A Sweet Madness, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, The Wheatsheaf, London
January 23, 2023
Dylan Thomas’s unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade is a comic, slightly nightmarish evocation of a wild, alcohol sodden London, a London that he knew extremely well. It charts the time-honoured arrival of a rebellious provincial boy in the great city of ‘capital punishment’. Dylan’s alter-ego, a young man named Samuel Bennet, eagerly anticipates illicit adventure, with bars full of
knickerless women, enamouring from the cane tables, waiting in the fumes for the country cousins to stagger in, all savings and haywisps.
In November 1934 twenty-year-old Dylan Thomas made his first serious foray into this forbidden world, leaving his home town of Swansea to begin his independent life. He was full of optimism that London was where he would establish his literary career.
This promising poet had received letters from Stephen Spender and an invitation to call from T.S. Eliot. He had a vaunting ambition, wanting not to express what others feel but ‘to rip something away and show what they have never seen’.
Obsessed with words, fascinated by their sounds and rhythms even before he could understand their meaning, Dylan had begun writing poetry as a child. At school he had refused point blank to engage with any other lessons other than English, which were delivered by his own father, a schoolmaster. His work was already being published when he was in his teens; it was full of darkness which he believed had ‘infinitely more possibilities than day’.
He worked hard to build his skill, wresting two lines of poetry for each ‘painful, brain-racking and sweaty’ hour. Writing to an early girlfriend who was also a poet, he recommended reading poetry aloud:
The neighbours must know your poems by heart, they certainly know my own, and are bound to be acquainted with many passages of Macbeth, Death’s Jester and the Prophetic Books. I often think that baths were built especially for drowsy poets to lie in and intone aloud amid the steam and boiling ripples.
Dylan knew that his sonorous voice, as well as his pen, would be his ticket to freedom. Wales had become too small for him. He dreamed of a society that was sexually liberated. He wanted out: ‘out of the narrowness and dirtiness, out of the eternal ugliness of the Welsh people, and all that belongs to them.’
The year he arrived in London he had won the Sunday Referee newspaper’s Poetry Prize and as a result, his first collection of poems was printed. Editorial staff at the paper, thinking it unlikely that this astonishing work could have been produced by such a young person, had sent him the train fare to London wanting to verify his identity. Heavily influenced by William Blake, 18 Poems is a collection preoccupied with themes of death, birth and love. It included his famous poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. With only 250 copies printed, the volume went largely unnoticed at first, but by the following spring it had received favourable reviews from influential journals and newspapers. One critic wrote:
It is like no poetry that ever came out of Swansea before. Strange, compressed, torturous, exciting by its wild leaps of imagination and tantalizing by its equally strange lapses into baffling obscurity, it will puzzle, irritate, and yet, we venture to say, grip the interest of the reader as few modern poets do.
Dylan’s close friend and fellow Welsh poet Vernon Watkins met him about this time:
He was slight, shorter than I had expected, shy, rather flushed and eager in manner, deep-voiced, restless, humorous, with large, wondering, yet acutely intelligent eyes, gold curls, snub nose, and the face of a cherub.
But this cherub, added Watkins, took nothing for granted. ‘In thought and words he was anarchic, challenging, with the certainty of that instinct which knows its own freshly discovered truth.’
Establishing a Pattern
Taking digs off Fulham Road on the edge of Chelsea, Dylan led a muddled and chaotic life from the start. The mess he made with his flatmate, the painter Fred Janes, made it difficult for him to work. In a letter he wrote that he could
see nothing but poems, poems, poems, butter, eggs, mashed potato, mashed among my stories and Janes’ canvases. One day we shall have to wash up, and then perhaps I can really begin to work.
Fred Janes recalled how, between furiously intense bouts of work, Dylan would disappear for days, sometimes months at a time. He would eventually return, occasionally with a new friend in tow: an old drunk from the embankment; a Communist hiding from Fascists, a broken-down American boxer.
