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Making sense of Dylan Thomas: Hannah Ellis's tips on how to read her grandfather's words

By MarkRees  |  Posted: May 17, 2014

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If you’ve always wanted to read more of Dylan Thomas’s words but felt intimidated by the language, you are far from alone. But, as his granddaughter Hannah Ellis tells MARK REES, the books were always intended for the man on the street, and she has some reading tips for Dylan novices...

HAVE you always wanted to read the great works of Dylan Thomas, but the very thought of picking up a book of poetry causes you to hyperventilate, break into a cold sweat and run for the hills?

Fear not – you are far from alone.

In fact, as Hannah Ellis — Dylan’s own granddaughter — points out, even she was once daunted by the prospect of tackling the scribe’s words herself.

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“That’s the strange thing, everyone assumed I was like him, but I wasn’t. I thought to myself — what if I don’t like it?” she asked before attempting to tackle his back catalogue.

But as she explains, Dylan’s words were always intended for the man-on-the-street, and the real shame would be if they became the preserve of the literary elite.

“My grandfather was always frustrated that the people he was writing for weren’t necessarily the people reading it,” says Hannah.

“He hated being in gangs of academics, and he acted the way he did at times because he didn’t know how to fit in. That line in Under Milk Wood, ‘I wish you were not so educated’ – that’s the point. He felt at home in places like Laugharne, or down Wind Street in the No Sign Wine Bar, not with scholars.”

And having read — and loved — the words, Hannah now has a few tips and tricks for any first-timers who might be a little apprehensive of tackling the bard’s books.

“It’s not about sitting down and reading a bunch of poems. Start with the stories – not the poetry,” is her first piece of advice.

“The Outing, Holiday Memory, or something autobiographical like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, are all good starting points. And if you can get them, listen to the broadcasts.”

After getting a taste for the prose, next tackle the poetry, starting with some of the more iconic pieces.

“Work your way up to the poems, reading a few lines to begin with. Bit by bit, get into it slowly – that’s what I did, with the more popular poems like Do Not Go Gentle and Fern Hill.”

And of course, then there’s the masterpiece itself – the play for voices.

“I got into Under Milk Wood by looking at the different layers. There’s a lot of double meaning to it, a lot of humour, and a lot of characters.”

As such, Hannah recommends reading the work over a few times, and from different angles each time — first, to get a feel for the piece; and then to appreciate the humour, the huge array of colourful characters, and the uniquely Welsh texture to the words.

In fact, Hannah is particularly keen to promote reading the works in snippets, and is more than happy to see the words used in all manner of ways, noting its use by the national rugby team recently and, as I point out to her, Swansea City’s use of the bard’s words to launch this season’s Premier League campaign.

“That’s good to hear!” says Hannah of the Swans’ use of #donotgogentleswans.

“When you look at individual pieces, like Do Not Go Gentle, people might ask ‘where did that come from’? Even if it is about blindness, it gets people interested.”

And that really is two of the key aims of the 2014 Dylan Thomas centenary festival — to get people reading the great man’s words, and for the Welsh public to embrace possibly their most famous export.

“I sometime get cross,” says Hannah of the public’s reluctance to blow their own trumpets.

“People like my dad, for example, who is a stereotypical Welsh man, but is too scared to celebrate Wales. I’ve got it myself in a way — you don’t want to be boastful. But this is someone who became famous in his own lifetime; we should really celebrate it.

“The work is amazing, it’s so Welsh, so musical; we should use the name to celebrate all of the music, the arts, and the culture of Wales.”

Which is something that Hannah believes is already happening as a result of this year’s celebrations.

“Wales as a whole has come together,” she says.

“People who wouldn’t normally work together — the Arts Council, Literature Wales, the Welsh Government, the BBC — are all working together, and I hope it can continue. Smaller community events can also create a lasting legacy. I know Uplands has a lot of events lined up.”

Another way in which Dylan has been remembered in what would have been his 100th year is in a series of BBC specials, one of which saw Hannah return to Laugharne to retrace her grandparents, along with her mother Aeronwy’s, footsteps, for an episode of Dylan’s Walks.

“My mam wrote a book called My Father’s Places, about the places they’d gone together,” she explains of the idea behind the walk.

“It was a real journey of discovery. I had this déjà vu feeling; these places were very familiar to me, places I’d been with my mother and grandmother.

“We went to places like the Boat House, the graveyard and the writing shack, which was only the second time I’d been in there as it’s usually locked.”

While one experience in particular had a lasting effect on Hannah.

“I was in the Boat House — in my mam’s old bedroom — and they shut the door. Usually, it’s left open and it feels like a museum, but for the first time it felt like a bedroom. It was surreal.”

Another highpoint was the view from the Boat House, which Hannah says is a must-see for anyone with an interest in her grandfather.

“That’s all you really need to see to understand what inspired him — the view. To sit there, hear the sounds, and smell the smells,” she says of the tranquil estuary on which the Boat House rests.

“The water which my grandfather, grandmother and mam would have travelled across by boat to Llansteffan.”

Although Hannah does concede that, as serene as the Boat House might seem, it wasn’t always happy times there for the Thomas’s.

“It’s the two extremes — it can be very sunny, and then suddenly the rain arrives.

“At one point it must have been idyllic; I know my grandmother used to sunbathe out the back. But just imagine how difficult it must have been there in the winter, 60 years ago, with no food and with children to look after.”

Looking to the future, Hannah now hopes that those unfamiliar with her grandfather will take the opportunity to read his work, walk in his footsteps, and look a bit deeper than his stereotypical public persona as a womanising drunk.

“People know the legend, but they don’t know the other side of him. He was completely different to the legend.”

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