John Summers


All Dylans, past and to come

from the Sunday Telegraph, 4 June 1970

A curious novel called Dylan (New English Library, 42s) comes out on Thursday. The author is a Mandrake contributor, John Summers, who stayed at Dylan’s old home, the Boathouse at Laugharne in Wales – over ‘a breakneck of rocks’ as Dylan himself put it, looking down on the cocklebeds of the Towy estuary – while gathering material for the book.

Summers disputes the legend that the village of Laugharne is the Llaregyb of Under Milk Wood. ‘It is, in fact, a combination of nearby Llanstephan “where people go into the pubs sideways and dogs only pee on the backdoors” as Dylan described it, together with Laugharne and also New Quay in Cardiganshire,’ he asserts.

‘I was fortunate in meeting Dylan at crisis points in his life,’ says Summers, whose grandfather, like the Rev. Eli Jenkins of Under Milk Wood, was himself a lay preacher and had his own inky Poem Room in a converted public house in Llanstephan; and it was there that Summers met Dylan for the first time when Dylan was staying there during the war. They both had relatives in Lanybri, just up the road from Llanstephan.

‘I met Dylan for the last time in the Bush Hotel in Swansea when he was off to London to fix up his fatal New York trip. On the train – in the bar, naturally – seeing him with his elbows on the beer-puddled bar and seeing him shovelling down the whiskies, one had the impression of a galloping movement towards disaster. “What I’d really like to do is to tell people how bloody awful it has been, so much of the bloody time! I’d really like to put that across hard,” he told me.’

And the Dylan novel? What Summers says he has done is to make it a Dylan. ‘I have had to fictionalise. I have tried to get at the truth by skirting the fact. Some Dylanophiles will bleat because it is not exactly the life of Dylan Thomas. Well, of course it isn’t. It can’t be. Maybe a hundred years from now somebody will have a go at that, but I wanted to get the story of all the Dylans across now, today, in our own times, under the theme of that famous Hemmingway quote: “We kill all our best writers because we are afraid of them.”

‘I want to tell the story of Dylan Thomas and all the other Dylan Thomases that have been before him. And will come after him. The Scott Fitzgeralds and the Jack Londons and the Behans and all the others still to come.

‘The shocking neglect into which the Boathouse has fallen – same goes for Dylan’s grass-grown grave in Laugharne churchyard – is symptomatic of the way the Welsh trat their writers,’ says Summers. ‘Even today Dylan is regarded in West Wales as something of a dubious boyo. Anyway, the Welsh don’t really like artists, they like parchs - blacksuited evangelical Welsh preachers who year after year win their fake plastic bardic crowns and carved bardic chairs that nobody wants to sit in, by composing long odes in Welsh that nobody even wants to read.’