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A Deeply Flawed Man
on 24 May 2013
Aeronwy Thomas's memoir may be called My Father's Places, but Dylan Thomas is the book's peripheral figure. There can be no doubt, however, that when he does appear, dishevelled and drunk, it's usually in the guise of an unsuitable parent. And Caitlin is much the same. What is surprising, though, is just how forgiving Aeronwy is. Many neglected children would seize the chance to reopen old psychological scars, but she thankfully resists the urge. Instead, we get a candid account of her parents' marriage, a tempestuous union remarkable for its longevity.
The bulk of the book focuses on the Boat House, the idyllic dwelling funded by the poet's patron, Margaret Taylor. Despite Thomas writing some of his finest poetry at this time, his daughter contrastingly evokes the family's slide into poverty and disintegration. Nevertheless, at times, her retelling veers into nostalgia. Most readers will only want to hear about her father, and it's no surprise that the narrative perks up when he shuffles out of the margins and into the book's centre. For the rest, it seems her reflections are for an audience of one: Aeronwy Thomas.
And who can blame her? A fondness for introspection was always going to be the likely outcome. Left to her own devices, she could be 'passed on the street without [her father] recognizing' her, while her parents, going out boozing, would leave her alone 'every night, at six years old, to look after Colm' (her younger brother). In amongst such tales, there is one despicable revelation. At only a few months old, Aeronwy would be 'left alone at 7 p.m. sharp' as her parents went off carousing, therefore leaving their newborn to 'the cold, the falling plaster, the rain from the glass roof, and the bombs' of the Blitz. Such passages leave the reader speechless.
Throughout the book, Aeronwy yearns for closeness with her father. The bond surfaces when the pair read The Wind in the Willows and then promptly disappears. So: an inevitable question arises: did Thomas love his children? Yes, it would seem so, although it's clear they were something of a burden to him, both emotionally and financially. Does he deserve his daughter's idolatrous memoir? Not really. If anything, the poet comes across as a deeply flawed man and wildly inept father, and while there may have been a sporadic perfection in his work, it came at some cost to those around him.