Books: The Men Who Put Dylan Thomas on the Wireless; Dylan the Bard . by Andrew Sinclair (Constable, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Michael Emery

Article excerpt

Long before Jeffrey Bernard was feeling unwell, the pubs of London's Soho had claimed other more talented victims, notably the poet Dylan Thomas.

The young Welshman died in New York's St Vincent's Hospital on November 9 1953 - he was only 39. According to the autopsy the cause of death was "insult to the brain", a phrase although meaningless in British and American parlance, resonates with a resounding clang for those of us familiar with the demon drink.

The story of how Thomas came to so tragic yet inevitable an end is revealed in Andrew Sinclair's Dylan The Bard. This is Sinclair's second attempt at his subject as he first published a biography of Thomas in 1975 that was welcomed by Thomas's widow Caitlin.

Sinclair evidently did not agree with Caitlin that he had delivered the "last words" and gives as his justification the considerable research by others during the intervening 25 years into the myth and legend that is Thomas, and crucially, his access to previously unpublished letters and photographs. It is, therefore, disappointing to report that this slim volume contains little that is new.

Indeed there is one glaring omission. Although acknowledging the importance Thomas's radio broadcasts had in establishing his reputation with the general public, no mention is made of the men responsible for his first broadcasts. They were the great broadcaster and war correspondent Wynford Vaughn Thomas and the man who became the voice of cricket, John Arlott. In a previous incarnation, shortly after the war, Arlott was a BBC radio producer who recognised the genius of Thomas not only as a poet but as a broadcaster, and gave him his first regular employment.

Some of these broadcasts , particularly the prose pieces of reminiscence became internationally famous. In Sinclair's opinion: "There was a magnificence and resonance in the voice of the man which reverberated in the memory". Thomas himself thought he sounded like a "second rate Charles Laughton."

Typically, Thomas nearly ruined his broadcasting career before it had begun. In 1937 Wynford Vaughn Thomas arranged that he do a broadcast of modern poems from his native Swansea for the Welsh Service. With only an hour to go before broadcasting, Thomas was found drunk in a London pub. He was dragged back to Broadcasting House where the cables from Swansea had to be reversed so that the broadcast could go out on time.

He further annoyed the BBC by reading poems by American poets which were still in copyright and for which the BBC had to pay fees they had not anticipated. Dylan's friends in Swansea were equally surprised for they had been expecting to take him out on the town after the broadcast. …