The writer's life

23 June 2014

Dylan Thomas lived in New Quay, Wales, for a year during the Second World War before he settled in the Boathouse in Laugharne. Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, whose poetry collection Banjo was published by Picador in 2012, has spent the past month as writer in residence at Dylan Thomas's writing shed.

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Between gaps in the floorboards I can see tendrils reaching up the cliff. I am sitting in Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne and it’s the first week of my month-long residency. During the month, my time is to be divided equally between producing new poems, running workshops and creating an audio archive of memories of Dylan Thomas in both New Quay and Laugharne, as a way of building a link between the two West Walian seaside towns. Dylan lived in New Quay for a year during the Second World War before he settled in the Boathouse in Laugharne and, after interviewing several elderly residents in both towns, it seems that the characters in Under Milk Wood were inspired as much by those of New Quay as of Laugharne.

For years as a teenager my face would be pressed up against the small pane of Dylan’s writing shed, a former garage built by a previous owner, Dr Cowan, for his green Wolsey. Now that I am the other side of the glass I start to feel daunted not only by the curled photographs of Edward Thomas, Marianne Moore and D. H. Lawrence watching over me and by the expectations of my child self with her nose squashed up against the window in the shed door, but by something else: the lines of light between the floorboards remind me that barely a board’s width separates my feet from the four cast iron stilts that keep the shed from the estuary swirling below. It’s a reminder of how precarious the writer’s life is.

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch in Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch in Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne

Not only are writers constantly balancing the demands of family and freelance work with writing, but when they do actually find a place in which to write, they need to balance ideas, music and language to enable a poem to walk by itself. I used to own a pair of stilts and once I had mastered the art of taking on these extra legs, I learnt how to adapt to my new height in order to reach the other side of the room without falling. The poem too is a lilting, tilting thing, whose pace and rhythm must contain the right balance of elements to carry the reader to its final line. Most of this work is done in solitude, away from the public gaze. These are some of the ideas that I have been exploring during my workshops at the Boathouse as well as in discussions with visitors who have joined me to write in the garden and admire the view.

Dylan would regularly cross the River Tâf over to Llansteffan with the boatman, Booda, whose family lived in Ferry House just beyond the Boathouse. Booda was deaf and dumb. For some minutes each week then, this mute man and the man of booming voice would face each other in a small boat.

The estuary at Laugharne taken from the path to the Boathouse
The estuary at Laugharne taken from the path to the Boathouse

Now that I am looking out through the windows of Dylan’s writing shed I am distracted by the water. At home I have a tiny two-room clapboard shed tacked onto the back of the house where I Iive in New Quay. It looks out onto a magnolia tree in the centre of a teeny lawn. Not that I can see much of either because there’s an ancient drainpipe in the way, whose every scratch I am familiar with. I could write at the front of my house but then I would see everything that is going on in the bay below: fishermen, swimmers, yachts. I am not someone who can write with a view. I have such a vast internal landscape with its meadows and dressers, castanets and begonias, stretching vertically and horizontally through time and China, calligraphy and sweet peas, populated by the living and the dead that if I am distracted by fabulous views my writing pace will slow down.

When Dylan Thomas started writing at home in his bedroom in 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, he looked out onto a brick wall. One advantage of not seeing the view is that you cannot be seen. I value invisibility. Here in Dylan’s writing shed I am trying out the mantle of visibility: I can be seen by all who pass by en route to the Boathouse. I hear them exclaim to one another: There’s a real live poet writing in that shed. And it’s a woman.

Writing in the garden of Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne
Writing in the garden of Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne

If it weren’t for a woman I wouldn’t be writing here at all. Margaret Taylor bought the Boathouse for Dylan in 1949 to have peace and space to write. Dylan is clear how grateful he is to her in a letter he sent shortly after moving in: “All I write in this water and tree room on the cliff, every word will be a thanks to you”. We would do well to remember Margaret Taylor’s part in Dylan’s legacy. Without her, neither of these iconic buildings would be here for us today. For my part, I am grateful to another woman, Eleri Retallick, Principal Arts Officer for Camarthenshire County Council, for inviting me to spend this month as poet in residence in Laugharne: not only have I been able to reflect on views and visibility but also to write about them and to share those reflections with visitors to this magical place.

Photographs © Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch / The Boathouse

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