Literary Tourist in Wales
Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.
The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.
She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.
I caught up with her at Morgans hotel in Swansea, Thomas’s home town, to talk about poet and place. Listen here:
I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.
He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.
Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,
the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:
Unfortunately we couldn’t fit Gregynog Hall,
where the press’s books are printed, into our Welsh itinerary. So I decided
to fit the itinerary into the press by keeping an eye out for their books along the planned route.
First sighting was at the National Library in
Aberystwyth. People here were priming for a big Dylan Thomas exhibition scheduled to open the following June in the Gregynog Gallery. The space was filled with Dylan’s books and letters, a literary pub and a replica of the fictitious Under Milk Wood town of Llaregubb.
On the way out I managed a glimpse at this Gregynog title
on display, though oddly not for sale (they had been until recently apparently). Over a river, along a road, through a
dale, and we arrive at Tregynon for a night’s stay at The Talbot Hotel just in time to catch Rhiannon before she closed her shop. She specializes in rare Welsh gold, and jewellery design, and, as it turns out, the Gregynog Press. Well a few of them at least, you’ll find a display under glass in the back room, downstairs from a small Celtic jewellery museum.
Next morning, we headed for booktown central, Hay-on-Wye. Set in gorgeous, lush hilly countryside, this picturesque village is as thrilling as it gets for bibliophiles – especially during the Hay Festival in June. To get there we had to drive through some truly spectacular mountain terrain.
I’ve never seen such colours. This little splash of yellow
reminded me of those dead white patches you sometimes see on otherwise full, dark heads of hair. And the vistas? Just as impressive as the grand canyon if you ask me.
We only had a few hours, so I made a bee-line to the Hay Cinema Bookshop, probably the biggest in town, where I found A Biographical Sketch of Francis J. Blight, a publisher’s history (collecting area alert) I didn’t have, and stopped (realizing that there was at least one Gregynog book I could easily justify purchasing) in on Francis Edwards (a dealer that shares space on the second floor) to see if they had the press’s bibliography. No, but perhaps Addyman’s.
Off down the road I strode. Again no, they didn’t have it either, but they did have some of the press’s other books. I had a look, and then moved on. Not however before a pleasant word with this lovely woman of the memorable
smile. I headed over to a favourite stop, The Poetry Bookshop, one of the few places in the world, the owner informed me, where you’re surrounded by nothing but poetry books, including this
handsome volume, second off the Gregynog press. He also had a more recent
effort, written by Wales’s national poet at the time, Gillian Clarke. A woman who, coincidentally, I’d interviewed several nights before. Listen here (dig the charming accent)
Though I didn’t get my bibliography and didn’t see a leek, I did gain a great feel for this lovely, deeply literary land, a good look too at some early, important books,
and a strong desire to learn more about Gregynog – one that should be met when I go to Minneapolis next month.
Turns out David Esslemont, the artist, printer and binder who ran the press from 1985-1998, lives today in Iowa, of all places, a short drive South of the city; so we’ve planned to get together for a conversation. Not sure if he’s a baritone. Please stay tuned to find out. [Update. Here’s our chat on all things Gregynog]:
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