Wondering if there is someone reading this tonight who is in or near Melbourne, I'll say again that City Basement Books is closing at the end of the month, in other words: tomorrow, at six o'clock. Is it six? I believe it's six. They've priced the remains of their stock down to a dollar a book. I bought a bag of them today and my right arm is aching. Now every time I look around the room I see a title that I never expected to see outside that shop, and I feel a fresh surprise. Benito Pérez Galdós' Doña Perfecta has startled me at least three times now. Am I the first person to have bought Henry Treece's book about Dylan Thomas because it had Treece's name on the front and not Thomas'? "That stinking book," Thomas called it after it was published. Victor Paananen believes that the poet was offended because Treece dismissed his socialist credentials.
Professor William York Tindall of Columbia University, offered an important report that has been ignored by Thomas’s biographers. "Thomas told me (in 1952) that he was a Communist. My disbelief was shaken, however, at a party a few days later. Here Thomas suddenly arose, kicked the cat which turned and bit me and, to the embarrassment of our hostess, called a distinguished and once radical American novelist, who was also a guest, both ‘renegade’ and ‘prick’."
"One must regret," continues Paananen, "the unfortunate outcome that Thomas’s explosion had for the cat, but the incident does point to convictions passionately held by Thomas. No doubt Thomas had, as so often, been drinking, but in vino veritas."
Skimming through Treece's book I've come up with another theory: Thomas might not have been utterly flattered when his friend (they were friends) told the world that he was a "scallywag" with "the glutinous smile of a young boy."
We let society hamstring us in a hundred ways ... But Dylan just remained himself, his honest scallywag self, and was inevitably destroyed, like all other perpetual boys -- the beachcombers, the divers for pennies, the lion tamers, the test pilots, the climbers of mountains ...
The tone here is similar to Mervyn Peake's somewhere in the Gormenghast books. Where have I seen him making a list like this? I'll try to remember to look it up later. Thomas knew Peake, too. One day the poet turned up at the door, ill, and Peake put him to bed and called a doctor. Later Thomas borrowed his clothes.
Not long after [writes Mervyn's wife Maeve] a note was pushed through the door.
Mervyn, dear Maeve
Will you please lend me coat and trousers for a day. Any coat and trousers as long as they aren't my own. I am supposed to speak at a public platform tomorrow, Sunday, just after lunch. May I call early morning --
On the other side, with a scribbled drawing:
I must unfortunately call for coat and trousers -- doesn't matter that M is taller than D before 11. Say 10.30.
My copy of Dylan Thomas is a green hardback, the same shade of green as the Bodley Head book of essays covering Treece, Beatrix Potter, and C.S. Lewis. But the publisher is different and the book a little shorter. At the back there are lists of the compound words Thomas used in his poems. They've been arranged under headings, so you have
two-gunned, four-stringed, twelve-winded, one-sided, half-blind, twin-boxed, three-coloured …
for example, and
Mothers-eyed, tallow-eyed, red-eyed, scythe-eyed, womb-eyed, salt-eyed, bull's-eye, eye-teeth, penny-eyed …
and so on. The last group of words is the largest one.
clayfellow, winding-sheets, year-hedged, hang-nail, Christward, planet-ducted, skull-foot, goblin-sucker, marrow-ladle, breast-deep, bread-sided, close-up, arc-lamped, sheath-decked, black-tongued, deadweed, bible-leaved, wind-turned, bell-voiced …
So it runs on down the page. Treece has compiled another list too, one that puts Thomas' compound words next to compound words used by Gerard Manly Hopkins.
Thomas: sky-scraping, fair-formed
Coincidentally, one of today's other books was a compendium of Gerard Manly Hopkins.
For Lent. No puddings on Sundays. No tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar. Meat only once a day. No verses in Passion week or on Fridays. Not to sit in armchair except can work in no other way. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday bread and water.
He would have been twenty-two.