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.”

That “sudden world” glimpsed through the walls of the glass – it’s like a gospel of delight for drunkards.

Anyway, this was the world I thought I was entering as a journalist 60-odd years after the story was written.

A world of pub backrooms, death knocks, intrigue, parades of (in this case Welsh) grotesques, camaraderie, and easy-going drunkenness.

It was a dying world I thought I glimpsed in the early days, when one paper I tried to get a job on still had its printing press downstairs, filling the offices with the smell of ink and hot metal, and reporters repaired to the back rooms of poky little boozers at regular intervals.

But I soon found out that death knocks are no fun, houses that have been burnt out leave a stink in your clothes which lingers for days, and trying to make sense of an inquest while suffering with a screaming hangover is not to be recommended.

Looking back, even at this distance my capacity for magical thinking is wince-inducing.

The only two books I’ve ever stolen in my life were by, or about, Dylan Thomas. One of them has Old Garbo in it. No, I’m not proud of it.

What books or writers have led you astray – and did you enjoy it?

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13 thoughts on “Dylan Thomas: his part in my downfall

  1. Gaw
    December 16, 2010 at 13:21

    As I commented over at your place, Ben, I think Dylan led a good part of a nation astray, or at least its male portion. Along with Burton he perpetuated – and exemplified – the legend of the self-destructive Welshman. Many a Taffy boozer has knocked them back whilst blaming his tormented poetical temperament (I may have done it once or twice in my younger days).

    I enjoyed ‘dart holes in his nose’: perfect. And that description of the joys of the world seen through the bottom of a pint glass is also extraordinarily evocative (and accurate). No wonder he had such an influence…

    BTW A Short Walk Down Fleet Street by Alan Watkins is a wonderful tour of the home of the higher form of hackery during its well-lubricated golden days.

  2. Worm
    December 16, 2010 at 16:12

    I liked Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’, that gave me an overwhelming urge to go out and overdose, although I have yet to follow them up on it.

    Great little intro to Thomas for me Ben, many thanks for your fascinating story!!

  3. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    December 16, 2010 at 17:35

    Can’t say it led me* astray but “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?” by Edward Behr was a tremendous insight into the world of the foreign correspondent. And don’t even mention Evelyn Waugh…

    Incidentally, Dylan Thomas’ last words, before lapsing into a coma, were reputedly “I’ve had 14 straight whiskies. I think that’s a record.”

    * Mind you, Mariella Frostrup rates it one of her ‘top 10 books to impress a prospective lover’ so it may well have led her astray. Being a gentleman I couldn’t possibly comment.

  4. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    December 16, 2010 at 19:35

    Oddly (since I find Scottish nationalism somewhat ridiculous now), for a while as a boy I wanted to be Alan Breck Stewart from ‘Kidnapped’. He was the Jacobite Han Solo.

    I thought the bloke in Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’ was a bloody idiot and Stephen Dedalus a wimp, I preferred bemused stiff-upper-lippers like Ratty or Waugh’s Crouchback; or else out-and-out nuts like Enderby or the loon of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’.

  5. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    December 16, 2010 at 19:54


  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    December 16, 2010 at 19:54

    The ultimate leek soup was Burton’s performance in Under Milk Wood. We can only guess at the treats if Windsor Davis had played the part.

    Way back when, Dennis Wheatley was all the rage, I really wanted to be a warlock and live inside a pentangle.

    The finest movie journalists were in Airplane, knocking over the telephone Kiosk.

  7. fchantree@yahoo.co.uk'
    Gadjo Dilo
    December 17, 2010 at 05:35

    Thanks, Ben, lovely stuff. I know a guy who shared a Swansea landlord (at different times) with Thomas, and apparantly the man really was as nasty, nasty, nasty a drunk as his reputation tells us he was. Still a poetic genius though – funny. My equivalent book was Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London: I never quite managed to give up everything for a life on the road, but at one time – bizarrely, looking back – I sorely wanted to.

  8. Gaw
    December 17, 2010 at 07:52

    Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning had a similar effect on me, Gadjo. The title alone evokes a picture…

  9. becandben@gmail.com'
    December 17, 2010 at 08:05

    Thanks, Dabblers.

    Gaw: Book noted.

    Worm: Don’t.

    Ian: I once sat in front of Mariella Frostrup at the world premiere of the Thomas Crown Affair remake. A lamentable waste of celluloid.

    Brit: I don’t think even I could be foolish enough to model myself on Ignatius J Reilly.

    Malty: My mum knew someone who acted as a sacrificial virgin for some sort of Crowley-esque coven. They never really sacrificed her; and her status as a virgin was extremely doubtful.

    Gadjo: That’s sad and comforting in equal measure.

  10. Worm
    December 17, 2010 at 08:57

    well gadjo, you still sort of managed it – what with living in deepest and most exotic climes like you do!

  11. mcrean@snowpetrel.net'
    December 17, 2010 at 09:34

    What a great article. I was first led astray by Joseph Conrad and what I imaged to be the wild romance of the South China Sea. At 17 I was working my passage on a merchantman bound for the Pacific but the sea turned out to be about 90 per cent proof as the officers were nearly all from Glasgow and ship’s whisky was 50p the bottle. Still, I’d take the hard mad lads from Glasgow or a stark crazy American journo over maudlin poetic types any day. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of being led astray by any number of writers. If a book doesn’t have the power to lead you astray why are you reading it.

  12. fchantree@yahoo.co.uk'
    Gadjo Dilo
    December 17, 2010 at 11:12

    Worm, you ‘re a man who once lived in Australia, no? 😉

    Hmm, good point from Mark. One thinks: “yeah, I’m gonna do that and screw the consequences! As soon as I’ve finish my current work contract, finished with my current girl/boyfriend, put the empty milk bottles out, etc…”

  13. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    December 17, 2010 at 17:39

    With me, it was a biography (more like a sanitised hagiography, I imagine) of Albert Schweitzer, which I read and reread obsessively at primary school, finding it intensely moving. I can’t remember anything about the book now, and, reviewing my subsequent life, it certainly doesn’t seem to have led me very far astray from the paths of wickedness. If it had really worked I’d be out in the jungle with the lepers…

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