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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 17 September 2009
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
The bohemian rhapsody of life with Dylan

A memoir by the late Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Dylan, provides a charming if sometimes disturbing account of childhood, writes Fiona Green

In My Father’s Places: A Portrait of Childhood by Dylan Thomas’ Daughter. By Aeronwy Thomas.
Constable and Robinson

‘I’d like you to come over: I’ve been told my illness is now in the terminal stages,” Aeronwy said with characteristic, quiet stoicism.
Nine years earlier, Llewelyn, her older brother, had broken the same news to me, in much the same way.
“I hope at least to see Hannah’s (her daughter) baby born,” she continued, “and perhaps even be here for the launch of my book.”
Aeronwy’s memoir, In My Father’s Places, was started in the 1990s as a way of coming to terms with the early loss of her father, the poet, Dylan Thomas.
She had felt so much suppressed pain re-emerge while writing, and this, coupled with Llewelyn’s criticisms of her first draft, forced it to be put on ice for some time.
It was only after Llewelyn’s death in 2000 and her attendance at Barbara Hardy’s writing classes (ex-emeritus professor of Birkbeck College) that Aeronwy found renewed interest in continuing.
The book is a charming – and disturbing – evocation of bohemian life, seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old child. Aeronwy always retained a fresh innocence, in spite of the continual cruel comments from her mother: “You look so much like your father: the harder I pull your curls, the better.”
She dramatises Dylan’s intensely personal artistic activity, and this motif
is central to her understanding of her complex, creative father. Her overriding thesis is that his presence – and absence – was the abiding influence on her life, and she gently and humourously explores rich familial territory to reveal the simple ways in which father and daughter related.
“We continued to pursue our reading,” she writes, “as we hadn’t finished the stories in The Wind In The Willows and managed to finish it before he returned to America once more. We no longer discussed the demerits of Toad. We both agreed he was a hothead and a rebel, but couldn’t help admiring his panache.”
Dylan had met Caitlin, Aeronwy’s mother, in Fitzrovia pub, the Wheatsheaf. They were introduced by Augustus John, a friend of Caitlin’s mother, Yvonne Macnamara, and ended up in John’s flat in Charlotte Street, where Dylan immediately proposed marriage.
The dancer and the poet were to produce three children: Llewelyn, sent to live with the Macnamaras in the New Forest, from the ages of three to eight years; Aeronwy, who by this account, was caring for the third child, baby brother Colm, at seven and eight years of age, while her parents caroused in the pubs of Laugharne, Chelsea or Fitzrovia, returning to regular bouts of fighting in the home.
Dylan must have been a very distant father, hardly ever at home, however differently Aeronwy tries to paint it. In the descriptions of him sonorously testing out the lines of each new poem in his hut, overlooking the gorgeous estuary of Laugharne, or quietly reading Agatha Christie, we get a glimpse of what informed Aeronwy’s own writing – her subtle, lyrical, individual voice.
She never spoke about him, and, until she was in her mid 30s, avoided reading his work.
Typical of many children raised in a bohemian household, Aeronwy yearned for normality. As a complete contrast to the feckless life of her parents, Aeronwy chose as her husband, Trefor Ellis, a welsh ex-miner.
With a powerful interest in choral music, he offered her a stability and calm in London’s suburbia, and anchored her to her Welsh heritage.
She was an extraordinary character: stylish, funny, intelligent and a shrewd judge of character. She had the uncompromising temperament of the Macnamaras, combined with the phlegmatic Thomas gene, and became the worldwide ambassador of her father’s work, after Llewelyn died.
In her last months, her stoicism was tested to the limits. I witnessed her physically shrink. She continued to reply to the hundreds of letters and emails that arrived weekly from students and admirers, and gave talks about her father’s poetry or opened his plays.
Sadly, Aeronwy was not present at her book launch. Hannah’s baby, Charlie Jackson, was born three weeks after her death. Now her son, Huw, continues as bearer of the Thomas torch.
In My Father’s Places: A Portrait of Childhood by Dylan Thomas’ Daughter. By Aeronwy Thomas. Constable and Robinson, £14.99.

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