Dylan was immediately drawn to Fitzrovia, where artists, writers and aspirants from the country converged. The Fitzroy Tavern, Marquis of Granby and the Wheatsheaf pubs made up a little Bohemian triangle, like a miniature Left Bank. While London never had the café culture of Paris, these pubs were a rough equivalent. Dylan described the atmosphere that first year in a letter to a friend:
This is the quarter of the pseudo-artists, of the beards, of the naughty expressions of an entirely outmoded people of artistic importance and of the most boring Bohemian parties I have ever thought possible. Slightly drunk, slightly dirty, slightly wicked, slightly crazed, we repeat our platitudes on Gaugin and Van Gogh as though they were the most original things in the world. There are, of course, scores of better people that I do meet, but these little maggots are my companions for most of the time.
He scraped a living by writing reviews for London’s literary magazines. The boy from the provinces, so vulnerable to criticism of his own work, did not hold back. He told off the editor of The Best Poems of 1934 for choosing the worst of the year, poured scorn on two emerging poets, and even accused Stephen Spender of including some ugly lines and images in his poetry. Yet in spite of this review, Spender continued to champion Dylan’s work.
In Adventures in the Skin Trade, Dylan’s Welsh hero Sam Bennet had a way of attracting adventure by accepting all that came his way ‘like a baby who had been given self-dependence’. Dylan was similarly passive, and too lazy to resist the temptations of the London pubs. When asked why he drank too much, he replied: ‘Because they expect it of me.’ All his life he was attracted to the fug of chat and drunkenness to be found around a bar, together with:
the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly.
Dylan’s first independent stay in London resulted in a physical collapse followed by a period of recovery in Wales, where he wrote poetry and became unutterably bored, before being tempted back to London again. London filled him with ‘terror’ and gave him ‘the willies’, as he confided to Laurence Durrell, but he kept being sucked back to its ‘promiscuity, booze, coloured shirts, too much talk, too little work.’
And so began a pattern for the next twenty years of his life. In London he would be pushed to excess; in Wales, where he often felt ‘so utterly and suicidally morbid’, he was haltered. He could never find a state of moderation. As he explained a letter of apology to a critic for having missed a meeting in 1936:
When I do come to town, bang go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and clothes over the doorsteps and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London.
The Wheatsheaf was Dylan’s regular. By the mid 1930s it had become the favoured pub of many of London’s bohemians. According to one of its patrons, the writer and reprobate Julian Maclaren-Ross:
The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter, and always brightly lit, good black-out boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and, inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various Scottish clans.
It was at the Wheatsheaf in April 1936 that Dylan Thomas met his future wife. Caitlin Macnamara was Irish, the daughter of a poet and mistress of the artist Augustus John (although at the time she was in love with John’s son Caspar). Intelligent, adventurous and impetuous, she was interested in the arts, and was striking: ‘tawny mane and wild blue eye’, in the words of Augustus John. She had trained as a dancer in the style of Isadora Duncan and spent time in Paris and Soho. This wild, bohemian spirt was Dylan’s ideal. She could also drink: by the end of an evening of solid boozing, Caitlin, stripped of every ounce of self-consciousness, would leap into the air and begin to dance.
My painfully strapped-in-limbs, kept too long in a standing or sitting posture, struck out blindly, wildly, jubilantly…And I didn’t care a damn what anybody thought…
As Caitlin related in her autobiography A Warring Absence, Augustus John had taken her along to the Wheatsheaf to meet Dylan Thomas, the latest promising poet whom he called a ‘bright young spark’. Dylan was ‘in the middle of an enormous jabber’ but when he saw Caitlin sitting on a bar stool, he walked straight up to her and placed his beer-fuddled head in her lap. He turned on the charm with his ‘little boy-lost-act’ that sucked people in, including Caitlin at first. She described how Dylan somehow managed to fold himself up over her and made her feel a closeness that she had not experienced with anyone before. He continued telling anecdotes to his friends, briefly stopping to whisper endearments in her ear. He told her she was beautiful, that he loved her and was going to marry her. He said he had found the girl who was just right for him.
She found this soothing. What appealed to her, she said, was the softness of his voice. Her feelings were mutual but she was too shy to tell him so. She was wearing a white flowery dress borrowed from her sister. At twenty-one, Caitlin was just a year older than Dylan. She recognised that he was nervous and gentle and that his pub bravado was just an act.
