Drinking with Dylan
As fellow writers, we are delighted to have been asked to contribute to a celebration of one of South London’s most famous sons – Dylan Thomas. We understand there is also some sort of Welsh connection, but here we invite you to come drinking with Dylan in London.
Because, as well as being a brilliant poet, Dylan Thomas was also a prodigious boozer. From early on, in ‘ugly, lovely’ Swansea, as he described it, Thomas cultivated the image of a heavy drinking, penniless poet. And perhaps, if you pretend something for long enough, it comes to pass. Like us being considered ‘writers’.
Of course, one way to understand a man – to get a feel for his life and his character – is to understand his pubs. And so it was that I found myself waiting for a 68 bus to Holborn with Half-life and Roxy on a Wednesday afternoon.
Thomas came to London in the ’30s, looking to make a name for himself, and he sought to do this in two ways: poetry and getting fabulously shit-faced. He revelled in outrageous behaviour and used it to meet and chat to everyone and anyone. Who knew? The next person he met might be able to help him – if not by buying a poem, then at least by buying a drink.
‘Remind you of anyone?’ I said to Half-life, who once sought to highlight his own poetry talent by firing a handgun during a live TV reading.
‘You gotta do what you gotta do, mate,’ said the big man as our bus arrived. ‘You get nowt for free in this world. By the way, I forgot my wallet, can you tap me on?’
Between drinking binges, though, Thomas worked hard at his craft. He was a perfectionist and unlike some writers I know, never worked drunk. Nevertheless, by the time of his death in 1953, his drinking was at crisis point and contributed to his untimely demise in New York, aged 39. It’s said his last words were: ‘I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record’.
Some rudimentary research – my favourite kind of research – had quickly revealed that it would probably be easier to visit the London pubs that Thomas had not set foot in. Thomas, like many of us, suffered from a condition known as ‘alcoholic constipation’ – the inability to pass a pub; but I’d narrowed down the long list of contenders into a day/night booze cruise of some of his favourites.
Cittie of York
Our first port of call was the Cittie of York on High Holborn. Lined with huge wooden barrels on one side, with light streaming in through high windows on the other and styled as a medieval banqueting hall it was – in the heart of a modern city – quite a surprise.
‘What do you guys fancy to drink,’ I said to my companions, ‘Mead?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Roxy, surveying the unfamiliar beers on offer. ‘What’s nice?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘It’s a Sam Smith’s pub.’
‘I’ll have 19 whiskies,’ said Half-life.
It was in the Cittie of York, when it was known as Henekey’s Long Bar, that Thomas rattled off an impromptu comic ode for a friend, perhaps in one of the snug, dimly lit booths that line one side of the main room. This ‘little song’ was subsequently lost and only resurfaced in 2014. We took a table and I read some of it aloud.
Oh, all drinks were free
(And cigarettes as well)
In Mr Watts-Ewers’
Brand-new hotel –
There were no set hours
There were no decrees
And nobody shouted
Time gentlemen Please,
There was nothing to pay
And nothing to lose
In Mr Watts-Ewers’
Buckingham Palace of booze.
Maybe this inspired Half-life because he stopped a passing barmaid.
‘Here, listen, love,’ he said, as I smiled on, weakly, ‘He’s writing some bollocks on Dylan Thomas. Get us some whiskies on the house and he’ll say summat nice about this place, yeah?’
A Buckingham Palace of booze it may be, but the drinks at the Cittie of York, I can attest, are not free. Conversation is, however, and we couldn’t help overhearing that of the elderly afternoon drinkers next to us.
‘You’re 84,’ said one, ‘I’m 81, you’re 80… Who’s next?’
‘I just don’t wanna go like my father,’ said another. ‘He was straining for a shite and just… burst. Like Elvis.’
‘Yeah, I won’t have that problem,’ said the first. ‘I haven’t had to strain in 40 years, believe me.’
Roxy gave me her special look. It was time to leave. We wandered down High Holborn towards Fitzrovia.
Once the bohemian heart of the city, the inner-city area known as Fitzrovia, north of Soho and Oxford Street, was named after the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street, one of Dylan Thomas’ favourite haunts. Here, days would be spent in the company of other writers such as George Orwell or John Heath-Stubbs and painters like Augustus John and Nina Hamnett, all leaning on the bar, holding a pint, moaning about how busy they were.
True, he would sometimes yearn to escape from ‘promiscuity, booze, coloured shirts, too much talk too little work’, but something kept him coming back for more. And by all accounts it was mostly the beer.
