(Dylan and Caitlin Thomas)
On 16 May 1938, Dylan Thomas updated Henry Treece, the poet and novelist to whom he was writing regularly for a time – they later fell out over Dylan’s refusal to identify himself as an adherent of The New Apocalypse, a movement co-founded by Treece:
‘I’ve been moving house. That is, I’ve left, with trunks and disappointment, one charitable institution after another and have found and am now occupying, to the peril of my inside and out, my rheumatic joints, my fallen chest, my modern nerves, my fluttering knutted pocket, a small, damp fisherman’s furnished cottage—green rot sprouts through the florid scarlet forests of the wallpaper, sneeze and the chairs crack, the double-bed is a swing-band with coffin, oompah, slush-pump, gob-stick and almost wakes the deaf, syphilitic neighbours—by the side of an estuary in a remote village.’
I, the first named, am the ghost of this sir and Christian friend
Who writes these words I write in a still room in a spellsoaked house:
I am the ghost in this house that is filled with the tongue and eyes
Of a lack-a-head ghost I fear to the anonymous end.
The remote village was of course Laugharne: not yet the Boat House but the cottage in Gosport Street found for Dylan and his wife Caitlin by the novelist Richard Hughes. In the same letter, Dylan wrote: ‘The village also contains bearded Richard High-Wind Hughes, but we move, in five hundred yards, in two or more different worlds: he owns the local castle, no roof and all, and lives in a grand mansion by its side and has a palace in Morocco.’
‘High-Wind’ refers to Hughes’ most famous novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, originally called The Innocent Voyage, a tale of pirates and children: you’d feel safer with the pirates. He was the author of the world’s first radio play, Danger, broadcast in 1924. After In Hazard (1938), there was a gap of over twenty years before he published The Fox in the Attic (1961), the first part of his unfinished trilogy, The Human Predicament, tracing the history of the years following the Great War and the rise of Nazism. The Wooden Shepherdess followed in 1973 but Hughes died three years later.
I read them about ten years ago, in old orange Penguins but then acquired the New York Review Books editions, with introductions by Hilary Mantel. They’re so damned attractive that you could go for a walk with one of them on your arm or, indeed, one on each arm (not literally, perhaps). Their edition of The Wooden Shepherdess includes the twelve chapters that Hughes completed of the planned third volume before his death.
The two volumes we have are a really impressive achievement, a brave tackling of the near-impossible task of weighting both individual and collective histories in a novel so that the balance is held: the context not skimped but the individuals still not pressed like flowers between the pages. The central character, Augustine, is certainly unobservant enough in some instances to be believable and Hughes has a good grasp of the sleight of hand by which great gaps can be left which are satisfactorily filled in by the pressure exerted on either side by existing material rather than needing the writer to shovel in ballast for dear life before the structure cracks. Still, the murky world of the rising Nazi party perhaps convinces even more – because it is less familiar (to the British reader, anyway), and because Hughes is so obviously thoroughly conversant with the historical sources, to an extent that renders it unnecessary for him to labour the fact.
Do we now need to labour the unsettling echoes of that time in this? Probably not: anyone likely to be able to hear them has probably already done so. Martin Kettle certainly has:
Also on this day in 1791, in an edition of 1750 copies (two volumes quarto, price two guineas), James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. Many of Johnson’s remarks, so faithfully recorded by Boswell, are specific to his time, to his social, cultural and political context. Others are applicable to other times too:
‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.—Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’