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Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Tracing Dylan Thomas’s steps to his favourite watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, New York.

I am in literary legend land in downtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Greenwich village, New York’s answer to the Parisian Left Bank as a home to poets, playwrights and novelists. The village became famous as the stomping ground of figures like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas and, in an earlier generation, of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe to name only a handful. It was in its bars, cafes and speakeasies that they created, fought, argued and got drunk.

The iconic Chelsea Hotel is easily recognised from its red brick walls and wrought iron staircases and balconies. I have written about this heady hangout in these columns before so suffice it to say now that the old lady has closed its lobby to the public at least for a while. Starry-eyed literary fans will not be able to go in and imagine that they heard the strumming of a moody guitar, the declaiming of Benzedrine-inspired verse or the crashing of a bottle against a wall. They can at best stand on the sidewalk under the scaffolding and look at the various plaques that are fixed outside the hotel in memory of some of its most famous residents, including Arthur Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Leonard Cohen, Arthur C. Clarke. But the one that catches and holds the eye is the one about the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. It is simple but hugely evocative: “Dylan Thomas lived and wrote at the Chelsea hotel and from here he sailed out to die.”

Light breaks where no sun shines;/here no sea runs, the waters of the heart/Push in their tides;... I have surreptitiously lifted these lines from one of Thomas’s poems to use as an epigraph for my upcoming collection of short stories. They serve my purpose well, succinctly capturing the mysterious nature of the human heart. I feel I owe him one and there seems no better way of returning the favour than by following the path down which he sailed out to die.

So late that night, with only a few wispy clouds escorting a three-quarter moon over the Manhattan sky, I trace Dylan Thomas’s steps as he walks to his favourite watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, that claims its birth in 1880. It was not only his favourite hangout. Writers like Anais Nin, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Kerouac draped themselves around the bar often enough and it is said that the drunk Kerouac was bounced out of the tavern on many occasions. In fact, he mentions in his novel Desolation Angels that he found the words “Go home, Kerouac” scribbled in the toilet there. But it is Dylan Thomas who has claimed this tavern as his own, referring to it lovingly as “The Horse”, enamoured no doubt by its British pub atmosphere reminiscent of home.

The cafe occupies a prominent corner, standing out with its old-fashioned tin roof and white horses emblazoned across several signs. Joyous groups crowd the tables under an ornate false ceiling, which contrasts with the tables and floors of unpolished rough wood. Dylan Thomas memorabilia is strewn all around in the form of brass plaques, quotations, sketches. A spectral legend seems to drift in and out of conversations and then proceeds to stand at the bar, resting its chin on one elbow: did Dylan Thomas really come here, drink 18 straight whiskies and simply die, it seems to mockingly ask the crowd.

I confront the waitress with the plummy London accent with the question. With practiced ease she sits down across the table and relates in a tone that is honest and straightforward: “You will find as many stories as narrators,” she says. “Some say 18 whiskies others say 12, but I think it was 12.” I dig for more details. What was the whisky he drank? “Jamesons,” she replies promptly. That’s a detail that I have never come across in various versions of the tale.

It was 1953 and Dylan Thomas was on his fourth tour of America under the guidance of his agent John Brinnin. He was at the height of his powers as well as his popularity, conducting well-attended readings and selling as much if not more than T.S. Elliot. He was also holding rehearsals for his play Under Milk Wood, which would later star Richard Burton and be highly acclaimed. But he was also seriously ill, with the New York smog exacerbating his chest condition; his excessive drinking and smoking hardly helped matters. One night he inexplicably left his American mistress Liz Reteill in the Chelsea at two in the morning and walked out towards The White Horse. Over two hours there he downed several large whiskies, and we will let the historians continue to quibble whether it was 18 or 12. Suffice it to say that the number was large and beyond a point it really doesn’t matter. He then returned to the hotel where he is said to have boasted to Liz “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.”

The next afternoon he and Liz returned to the tavern where he ordered the hair of the dog to help him tide over his inevitable hangover. It was only when he returned to the hotel that he took to the bed. His condition worsened and by the time he was moved to St. Vincent’s hospital he was comatose. His wife, Caitlin, arrived a couple of days later; understandably, her first question to his agent was: “Well is the bloody man dead yet?”

A few days later he was indeed dead, probably not from the impact of the Jamesons alone but also his underlying condition; pneumonia, pressure on the brain and a fatty liver was the official diagnosis, but medical negligence was also rumoured. It was the whisky story, however, that stuck, in keeping as it was with Thomas’s image of a ‘doomed poet’.

He was only 39 and he certainly went on his way with a flourish, following his own advice that he had fashioned for his dying father in his best known lines: Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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