Saturday 6 June 2015

1 Vernon Watkins

1. Morgan and Higgs (photos: Dylan, Vernon, Heatherslade plaque) - 6 June 2015

In these days of Kindle, television and the Internet, the specialist bookshop might not occupy such a vital position as it would have done in the 1930s for those seeking to widen their knowledge and further their interests.

Heathfield Road, now known as just Heathfield, runs off Mount Pleasant Hill.  There was also a Heathfield Street, which following post-war reconstruction is now part of the Kingsway.  It ran from the top of Union Street to the top of Portland Street, and contained at number 18 the premises of Morgan and Higgs, booksellers.  In more recent years Peters Bookshop was at a similar site – 47, The Kingsway.

In 1935 the Morgan and Higgs bookshop was regularly visited during his lunch hour by 28 year-old Vernon Watkins, who worked at the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank.  He had worked for the bank for ten years, though spending the first two at the branch in Butetown, Cardiff. 

One February Monday Vernon was amazed to see in the window of the bookshop a display of a new book called “18 Poems” which prominently claimed to be by A LOCAL POET.  He was unaware that there was anyone in Swansea other than himself writing poetry, so he went into the shop and looked at the volume, with no intention of buying it, before hurrying back to work.  Dylan Thomas’ first volume of poetry contained such poems as ‘Especially when the October wind’ and ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’: like a moth attracted to a flame Vernon was drawn back each lunchtime that week to read more of the poems.  Eventually on the Saturday afternoon (for banks were routinely open on Saturday mornings then), he purchased the book, before catching the Swan bus home to Pennard where he lived with his parents at Heatherslade (now a residential home), above Foxhole Bay. 

The Watkins family used to attend Paraclete Congregational Chapel in Newton when they lived at Redcliffe (now demolished) in Caswell.  Paraclete’s minister was Rev. David Rees, married to one of Dylan’s maternal aunts.  By 1935 he was retired, but a chance meeting enabled Vernon to obtain Dylan’s address.  When he called at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive he found that Dylan was away in London, but Vernon left his phone number with Mrs Florence Thomas.  Contact was established once Dylan returned to Swansea and the two poets met up, forming a friendship of mutual benefit.

Vernon encouraged Dylan to give titles to his poems, for those in “18 Poems” merely had numbers as with Mozart symphonies.  Equally Dylan encouraged Vernon to renounce his earlier decision not to have his poems published.  He had hitherto been content as a metaphysical poet to be unfashionable, with no expectation of public acclaim.

When Keidrych Rhys brought out a new magazine “Wales” in 1937, Dylan persuaded Vernon to let him send off two poems for inclusion.  He did not tell Vernon that he had altered two words in the poem “Griefs of the Sea”.  When Vernon received his copy of the new publication he was very angry at Dylan’s presumption.  He went into Morgan and Higgs and altered every copy back to what he had originally written, and did similarly at Swansea’s other major bookshop, W.H. Smith, then at 11 High Street.  One wonders what response members of staff received at either bookshop when seeking to dissuade Vernon, for the determined and indignant bank worker was not to be thwarted from his task!  After Vernon had made his feelings known to Dylan, cordial relations were subsequently re-established between the two poets.           
The Morgan and Higgs premises were among those destroyed by aerial bombardment during the war.                             

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