As we celebrate International Dylan Thomas Day, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) engineers have been digitising interviews recorded by Colin Edwards with friends and family of Dylan Thomas. The recordings were deposited to the National Library of Wales by Mary Edwards, Colin’s wife and the transcribed tapes were edited by David N Thomas and published in his books ‘Dylan Remembered, 2 vols. (Seren and NLW 2003, 2004)’.
Here, Sophie Tupholme one of the UOSH volunteers reflects on her experience of listening and cataloguing the collection.
For the past five months, I’ve had the lovely and lucky chance to help catalogue audio recordings made by Welsh journalist Colin Edwards. Across the 1960s, Edwards completed an ambitious collection of interviews with poet Dylan Thomas’s family, friends and acquaintances – altogether creating an intricate collage of accounts and reminiscences that shed unprecedented light on the poet’s life and character.
Coming from a relatively patchy understanding of Dylan Thomas’s biography, output and icon, I had the unique chance to piece together an impression of the man, his work and his relationships from intimate sources rather than from culturally accepted notions or mythologies. I learned of and enjoyed impressions of Dylan Thomas as a generous, humorous, sometimes shy but often gregarious individual, hearing these as if a friend were relaying them to me personally. Memories of Swansea’s landmarks and Grammar School collaged together gave me as vivid a picture as if I’d visited them myself; I recognized conversations with certain schoolmasters and students, I sat in the Kardomah Café on Sunday mornings, I walked the Promenade in the cool evenings. Listening to descriptions of summer holidays at Fern Hill Farm in Carmarthen, with a myriad of family, friends and locals all contributing their stories and perspectives, I felt an overall understanding of this period and locale as if I too had visited the neighbouring farms and been for a pint in the nearby villages.
What a fascinating treat – learning about an entire world, with this remarkable man at its center, through the reminiscences and shared histories of those who knew him best. Lucky for me, I now feel as if I know the man on a level above common knowledge, purely because these interviews feel like the sharing of privileged information from the memory and mouth of a friend. And even aside from content, the beautiful language used by the poets and artists in Thomas’s acquaintance (Charles Fischer, Alfred Janes, Frances Hughes and many others) when describing his ‘liveness,’ sense of humour or love of words, was enough to leave me moved and enthralled.
I was of course not alone in this journey and these discoveries. Prolific journalist and interviewer Colin Edwards led my way, guiding the conversations to specific points, querying new insights and digging for further details, and always returning the conversation to Dylan – the ‘real’ Dylan, the Dylan of family and friends’ acquaintance. Alongside discussions of Thomas’s schooldays, life in Laugharne and travels to America, other illuminating topics came to the fore, such as his impressive theatre performances, friendships with prominent figures and artists such as Edith Sitwell and Augustus John, and travels to Florence and Rome, Prague and Iran.
Getting to know Colin Edwards throughout these interviews was in itself a fascinating process, and I was thoroughly impressed with his patience, persistence and genuine interest in his subjects. I came to anticipate his favourite questions, the tone of voice used in particular situations, the points he most wanted to uncover and push for, the sorts of anecdotes he enjoyed or would find humorous, and the formality of his voice when speaking to someone especially esteemed in Thomas’s artistic circles, compared with the ease of his conversations with ‘ordinary blokes’ or long-time family friends. Accompanying Edwards on this oral history project has felt like joining an old friend while he calls upon neighbours, enjoying intimate conversations as an attentive outsider.
It was also interesting to hear the same anecdotes and responses repeated across interviews. These repetitions signalled a shared understanding of Thomas that, often times, really departed from ideas of Dylan Thomas that pervade our cultural understanding of his character and his life. Many interviewees shared stories of Thomas insisting upon repaying debts to his friends, successfully managing his drinking so that he could write unfettered and cheerfully playing with his children. Legends of his drinking, womanizing, reckless passions and unpredictability are weakened and seem outlandish compared to the tamer memories and impressions of his family and friends. Stories of his wild antics seem to have grown arms and legs as, of course, these stories sell better than those of Thomas trying to repay his debts, drinking pints rather than hard liquor and travelling to America for money to support his family and lifestyle, rather than for experiences of debauchery and freedom from homelife.
I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. Fascinating and informative, it brings together a wonderful assortment of voices and perspectives, and immediately engages the listener – whether you feel you know nearly everything or next to nothing about Dylan Thomas and his Wales. I found that the intensity of listening to so many interviews in a short stretch of time also helped me reflect on aspects beyond Thomas’s life and character, such as the most rewarding ways to conduct an interview and which points of conversation are likely to bring about the best responses. Edwards was, without a doubt, a highly skilled and professional interviewer, and this collection presents an enviable model for going about an oral history project for those who may be interested in pursuing something similar.
Having the chance to catalogue these audiotapes has been absolutely rewarding from start to finish. It’s been a pleasure contributing to our shared cultural heritage in this avenue, ultimately enabling these preserved works to be presented anew and collectively enjoyed by new and old audiences alike.