Hannah Ellis never met her grandfather. Dylan Thomas died in 1953 when his daughter, Hannah’s mother Aeronwy, was just 10 years old, and so Hannah has had to get to know her grandfather Dylan Thomas through his writing, through the biographies and memoirs, and through the recollections of others. This voyage of discovery through her grandfather’s life began relatively recently and has been an important preparation for her role as patron of the Dylan Thomas Centenary. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Thomas’s birth and has seen a huge number of events organized across Wales, around the UK, in New York, Australia, and beyond. As patron Hannah Ellis has attended countless events during the year, she’s edited a collection of essays about her grandfather, and made numerous appearances on radio and television. She’s made it her aim to ensure that her grandfather’s work is not overshadowed by the myths and truths of his life story, and she’s passionate about the potential to harness her grandfather’s work to inspire creativity in young people.
Hannah talks to us about her discovery of her grandfather’s work, her new book, her thoughts on the Centenary and her own literary aspirations.
AD Can you describe the journey you’ve been on with your grandfather’s work?
HE It’s a journey that started about 5 years ago when my mum died. She died on July 27th 2009 and then about 3 weeks later my little boy Charlie was born, and because mum asked for her ashes to be scattered at the boathouse in Laugharne I started visiting Wales much more. I was on maternity leave and so wasn’t teaching at the time, and I was back and forth to the Boathouse where I felt closest to mum and I started realising that the centenary was coming up and I felt they needed a family representative and that it was going to be me. I also realised that I didn’t know an awful lot about my grandfather or his work, so the journey began then really. I started reading his stories, things like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and some of the early surreal ones and then the broadcasts ; I watched Under Milk Wood again and started looking more and more into the poetry. I’ve delved in bit-by-bit to the point where I think I’ve read most of the work, there’s a few bits and pieces I’ve still got to read, a bit more into the letters perhaps. It’s been a journey of positive discovery because I’ve realised I like the work and that was my concern, I thought I might read it and think oh gosh it’s too difficult for me. But I’ve discovered I really do like it, and through reading the work I’ve discovered just how much Dylan Thomas liked Wales because it’s just full of positive responses and I’d always been led to believe that he didn’t like Wales, so it was a pleasant surprise.
AD You’ve edited a new collection of essays to celebrate your grandfather’s centenary, can you explain the background behind the book and what the editorial process has been like?
HE The publishers Bloomsbury contacted me in 2012 ; they knew the centenary was coming up and they’d done a similar collection for Benjamin Britten’s centenary and I think they’d found a style they liked, a collection of essays linked to a centenary. I didn’t want it to be an academic book, I wanted it to be a book that everyone could get something from. So I started contacting the people I knew who were experts on Dylan Thomas and they were all really keen ; I started speaking to people like Jimmy Carter’s agent, Michael Sheen and Philip Pullman, and they were all really quite keen to contribute and to explain how my grandfather had influenced them. I’ve found that often when people have discovered Dylan Thomas they just sort of fall in love with him and with his words, and because the legacy of the centenary is so important, this makes the Legacy section of the book a key section for me.
AD What were your hopes and expectations for the centenary year?
HE Right at the beginning of my journey I spoke to the Dylan Thomas Society and that was really helpful as I had to create a little talk and it allowed me to think about what I wanted from the centenary and to give myself some objectives. One of them was to get the places associated with my grandfather recognised. I’d been to Laugharne and seen that it was really struggling, there’d been such wet summers and the tourism industry really had been battered. It is so beautiful and hidden away and I wanted to use my grandfather’s name to help Laugharne and the other places he was associated with like New Quay, Gower, and Swansea, which I have such happy memories of from when I was a child.
Education is a really important thing for me as well. I’m very aware that people my age and younger often aren’t aware who Dylan Thomas is, even in Wales they don’t necessarily know who he is, and because I love teaching in a creative way I can really see the potential of using my grandfather’s work to bring some creativity back into education. Another hope is to get Dylan Thomas further into the digital world by getting his work onto the kindle and by developing apps and stronger websites.
But perhaps the most important thing was to bring the focus back to his work and to have a cross-curricular look at the arts and see how we could bring his words into music, drama and art. The arts and my grandfather’s writing fit just so beautifully together.
AD How do you think we’ve done in celebrating the centenary? Have we lived up to your expectations?
