Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947

The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.

‘Return Journey’ was written for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Early One Morning, a 1954 collection of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in various books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.

But, by way of a taster, here’s the passage in which Thomas describes visiting the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:

The bar was just opening, but already one customer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morning, and the barmaid, polishing the counter vigorously as thought it were a rare and valuable piece of Swansea china, said to her first customer:

BARMAID
Seen the film at the Elysium Mr Griffiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicycle our pipes burst Monday…

NARRATOR
A pint of bitter, please.

BARMAID
Proper little lake in the kitchen got to wear your Wellingtons when you boil an egg one and four please…

CUSTOMER
The cold gets me just here…

BARMAID
…and eightpence change that’s your liver Mr Griffiths you been on the cocoa again…

After a passage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blubber lips; snub nose; curly mousebrown hair”) there is a wonderful non sequitur from the barmaid…

I remember a man came here with a monkey. Called for ‘alf for himself and a pint for the monkey. And he wasn’t Italian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preacher.

…and some more customers arrive:

Snowy business bellies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black business bowlers, damp and white now as Christmas pudding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mirrors. The voice of commerce rang sternly through the lounge.

The final sad comment on pubs in this story reflects a common experience across Britain during the post-war period:

NARRATOR
What’s the Three Lamps like now?

CUSTOMER
It isn’t like anything. It isn’t there. It’s nothing mun. You remember Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…

(Fade)

4 thoughts on “Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947”

  1. Sequitur; monkey -> organ-grinder -> Italian.

    I wonder about the guy with the pint of water (the Tawe is the river that runs through Swansea) – he’s not the “first customer”, so presumably it’s actual water, not a slighting reference to the beer.

    1. I think the ‘pint of … Tawe water’ is an example of the rhetorical device known as metonymy (or is it synecdoche? – never been sure which) whereby a constituent part is used to represent the whole, and here signifies a local beer brewed with liquor from the Tawe. Given that a beer brewed in the post-war austerity of 1947 would likely have been about as grimly watery as British draught beer ever got, the reference maybe was intended to be slighting.

  2. Interesting, despite the intense Welshness of the environment no ever sounded less Welsh, at least as we conceive it today. He sounds High Church English.

    The comment about organ-grinder is sequential but non-sequestial in the flow of her speech. It’s as if she’s throwing out gambits to get a thread of conversation going, and in fact corresponds to speech as often heard in such contexts.

    Gary

    1. She’s just commenting on how unusual it was to see a man in the pub with a monkey. “He wasn’t Italian at all” underlines the point – if he had been Italian, in that time and place, she could have assumed he was an organ-grinder, explaining the monkey.

      As for the Tawe water, what I was having trouble with was the reference to the “first customer” – but on re-reading it looks as if it is a reference to the guy with the half-frozen pint, so presumably it’s just a joke about the quality of the beer.

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