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The Good, The Bard & The Ugly…Lovely Town.

For a number of years at around the turn of the millennium I used to travel to Tupelo, Mississippi for the Annual Gumtree Festival.  There, as well as performing at number of events I would also be one of the judges in the song writing competition.

Tupelo is known for a number of things.  It’s honey is said to be sweet and aromatic, and it was the inspiration for a song by Van Morrison.  It is one of the major centres for furniture in North America with a Biannual Trade Show in January and August. 

For all that it’s is still best known worldwide as the Birthplace of Elvis Presley.  Tourists from all four corners of the globe head to the little town to visit the birthplace, a little 2 bedroom shack. Next they might visit the Tupelo Hardware store where he bought his first guitar.  You can now visit the little chapel Elvis went to as a boy before moving to Memphis.  It’s been moved bit by bit to a location near his boyhood home.

Now I’m pretty sure not everyone in Tupelo is an Elvis fan, some might actually be rather fed up of seeing Elvis posters and pictures and hearing Elvis music but one thing they know, Elvis put Tupelo on the map, 45 year after his death his legacy keeps Tupelo on the map and Elvis brings money and jobs to the city.

Today is International Dylan Thomas Day. The 14th May was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the date when his masterpiece ‘Under Milk Wood’ was first read on stage at The Poetry Center, New York in 1933.

I just wonder sometimes whether we, the people of Swansea know enough about his work and whether we make enough of one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century.

I have to admit that I came late to reading the work of Swansea’s most famous bard.  I do remember studying ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ in English Literature classes in Dynevor Comp in the 1970’s but if I’m honest it didn’t leave much of an impression and hearing him reading it on record reminded me too much of some of the preachers I had to listen to in chapel on a typical wet, Swansea, Sunday Evening. 

For many Dylan is the poet.  When I finally got around to reading his work that’s where I started.  I have to say I found some of it quite dense, difficult to understand and, well, hard work.   Some of the poems obviously left a lasting impression because in a line he managed to capture something you felt you already knew but just hadn’t put into words.

It’s said Dylan’s work is some of the most quoted in the English Language.  You only have to do an internet search for ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ to see how widely used that phrase has become and by such a diverse set of characters too.

I started falling in love with Dylan Thomas through a double CD I bought by chance.  It was probably in the days when I would regularly pop into HMV just in case they had something old, new or blues that I could add to my collection. 

The George Martin version of ‘Under Milk Wood’ featured music by Mark Knopfler and songs by Elton John.  There were performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as well as cameos from Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler and Mary Hopkin. 

This wasn’t my first encounter with the play for voices.  I think I had been to a Bishop Gore School production and I might have seen the Richard Burton Elizabeth Taylor film on late night TV, but this CD was the first time I had spent time with the people of Llareggub.  From the moment the CD started playing I was captivated, firstly by the opening music written by George Martin but then by the words.  They were as musical as the notes.  Then I started laughing.  I hadn’t realised that the ‘play’ was going to be so funny, funny and rude as well.

I was enchanted by the names, Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Organ Morgan and Polly Garter.  There was the mixture of the local and the exotic. Where the Star of Wales shares the waves with the Zanzibar.

Having fallen for ‘Under Milk Wood’ I then bought collections of short stories.  I found out that ‘Old Garbo’ had been written about one of my friend’s grandfather.  Many of his stories reminded me of the old people of Swansea that I had grown up with and of course ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘ soon became an annual favourite to read to my own children.

It took some time but now that I know his work is funny and sad and features places right here in West Wales, I sometimes feel we haven’t really grasped how important he was, is and could be for our city.

Last Thursday I went to the Swansea University Bay Campus for the Dylan Thomas 2022 Award Ceremony. Although it has been impossible to meet in person over the past few years the prize has continued to attract entries from some of the finest young authors from across the globe.  This year’s long list featured writers from Sri Lanka, the Middle East, North America, Ireland England and Scotland.

Not everyone who made the shortlist was able to make it to the Bay.  Those unable to travel to Wales had sent video messages including readings from their work.  Three out of the six finalists where there in the room with us.  They also shared extracts from their books which included short stories, poems and novels. 

I was sat next to a PHD student from Germany who had come to Swansea to continue her studies in creative writing.  She turned to me as the final writer finished reading and said in perfect English how wonderful it was to hear the word come alive with the authors.

Ah, yes, I forgot to mention there were a number of students in the Great Hall who have come to Swansea to study creative writing and that is in some part down to the Dylan Thomas legacy.

Shortlisted authors present the Dylan Ed Prizes.

Part of the evening promoted the work of ‘Dylan ED’.  The International Dylan Thomas Prize is doing missionary work in schools and colleges, providing internships for students to work in primary and secondary education but also with competitions in Creative writing and Reviews. It was terrific to see the winners of these competitions share the stage and receive their prizes from the Finalists in the main competition itself.

One of the highlights of the evening was a video featuring Cerys Matthews reading ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’.  As I left the Bay Campus and headed home along that ‘long and splendid curving shore’ it got me thinking.  As people around the world prepare for International Dylan Thomas Day maybe we in his home town are missing a trick.  We should realise what an asset Dylan should be to our city His name and work really does help reach out to the world encouraging tourism and interest in our Ugly Lovely Town… and who knows, somewhere along the line, we might fall in love with the words as well.

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