Somewhere in the world of writing there’s an academic study of the connection between writers and drink. Something which explains how great works rise from the sprawl of beer mats, the fog of talk and the slumping numbness of mind that alcohol induces. Why is it that the greatest minds of our generation can be those creased by fug and flattened by hangover? The poets whose verse only trips, sparks and rattles when powered by Brains or allowed to marinade in a sea of red wine.
The Dylan Thomas legend is something that follows Welsh writers everywhere. Sets us up in the minds of outsiders as alcoholic mumblers and Rabelaisian verse weavers content only to stumble from bar to boozer flashing the tropes and images of our musical poetry as we go. The problem with this myth, naturally, is that, for many, it’s actually the truth. Writers do spend time in bars, many of them, most of them even. A number have beaten the same path as Dylan. Loosing their manuscripts down the back of hotels’ plush upholstery, insulting barmaids in back bars and being forever long on hope and short on cash.
It’s almost always men too. Welsh writing is rich with male heroes who are golden at six but incoherent by ten. Some of the most respected among us have done their time sprawled in doorways and lying down quietly on front lawns. Are our women writers in this league just yet? Not quite, but coming soon.
Could this be a Welsh thing? Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scots poet, reckoned that his drinkers (and he was referring here to the morose boozers of Glasgow) preferred “the hard-bitten, the recalcitrant, the sarcastic, the saturnine, the cross-grained and the cankered” to the sort of confiding, intimate, ingratiating, hail-fellow-well-met drinkers found in the rest of the British Isles. By the rest of the British Isles he meant, I guess, the English. Although there is certainly an element of secret-society, intimate wahoo about the drinkers of Gwynedd and a quantity of all right skip have one with me about some of those found in Cardiff.
Welsh writers also love drink related causes. There is huge support for the establishment of a pub in the grounds of St Fagans. Someone has come up with a name – Tafarn yr Iorwerth Peate. But it isn’t there yet. The Save the Vulcan campaign, to keep the Victorian south of Cardiff Prison in shape for the twentieth first century is led by authors. John Williams, Charlotte Greig, Ifor Thomas, Des Barry, Sean Burke and others have consumed beer in quantity in pursuit of that cause (and have got a result too - which is a really unexpected bonus - The Vulcan goes on - for now).
And when there are campaigns to put poems in public places where do these new verses end up? On the back of beer mats. Where else?
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 25th July, 2009