This year marks the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. With a festival celebrating his connection to Fitzrovia on the horizon, Eddy Frankel sets out to learn something about the Welsh poet by visiting his favourite London watering holes. Illustration Emma Kelly
Beyond being aware of the existence at some point in history of a Welsh bloke who liked a drink and wrote some sentences that rhymed, I know as much about Dylan Thomas as I do about quantum physics. Which is to say absolutely naff-all. But with the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival set to celebrate the writer and poet’s life with a series of performances, readings, walks and screenings, I’ve set out to see what the big deal is. I’m told the best place to start is at the pub, and who am I to argue?
I head to the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, one of Thomas’s old haunts in the 1930s, where I meet Hilly Janes, the author of ‘The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas’. Her job is to tell me why I should care about this particular Welshman. My job is to drink, because apparently that’s what Thomas would’ve wanted. ‘The pub was his theatre, and the performance was fuelled by alcohol,’ Janes tells me as she sips a half of bitter. But why London? Why not get mashed up back home in Wales? ‘Dylan desperately wanted to leave Swansea. If you were an artist, a composer or a writer, you simply had to come to London.’
[Photo: Ewan Munro]
From the ’20s to the ’50s, the Fitzroy Tavern was the city’s bohemian epicentre. George Orwell drank here, as did writer and occultist Aleister Crowley, novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross and anyone who was anyone in London’s literary set. Thomas came here to network, and the pub’s reputation preceded it. ‘It’s the equivalent of a student going to Shoreditch, or a celeb going to Mahiki now,’ Janes explains.
And coming here worked – Dylan was a huge hit in London. He published his first volume, ‘18 Poems’, in 1934, followed by his next collection, ‘Twenty-five Poems’, in 1936, both of which were loved by critics. Sadly he was plagued by ill health throughout his life, and died in 1953 aged 39 while on a poetry tour in New York.
Janes goes on to tell me that Thomas’s poetry is often about seizing the moment and living life to its fullest. Earlier in the day I’d spoken to actor Griff Rhys Jones, who is co-organising the festival. ‘There’s a strong streak of carpe diem in Dylan Thomas which is expressed most famously in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,”’ he tells me. ‘A lot of that is about getting out, being with people and living life – which I think he did to the full in pubs.’ Back in the Fitzroy Tavern, I look up that poem on my phone and realise how right he is. ‘Old age should burn and rage at close of day,’ goes one line. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ another. It looks to me like Thomas was, essentially, a proto-Yolo-er.
Janes brushes my Yolo-ising aside and goes on to explain that after a while, the Fitzroy Tavern became too famous and London’s literati decided to move on to other Fitzrovia drinking establishments. She points me in the direction of a few to visit. And visit I do. There’s The Wheatsheaf, where Thomas met his wife, dancer Caitlin Macnamara (love at first sight), which feels like a good old writers’ haunt.
[The Wheatsheaf, Fitzrovia, London. Photo: Ewan Munro]
Then the fairly unimpressive Marquis of Granby, and the more atmospheric Newman Arms, which was apparently the inspiration for the proles’ bar in Orwell’s ‘1984’.
[The Newman Arms. Photo: Ewan Munro]
After this many beers, I can almost see through Fitzrovia’s new-media fog and peek into the past. Almost. I eventually end up eating a four-cheese pizza alone on a step. It’s not ideal, but it’s the closest I can find to Welsh rarebit. Dylan Thomas, this cheesy mess is ingested in your honour. Yolo.
Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia takes place Mon Oct 20 - Oct 26.
For more great places for drunken munchies take a look at London’s best cheap eats.