HE Yes definitely, Wales has just been brilliant ; they’ve embraced it and celebrated it. I was initially concerned about getting the message out of Wales, concerned that in some ways there might be a feeling that everything was happening in Wales and people would think there was too much, and that outside of Wales they wouldn’t know about the Centenary. I think that still is a slight concern of mine, but there are events happening in London, in New York and Australia, and there’s the British Council work. We just need to make sure that events in Wales are promoted outside of Wales. But the Centenary is being funded by the Welsh Arts Council and by the Welsh Government and they have to explain if they’re putting funding into events in London and elsewhere ; they have to justify it and it can be difficult to show an immediate impact. Somebody might see something and then visit Wales a few years later, but that reaction isn’t always easy to measure. But the events have been just brilliant, all sorts of events across the board that have been fun and creative, and risks have been taken and I like that.
AD Have the centenary celebrations changed your views of your grandfather or his work in any way?
HE I still very much want to bring the focus back to my grandfather’s writing, that’s a thing I’m going to bang on about all the time. I was so cross, and I still am at times, that there are all these myths and there’s so much said about Dylan Thomas that’s just not true ; there’s just no evidence for it and stories have been exaggerated. Stories about the way he died, the 18 straight whiskies for example, which has been thrown out of the window and is not true at all. But I’ve discovered that even if people know that these things aren’t true, they want them to be true. Everyone has an idea of what Dylan Thomas is to them and I don’t necessarily want to take that away, but I do want the truth to come out so it’s a really about getting the balance right and it’s very tricky. I think I’m a little more relaxed now, but I’ll always be consistent, and always bring the focus back to the work and say what I think the true facts are ; but I’m not necessarily going to give someone a hard time if Dylan Thomas is a certain way to them.
AD There have been various films made this year, is it difficult to see your grandparents portrayed on screen?
HE It is difficult to watch because they always want to focus on the last month or so of my grandfather’s life and it’s very difficult because I know what’s going to happen ; he’s going to die and I know the consequences of that to my family. I know how it impacted on my mother and my uncles, so that’s always difficult to watch. My hope with something like A Poet In New York is that people don’t judge, they see certain things and they might think okay he may have done that, but why was he doing that? I always like to find reasons, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my grandfather; I think if he was absolutely exhausted and at the end of his tether he may have behaved in a certain way and I can perhaps understand why a bit more. A bit more understanding and less judgment. My grandmother had a tough time as well. Someone told me she attempted suicide three times in nine days just before she signed away the copyright, so I don’t know if she was in any state to do anything at that point, and I desperately wanted someone to be there to help her rather than condemn her. I think my protective side comes out when I watch these things.
AD Does it feel like you’re watching family members or are they disconnected characters?
HE I have to disconnect myself when I watch because if I didn’t I’d get very upset. To many people Dylan Thomas isn’t a real person, he’s a character and they talk to me as if he’s a character in a book and sometimes that’s upsetting. People make comments and I think this isn’t just a random character, it’s a family member, so that can be difficult, and I do have to try and disconnect myself. But I can watch it with some understanding that other people wouldn’t have. So for example if I watch or hear stories about my grandfather, I see his children. I see his son Colm in particular who was very much like him and I think if Colm was in that situation he would be exactly the same. You hear stories about my grandfather being quite charming and friendly and I think yes that was just what Colm was like, but if you make him feel stupid, which is how my grandfather sometimes felt in academic circles, he might make a comment which was perhaps not appropriate. But I think I can understand, I feel I’ve got a connection with my grandparents that other people couldn’t have because they don’t know the family. Even watching my own son, he’s bright and creative, but he’s currently scared of looking in the mirror or anything that has a reflection because he’s been having nightmares about his reflection jumping out at him, so when I hear stories about my grandfather not quite fitting in at school or being disengaged I think of my son as well. There’s a connection that other people just can’t have because they don’t know the people.
AD Your mum Aeronwy was a very powerful ambassador for your grandfather’s work and was very protective of his legacy, is that a role that you see yourself fulfilling now?
