I have a memory which is tough to shake. It’s an earlyish one, probably from my late teens – a time when I was developing the political-philosophical anger that still rages. I was also in many senses finding a voice.
Simply cannot remember where or why or how I finished up listening to Dylan Thomas reading some of his poems… but I did. This was waaay pre-internet so could it have been radio? Who knows. I had found the man’s work prior to this event (and loved it) but never heard him read or speak. I was – and I know these two words don’t fit together – I was relatively shocked.
To a spiky youff from Grimsby he sounded like a posh English public schoolboy. Inflated. Pompous. Weird. But not Welsh. So un-believable.
A similar thing happened the first time I heard Kyffin Williams speak – only more so. Another toff, another fake Welshman; another medium-shocking disappointment.
Of course this is prejudicial nonsense… but it is also true. To this English-born now long, long-term resident of Wales, conscious of his own fraudulence, it hurt a little that class, that privilege had intruded so jarringly into *even this* – the sacred world of art and of the heart.
And yet Thomas (in particular) and Williams remain profound icons: in the writer’s case partly because he plainly was in some senses a big-hearted radical – at least in terms of style – and, frankly, his background wasn’t that posh. He just performed like that; believing, I imagine, that the booming suited the pomp and circumstance and mischief around the great themes of his work. But it was weird, hearing him, back then. It was a blow to my punky idealism and to the notion that hopefully, despite Thatcher *and everything* the Home Counties/Great Families domination of the universe might be vulnerable to our Northern, fraternal surge.
I still hope that what we might call The Creative Spirit can come from anywhere and be recognised: that Ordinary Folk, as well as those with time and privilege, can turn out art that is visible and moves and reflects us. However, the times again may be conspiring against this.
The author David N Thomas will probably never read this: if he does, I hope he takes the trouble to get beyond the title and the sense (that may rise in him) of liberties being taken at his expense. They are not. His book Fatal Neglect, which cuts away the sleazy distractions and outright porkies around Dylan Thomas’s death, is gripping, bold and mildly revelatory. I am bastardising his title to hint a little at the unsavoury richness he uncovers.
I say mildly revelatory because, let’s face it, many of us knew that the ultimately frail but often monstrous, boozed-up genius who gifted us Under Milk Wood had been ill-served by his inadequate compadres and the criminally arrogant doctor who oversaw his death in New York. We just didn’t have the evidence. David N proves we were denied it.
Dylan remains the co-author of his own rather grisly end – naturally – having been a drinker and a slob who mixed with or was surrounded by drinkers, drug-takers, neurotics, hypochondriacs, the privileged and the indulgent. He was in bad shape before the bronchopneumonia (obvious but undiagnosed by Feltenstein, the doctor who took charge) tipped him towards coma and death. There were *factors* – used erroneously as fact by that same doctor – which seemed to suit the romantic view of a soul destined to self-destruct: chiefly alcohol and that lack of restraint and self-care. Feltenstein was myopic enough and cheap enough to build his flimsy diagnosis and his fatally shabby treatment entirely around this most readily-available construct; something that went on to symbolise and/or haunt the extinguished poet for fifty years and more. Dylan Thomas became the extravagant drunk who killed himself with booze.
The book unravels that convenience and in doing so exposes the various inadequacies of Brinnin – the agent – and Reitell – the lover, nurse and editor. The wider group that I may with ironic klaxons a-hooting choose to call American Friends are also skilfully, damningly implicated. Fatal Neglect is about shallowness, selfishness and self-interest as much as it is a comprehensive gathering and disassembling of medical fact and half-truth.
These shitty people get skewered, for their ‘lack of anchorage’ and whilst contriving their cover-up.
Brinnin, the agent, arguably more than anyone. He failed utterly on his duty of care towards a plainly unhealthy man. He worked him, even when Thomas was visibly ill or barely able to speak, to fund his own, appallingly glitzy lifestyle. (To be fair, the Welshman had a penchant for robbing or de-frauding the chancers, suckers and sponsors around him but his Canadian-born American agent was different level). Annual European tours, first class travel, cruises: all on other people’s money. He proved to be similarly profligate in respect of his responsibilities towards scheduling: D N Thomas reveals the extent to which Brinnin needed Dylan to graft and set him to it.
Liz Reitell shares some of the same disconnect from common decencies. She thinks she is Everything, as though Caitlin doesn’t exist or have rights and she, too, drives the dangerously exhausted writer on, carelessly or callously. She shares a good deal of responsibility for the years of edited truth, too; notably overseeing the travesty that was Brinnin’s book about those last days. Reitell is a talent, a shrew, a liar… but going through this, who isn’t?
I like that a sharp wee tome about medical minutiae becomes a scrupulously fair but fierce judgement upon people who barely need to care. Because they have stuff covered. Life, money, travel, expectation. Even the honourable medical men who were horrified at what Feltenstein did closed ranks to protect the hospital and staff who capitulated to the invading, overpowering Doc.
Everything is both material and context. For me Fatal Neglect has travelled well, crossing almost seventy years of myth and mischief around the relatively public demise of one of the great figures of modern literature. (If I have sounded belligerent towards Dylan Thomas that too, has been a fraction of the whole. The opening to Under Milk Wood still strikes me as one of the great, sustained moments in musical prose. The man was flawed, oh yes but by god he was something special).
Which is way it feels satisfying, feels right, that we now know he did not simply drink himself to death. Indeed he should not and would not have died, back in ’53, had he received prompt and professional medical attention. He had pneumonia before he was admitted to hospital. He was given shots of the wrong stuff. Nobody dare tell the fella Feltenstein – who had no authority – that this wasn’t just about the hooch. ‘Friends’ mostly failed him, too – as did those who came to tell the story. Some were duped, some criminally covered-up. Class, money, appearances, disappearances. Editing. Protection.
Fatal Neglect made me feel angry, in a good way. It shines a light into both the petty, alcohol-fuelled drama-queendom of Dylan and Caitlin and the uglier, truly privileged ease of some of the Thomas Groupies. In doing this, it may have found another moment; when more chancers, toffs and tossers – Johnsons and Goves and Hancocks? – are serving up incompetence and worse, safe in the knowledge that they can wallow. Because some folks still don’t really need to care.