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:

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…

A pint of bit­ter, please.

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

The cold gets me just here…

…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:

What’s the Three Lamps like now?

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…


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.


    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.

Comments are closed.