HE Yes I think so but I’m going to do it differently. My mum was a performer, she was incredibly good at performing her father’s work and I don’t mind doing that to a certain extent ; I don’t mind talking and reading and being the spokesperson but I do a lot in the background. I like to speak to people and help them link things up ; there’s so many people who want to do things and be involved and I’m very aware that I can’t do it all on my own. Somebody described me as a facilitator and I thought that was quite a good description. I can’t do it all myself, but I might know people who are able to help me and work with me. The thing I’ve found hardest this year is doing it by myself without a support network and team with me ; so I think I’d like to create a team and work to move things forward.
AD So this year been a challenge for you and your family with all the events you’ve needed to attend and all the calls upon your time?
HE It has been a challenge because I live in a different country and we moved house away from family and had to find child-care and work all that out. A lot of the events are at weekends so I’ve had to fit my family around things. I’m really conscious that this is going to be my first free weekend in four, I’ve had three out of four weekends where I’ve been doing things and two of those were in Wales and the other in London and I’m just exhausted and really looking forward to having a Saturday where we do absolutely nothing. I can’t wait. Financially it’s been quite tough as well with all the traveling back and forth. So it has been a challenge but I really don’t want to grumble about it, people have wanted to celebrate my grandfather’s work and have a big celebration and that’s such a positive development. I’m more lucky than anything.
AD And what are your hopes for your grandfather’s legacy beyond the centenary?
HE I see the centenary as a start. Some people say “right the festival’s done, it’s over and done with, it’s gone very well we’re really pleased and we never imagined it would be like this”. This is what people have said to me and I don’t think they realised quite the impact it could have when all the different agencies work together and make things happen. The Arts Council of Wales have worked with the tourism bodies and with the different Councils, and that has just been amazing to see. Groups that have never worked together before, certainly on a big project like this, have come together and created something great. So one legacy is something like the plans for the Roald Dahl centenary, with all the agencies working together. And there’s been some really great things like Theatr Iolo turning Adventures in the Skin Trade into a play, the productions of Under Milk Wood, the Developing Dylan educational programme and a lot of other really positive things that have happened. We can take the best of these forward and maybe link the Dylan Thomas prize with the children’s prizes and continue to bring attention to Wales and the places connected to my grandfather.
AD You’ve said in the past that you’d like to write children’s books. Do you have plans to develop your creative side?
HE Without a doubt. This is something my husband has insisted upon, that once this year calms down a bit I should sit down and start writing. I haven’t got stories but I’ve got quite a few characters and I think they’re going to be called something like the Magnificent Misfits. Misfits is often a negative term but magnificent is a positive one, and they’re characters that don’t fit in but there’s something really rather wonderful about them. What I’ve noticed about stories like the Mr Men stories is that authors can sometimes be a bit judgmental, for example insisting that someone like Mr Greedy has to slim down to fit into the society around him. If I was writing Mr Greedy he’d be one of my Magnificent Misfits and he’d perhaps lose a bit of weight to avoid diabetes but he would probably just stay as he is and feel comfortable about the way he is. It’s the feeling of having to fit in. Perhaps that’s something I’ve picked up from the centenary, that my grandfather never quite fitted in and it’s made me want to create some fun characters who are a bit on the outside but fit in when they find their right place. I might have a vegan lion who doesn’t fit in with his blood thirsty relatives or a dragon who doesn’t like to breath fire because he has to eat spicy food and he suffers from terrible acid indigestion. I’ve got lots of different ideas. My son is loving learning to read and I’ve been bringing some of the letters and words to life for him; they’ve got different characters and they jump in between other words or they might have names and so on, and I might use this to put together some reading strategies. I’m not necessarily looking to publish anything, I’m just looking to write them down and have them on paper rather than in my head.
AD Are there pieces of your grandfather’s work that have particularly inspired you to pick up a pen?
HE I think something like Return Journey really struck home with me. I imagine the period my grandfather was living in ; born at the beginning of one war and living through another war, the changing roles of women, the rise of fascism, the holocaust, and the prospect of a nuclear war. In Return Journey he comes back to his hometown and it’s gone, it’s obliterated, and the way he describes what he saw it struck me that he’s looking for himself, looking for that person he can’t seem to find. I think we’ve all had a time like that in our own lives when we’re a bit lost. When my mum died and I’d just had my son and I wasn’t teaching, I was a bit lost, and that made me realise that there are experiences that I can write about as well. I sometimes think that writers aren’t necessarily human, that they’re something slightly different, but it made me realise that my grandfather was a human being as well.
Hannah Ellis talked to Andrew Dally, November 2014