Caitlin said Dylan took her to bed that night at the Eiffel Tower Hotel in Camden’s Percy Street. For the next five or six days they would emerge late morning from lovemaking that was ‘shy and child-like’ and head straight to a pub, entering the misrule of bohemian life with abandon. ‘Ours was not a love story, it was a drink story,’ she said.
After those first days, Caitlin returned to Augustus John, who was one of the last to know about her new love. He had a shock when he next dined at the Eiffel Tower hotel and was presented with a huge bill. ‘Little Welshman with curly hair’, said the proprietor. ‘He stay two weeks and eat. He says you pay.’ When he next met Dylan Thomas, the older painter knocked him out in a car park and took off with Caitlin into the night.
But Dylan kept writing love letters to Caitlin.
I don’t want you for a day, a day is the length of a gnat’s life: I want you for the lifetime of a big, mad animal, like an elephant… we’ll always be young and unwise together. There is, I suppose, in the eyes of the They, a sort of sweet madness about you and me, a sort of mad bewilderment and astonishment oblivious to the Nasties and the Meanies; you’re the only person, of course, you’re the only person from here to Aldebaran and back, with whom I’m free entirely; and I think it’s because you’re as innocent as me.
Half way through the next year they married. Later we will follow them to Wales.
English Drinking Songs sung by A.L. Lloyd
A collection of drinking songs sung by the London born folk singer, teacher, folklorist and song collector A.L. (Bert) Lloyd. He was widely known for his British folk music in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a documentary about him here.
Another writer who played a large role in the history of the Wheatsheaf is Julian Maclaren-Ross. Along with novels, short stories and memoirs, he wrote propaganda films alongside Dylan Thomas for the Ministry of Information towards the end of the Second World War. His contemporaries and admirers included Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman.
Like Thomas, he was an outsider. Born in London in 1912 of Cuban, Scottish, Indian and English heritage, he never quite fitted anywhere. With a fresh carnation in the lapel of his sharp suit, he played the part of the louche dandy. Dark glasses, camel-hair coat and a silver-knobbed cane finished off the look. According to critic Elizabeth Wilson:
For bohemians such as Maclaren-Ross, life was an absurdist drama, a black joke. This bleak stiff-upper-lip stoicism was a rather British form of bohemianism, and Fitzrovia was a very British Bohemia.
Like Constant Lambert he was immortalised in Anthony Powell’s volume-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time, as X Trapnel, a novelist and bon viveur. Powell was a friend who often kept him going with a regular supply of book reviews to write for the Times Literary Supplement.
Early in his drinking career Maclaren-Ross was warned by the poet and editor Tambimuttu that he was in danger of catching ‘Sohoitis, after which you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever.’ He failed to heed the warning. From the time he was discharged from the army in 1943, he spent much of the rest of his life propping up the bar at the Wheatsheaf (occasionally the French pub too) where he talked nonstop, to anyone who would listen. Henry Cohen used him as a character in his novel Scamp:
At the sound of his booming voice the habitués of the back tables, accustomed though they were to its nightly insistence, looked up in a dull horrified wonderment. There was no getting away from that voice.
Between bouts of drinking, Maclaren-Ross would drag himself home (for him, home was a flexible term for a friend’s sofa, seedy hotel or park bench). Then, dosed up on Benzedrine, he would churn out radio plays, film scripts, memoirs and the odd novel, making two drafts in his tiny, immaculate hand, ready for typeset without correction.
Memoirs of the Forties is his best-known work, a series of witty vignettes about bohemian and literary London during the war and its immediate aftermath. According to Clive James, Charles Osborne, while working for the London Magazine, had ‘extracted’ these vignettes from him one at a time, by advancing him enough to live on between each chapter.
Anthony Burgess, another Wheatsheaf regular, remembered that Maclaren-Ross would linger at the end of the bar, ‘propped up against the wooden settle on which sat Mrs Stewart, a lady who would do crosswords and drink Guinness.’ It was his job to pass over her Guinness in exchange for the exact money from her purse. She was ‘spiky and irascible’ and usually too proud to accept the offer of a drink, unless it was done in exactly the right way. She was fond of Maclaren-Ross but hated Dylan Thomas and could never be won over.