He would arrive at opening time, line up beers along the bar like toy soldiers and slay the lot of them in single draughts in order to get over his terrible hangover from the night before.
‘That’s one way of doing it,’ said Half-life, ‘Now we’ve got ketamine.’
Upstairs at the Fitz, Thomas is commemorated with a handsome, dedicated library room but before we could find it we got talking to Nathalie, a Welsh Londoner on her own literary tour, on the trail of Nina Hamnett, the ‘Queen of Bohemia’, with a drink in one hand and her autobiography in the other. It’s that sort of pub.
It’s also another Sam Smith’s pub, however, so we were forced to push on in search of a decent pint.
When the Fitzroy Tavern got too busy and noisy, George Orwell would lead an exodus down the road to the Wheatsheaf, a smaller, cosier pub on Rathbone Place, and it was here we headed next. A plaque outside announced that Thomas once drank there and after he’d poured us some welcome Exmoor Golds, Roxy asked the barman if he knew anything about our man, Dylan.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he said, not missing a beat. ‘He sat on that stool over there and he tipped in this jar here.’ Which tickled Half-life so much he forced me to put 50p in it.
It was in the Wheatsheaf that Thomas was first introduced to Caitlin Macnamara, his wife to be. Thomas, it is said, lay his head in her lap, declared his love for her and proposed marriage, as so many of us have done, particularly towards closing time. Later, Thomas would claim that within 16 minutes of meeting, they were in bed.
‘And within 17 minutes he was back in the bar,’ said Roxy, unimpressed.
Her opinion of the great man took another hit when she read on one of the Wheatsheaf’s walls an account of Thomas undoing his flies at the bar and offering his penis to a girl, who had screamed. Half-life, perhaps unsurprisingly, was moved to recreate the scene there and then, but Roxy headed him off.
‘You’re too tall,’ she said. ‘In my experience, it’s only little blokes that like to wave their cocks about.’ And I thanked her for another fascinating insight into my delightful sex.
Still, maybe it worked for Thomas. Dylan and Caitlin were married the following year, in 1937, their marriage a famously tempestuous affair, fuelled by booze, punctuated by punch-ups and littered with infidelities. Caitlin famously described their relationship as ‘raw, red bleeding meat’, which makes you feel quite sorry for them, not to mention hungry.
‘Ours was not a love story proper,’ Caitlin later wrote, ‘it was more of a drink story. Because without the first-aid of drink it could never have got onto its rocking feet.’
Three pints in, it was time to get onto our rocking feet and go meet the Marquis.
Marquis of Granby
The Marquis of Granby completes the famous Fitzrovia pub triangle. In Thomas’ day, it was less artsy than the other two but also differed in another crucial aspect, something so important that it was ingrained in the minds of every thirsty local – it stayed open half an hour later. While the Fitz and the Sheaf, in Holborn, were licensed to 10.30pm, the Marquis, being just over the border in Marylebone, stayed open till 11.
The arts crowd would head over en masse for a bonus 30 minutes carousing with gangsters and guardsmen and showgirls, all of whom knew that the one served after closing time, with a dash of the illicit, is, of course, the sweetest one of all.
Illicit drinking had a part to play in my discovery of Dylan Thomas. Or rather, Dylan Thomas had a part to play in my discovery of illicit drinking. I first saw his ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, on a school trip to a theatre double bill, a phrase to make the heart sink if ever there was one. I enjoyed Under Milk Wood but I forget what was on second, because after it had finished my gang legged it to the bar for the interval and never came back. We had four lagers and two wines each and hopped on the coach home as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately, Podge was sick into his shoe somewhere near Chelmsford and we were rumbled.
The next day we were called in to see a furious Deputy Head, who threatened us all with suspension.
‘What do you have to say for yourselves?’ he demanded. Podge put his hand up.
‘I think it’s what Dylan Thomas would have wanted, Sir,’ he said, and there followed a terrible silence while Mr Cohen considered this response.
‘Get out, the lot of you!’ he said, hopefully tucking away a nice tale for the staff room later. And I’d thought to myself, this Dylan Thomas, he’s a good ’un.
As well as Holborn’s 10.30pm curfew, in Thomas’ time the pubs also shut in the afternoon, which rather gives the lie to the phrase ‘the good old days’. He and his pals were forced to retreat into drinking clubs like the Savage or the Gargoyle – smoky basement dens or top floor eyries, filled with the good, the great and the grogged – until the pubs reopened for the evening.
