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Review: "From dole queue to corner and back again"
Dylan Thomas was a poet, a writer, a husband, a father, a Welshman, a drinker and a socialist. Born in Swansea in 1914, he died in New York in 1953, overwhelmed by debt and drink - the classic proto-rock star.
Dylan Thomas has been robbed of his radical politics, but he was a poet of tremendous creative gifts and a man fully conscious of class and social conditions, a thinker with a grounding in Marxism, and a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist.
At home in the 'lovely, ugly city' of Swansea Dylan's first association with socialism came when, in 1933, he met Bert Trick who became his friend and mentor. Dylan would visit Trick's grocer's shop in Brynmill, discussing poetry and politics in the evenings. In Return Journey he remembers: "Bert Trick ... in the kitchen, threatened the annihilation of the ruling classes over sandwiches and jelly and blancmange."
Thomas, as a lifelong internationalist, hated to be pigeon-holed as just a 'Welsh poet'. He said, "I am sick of all this Celtic claptrap about Wales. My Wales! Land of My Fathers! As far as I am concerned my fathers can keep it."
Thomas' view of Wales was always contradictory. In Swansea in the early 30s, thousands were out of work and many more suffered the means test. Thomas remembered these dark years:
"Remember the procession of the old-young men From dole queue to corner and back again, From the pinched, packed streets to the peak of slag In the bite of the winters with shovel and bag, With a drooping fag and a turned up collar, Stamping for the cold at the ill lit corner Dragging through the squalor with their hearts like lead
Staring at the hunger and the shut pit-head Nothing in their pockets, nothing home to eat. Lagging from the slag heap to the pinched, packed street. Remember the procession of the old-young men, It shall never happen again."
Dylan Thomas, like many others, looked to the left for answers. He was for a time a Communist Party (CP) sympathiser, but never joined, as he disliked the way CP poets changed what they wrote to support the latest line coming from Moscow.
When Russia was attacked by the Nazis in World War Two, the CP threw themselves into the war effort. In 1945, an anthology of left verse was published called New Lyrical Ballads. Thomas had no place in it, as his internationalism was beyond the pale. The British nationalism in these ballads would shock socialists today.
The poems Thomas wrote during the war are among his very best - 'A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London', 'Ceremony after a fire raid' and others are about the victims of the bombing of London, but they are never anti-German, only anti-war. In our age of war without end they are as powerful as ever.
Dylan Thomas wrote two screenplays after the war. The Doctor and the Devils, a horror story based on the body-snatchers Burke and Hare, who provided the infamous Dr Knox with bodies for his research. But Thomas shows the class nature of society and how there is one law for the poor and another for the rich.
Rebecca's Daughters, based on the toll gate riots in Wales in 1843, is a comedy with a serious message: governments only bring in reforms when they are 'afraid of a revolution'. Both scripts went unfilmed.
Thomas is sometimes considered a 'romantic socialist'. True, he saw no need to belong to a party - his view was that of the independent artist. However, Thomas saw that another way was possible. In 1934 he said:
"I take my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men to share, equally and impartially, every production from man and from the sources of production at man's disposal, for only through such an essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art."
In The Socialist 19 September 2012:
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