As recounted in Memoirs of the Forties, Mrs Stewart had lived in Montparnasse when she was young and was acquainted with James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, but nobody dared ask what she had been doing there. Her Parisian café stories always ended with her telling Maclaren-Ross, ‘And there they were, my dear, staggering about just like you and the rest of the young fellows are doing today.’ He said her death at the end of the forties marked the ‘end of an epoch’. Nina Hamnett painted a fine portrait of her which for many years hung above the spot where Mrs Stewart had sat.
In November 1964, aged 52, Maclaren-Ross celebrated the arrival of royalty cheque by downing a bottle of brandy at the Wheatsheaf then died of a heart attack. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mill Hill Cemetery, his work largely forgotten. But thanks to recent reprintings, such as the collection Bitten by the Tarantula (and other work), his reputation has grown in stature. In 2006, more than forty years after his death, Maclaren-Ross’s grave was marked by a headstone. It had been specially commissioned from the sculptor Tom Waugh, grandson of his former friend Evelyn, who had once said that Maclaren-Ross’s work showed ‘accomplishment of a rare kind.’
The Wheatsheaf, with its wood panelling, stained glass windows and floral wallpaper, is your archetypal warm and snug English boozer. Although designed to look like an old coaching inn, it was built in 1931.
Dylan Thomas used to take up his position by the stained glass windows, while Julian Maclaren-Ross would stand at the saloon end of the counter. I was struck by how small this space was for these two gigantic personalities. Reading between the lines, they didn’t hit it off. When they were at the Ministry for Information together, Dylan worked too conscientiously for Maclaren-Ross’s liking, and was aghast at his suggestion that they have a nip of whiskey while on the job.
Reading between the lines too about Maclaren-Ross’s chaotic behaviour, although I have never seen it mentioned anywhere, it seems highly likely he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress. In 1944 he wrote The Stuff to Give to the Troops (1944), a series of autobiographical short stories based on his time in the army. Harrowing first-hand accounts were related in a brisk Hemingway style, which according to Anthony Burgess, were eagerly consumed by soldiers in their barracks. In 1943 Maclaren-Ross went AWOL, was captured and nearly court martialed. He spent a brief spell in prison where he had a breakdown, and was subsequently discharged, making him possibly one of those casualties of war whose wounds are not visible to the eye.
Half a mile up the road is the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Since the thirties, journalists have come here after work; when George Orwell was at the BBC during the war, he used to drop by on his lunch breaks. There is a rumour that he overheard a drinker confess that he had a horror of rats, which gave him the idea for Winston Smith’s phobia in 1984.
More recently, the comedy careers of Jo Brand and Russell Brand (not related) began during the pub’s regular comedy nights. Alas, these events seem to have come to an end since COVID.
The official Dylan Thomas website.
Dylan Thomas reads ‘Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night’.
The Wheatsheaf website
An article by Griff Rhys Jones about Dylan Thomas and his Fitzrovian drinking habits.
DJ Taylor on rereading Julian Maclaren-Ross.
Burgess, Anthony. Little Wilson and Big God, Penguin, 1986
James, Clive. North Face of Soho: More Unreliable Memoirs, Picador, 2006
Jones, Griff Rhys. ‘Dylan Thomas: beer and loafing in Fitzrovia’, The Guardian, 16 October, 2014
McCrum, Robert. ‘He’ll have another one’, The Guardian, 30 July, 2006
Maclaren-Ross, Julian. Memoirs of the Forties, Penguin 1985
Miles, Barry. London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945, Fourth Estate, 2010
Nicholson, Virginia. Beyond the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1903-1939, William Morrow, 2002
Sinclair, Andrew. Dylan the Bard: A Life of Dylan Thomas, St Martin’s Press, 1999
The Drinker. ‘Julian and Dylan at the Wheatsheaf’, A Drinker’s History of London Blog, July 28, 2020
Thomas, Caitlin. A Warring Absence, Secker & Warburg, 1986
Thomas, Dylan. The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas, Orion, 2001