After a tweenie at the Nellie Dean on Dean Street (formerly, the Highlander and another of Thomas’ regular stop-offs) we stood outside the Dean Street Townhouse and looked up at where the Gargoyle Club had once plied its afternoon trade. Here Thomas would arrange with friends to arrive as different characters; a toff, perhaps, or a pauper or a painter. Sometimes he’d even turn up as a drunk, Welsh poet.
‘Top quality mucking about,’ said Half-life, admiringly.
‘Bit weird,’ said Roxy.
The French House
The French House on Dean Street, known as the York Minster in Thomas’ day, maintains its reputation as a watering hole for Soho’s louche underbelly. A small one-roomed bar, it’s a place where you can get talking to anyone, any time, as Thomas assuredly did. I don’t drop in often enough to this gem, possibly put off by the fact it only serves beer in halves.
‘That’s because you’re drinking the wrong drink, you fucken blert,’ said Half-life, and proceeded to order three large pastis’, on my round.
Despite the grievous damage to my wallet, I have to hand it to the big feller, it did add another dimension to the afternoon’s affairs. Pastis, we were told by a grizzled dude in a pinstriped suit who somehow managed to be both bald and have a ponytail, means ‘mash-up’, and that’s exactly what it did to our minds, as perhaps it did to those of Thomas and chums some eighty years before.
When we landed a rare window table we were minded to settle in until closing but reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from this very special institution. Like Dylan Thomas, we are an uncommon cocktail of self-indulgence and sacrifice. For all the fun, there must be equal parts work. Also, we were going to another pub.
We tottered back over to Holborn and caught the 68 south to Herne Hill, where the Half Moon awaited us, looking splendid in the evening sun. It is a handsome pub, inside and out, as Thomas would have known, because he was a regular.
Thomas would come to Herne Hill to watch London Welsh, who at the time played their rugby at Herne Hill Velodrome. Local overlords, the Dulwich Estate, wouldn’t allow alcohol on the premises so the team and supporters adopted the Half Moon as their clubhouse. Thomas, as we might expect, was a vocal contributing member of this throng. His friend, Evan Samuel, a sculptor, recalled him adding great ‘lustre’ to the occasions, and it’s not hard to imagine Thomas holding court in the little back snug or waving his cock around at the bar.
Across the junction from the Half Moon, as locals will know, lies Milkwood Road. Some years back, Thomas expert, Jon Tregenna, wondered if Dylan had known this when he named his famous play. Or rather, re-named it. The original title of Under Milk Wood had been Llareggub – which looked Welsh but was actually ‘Bugger all’ backwards, and which his agent deemed to tricksy for American audiences.
‘How about Under Milk Wood?’ Thomas is said to have responded, while on a bus over Waterloo Bridge, perhaps the 68, and the play was renamed on the spot, it’s derivation mystifying Thomas devotees for decades.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable that as a Half Moon regular, Thomas may have known of Milkwood Road and recycled it for his play. But then Tregenna made a further discovery: Dylan Thomas had actually lodged on Milkwood Road itself. And the link, as well as Thomas’ connection to South London, was surely cemented.
The Half Moon, you may recall, is the pub that had its barred list go viral a few years back, a list of people not welcome through its portals that had been compiled by a former bar manager. It featured such pub characters as One-armed Keith, Mickey Two Suits, Staring Pervert and Ginger Drunk Twat Called Angus. I like to think that if Thomas had still been around, he would have known and befriended them all. And they in turn, I’m certain, would have loved him.
A party-starter, a crowd-lover, a force of nature on a mission to make life interesting. He lived his life as a reminder to get on and enjoy yourself, before you burst. A lover of people and a man who knew that, ‘We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood’.
It’s fashionable now to gloss over his excesses and focus instead on the poetry, to reclaim the literature. I’m not so ready. The poetry is tremendous, and Under Milk Wood in particular is a work of genius, but if you overlook the character of Thomas himself, you start to unravel the legend, and why do that? The legend is part of the art.
Yes, he drank a lot. Probably too much. But so what? As he himself pointed out, an alcoholic is just someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.
Back on our Dylan tour, closing time was rapidly approaching at the Half Moon.
‘Fancy one over the road?’ said Half-life. ‘I know a place that’s open late.’
‘I think it’s what he would have wanted,’ I said. And we drank a final toast to the great man and went off, raging, into the good night.
This is a version of a talk given at the Half Moon, Herne Hill, for International Dylan Day, 2019. With thanks to Peter Blair, Fullers and the Half Moon
More on Dylan Thomas in our podcast:
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