Quietly tragic memoir of a poet's daughter
BOOK OF THE DAY: My Father’s PlacesBy Aeronwy Thomas Constable, 218pp, £14.99
THE FIERY, volatile relationship between Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin, was no secret in the quiet Welsh village where they lived.
The shouting, tears and tirades of abuse were often conducted in public, and usually after the pub, where he spent each evening of their married life.
Caught in between the dramatics of a poet struggling to eke out a living and a moody, unpredictable mother was daughter Aeronwy and her two brothers. Aeronwy, who died in July, later spent much of her life promoting her father’s work as president of the Dylan Thomas Society. In this curious, if quietly tragic memoir, she describes the rowdy, bohemian household of the Thomas family.
The book starts with their arrival at the Boat House in Laugharne, where Thomas wrote some of his most famous works, including Under Milk Wood.
It is clear that Thomas was far from an ideal father. He didn’t turn up for days after Aeronwy was born, drank heavily and was, most often, distracted and all-consumed with his work. Her mother also often neglected the children, leaving them alone in the evenings to join Dylan in the pub and even heading off for months with her husband on a tour of the US.
Memories of her father are interwoven with Aeronwy’s own adventures as a young girl. She describes playing around and kissing boys on the afternoons when her father was locked away in his shed to work. She remembers the odd occasion being read The Wind in the Willows by her father, or the time he returned with a huge doll’s house for her birthday and she burst into tears with delight.
Photographs are included among the many tales of her parents’ madcap ways – how Thomas would recite to Caitlin in the bath; her mother’s flashy swimsuits, or how she cooked stews to heal her husband’s ailments, the pigs’ ears sticking out from the top of the pot.
It’s no wonder, perhaps, that Aeronwy developed her own reputation as a bold, adventurous girl among the local children. She was constantly used as a go-between to fetch her father from the pub, or woken in the night to her parents fighting. She also became a target of her mother’s “fluctuating temper”; she once said to her: “The trouble is, you look so much like your father . . . the harder I pull your curls, the better I feel.”
Aeronwy’s story, however, feels a little lost among the tumultuous exchanges between her parents. It is not really clear whether she is trying to tell her own story or that of her father. Either way, the descriptions of the poet – working away at his desk, with a bottle of his favourite fizzy orange drink, Tizer, and surrounded by damp books and scrunched-up pieces of paper – often win out over her own occasionally over-detailed adventures. The book ends, perhaps tellingly, soon after her father dies. Aeronwy was only 10.
There is an innocence to this book, a tone that resonates beyond Aeronwy’s reminiscing of childhood. At times her memories feel unprocessed or merely stated as fact – she feels ignored, like she’s just a pest, but then blissfully ignorant: “Happily unaware of money worries and used to rows, I lived in a world unmarked by trouble.”
At one point Aeronwy describes her fury at being introduced at school “as Dylan Thomas’s daughter”. You can’t help but wonder, then, what she was feeling when it was decided to include on the cover of this book: “A portrait of childhood by Dylan Thomas’ daughter.”
Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Timesjournalist