The past is not as past as we think it is.
1914 seems such a long time ago. A century. But a century is short. Some people born in 1914 are still alive.
Others born in 1914 were killed neither in the first world war nor the second. They were twentieth century people and although their stories ended, the trail's still warm.
Two 1914 babies were Dylan Thomas, the poet, and his Edinburgh friend Ruthven Todd, (also a poet). You’ll have heard of the first; maybe not the second. But Ruthven was an important person in the Dylan Thomas story. For a start, he was the first official biographer after Dylan’s spectacular demise in New York, though his account of the Welsh poet’s life and death was never completed.
To mark the centenary of the births of these two poet-friends, HappenStance has just published two prose pamphlets (http://www.happenstancepress.org/index.php/shop/category/49-dylan-thomas-centenary)
The first is a witty essay by Robert Minhinnick, another Welsh poet of note, about the advantages of dying in New York (for a poet). The other is by Ruthven Todd, largely rescued from his archive in the National Library of Scotland. He had a marvellously engaging style.
Human lives metamorphose into printed papers. It’s almost possible to forget they were real, especially Dylan, who carefully made sure he was larger than life even before he died. But yesterday I met Peter Main, Ruthven Todd’s biographer, in the flesh, in Edinburgh. We sat in a pub on Victoria Street and Peter told me the story of how he came to start writing about Ruthven – the book is not yet done, though it is promised for 2015. We toasted our dead friends. Peter downed a pint of Stewart’s No 3 for Ruthven and Dylan. I drank whisky and ginger for Caitlin.
It was Peter who supplied the picture of Ruthven, on the title page of his pamphlet, wearing the hat he was sporting when he first met Dylan with Geoffrey Grigson:
"Dylan, at this time, was short and slim, with lots of curly hair of a neutral brown, and when his full, but not yet blubbery, lips were parted, they disclosed irregular, slightly yellowed, but adequate teeth. A suggestion of the nineties still hung around him. A piece of silk was knotted below a would-be floppy collar, and he seemed to be trying to give the impression of a stunted Yeats. To be fair, I was wearing the broadest brimmed black hat Edinburgh could supply, and my own aim was to be Wyndham Lewis as The Enemy. Beside us, Geoffrey must have seemed anonymous."
So Ruthven Todd’s story is still unfolding. Peter, who is also a detective fiction buff, is on the case. If anyone can track Todd down in living detail, he is the man.
But that same day, I had had an email from poet Angela Kirby who noticed I’m to talk about Dylan and Ruthven at a Poetry in the Pumphouse event on June 22nd in Aldeburgh. She told me Ruthven (which is Gaelic in origin and pronounced Riven) was a friend of her sister, the late IM (Iris) Birtwistle, a poet, gallery owner and marvellous character in her own right. Ruthven’s sister Alison stayed in their family home in Lancashire for part of the war as a refugee from the bombing. He was a real person in their lives. Gordon Jarvie, whom I chatted to at StAnza only a week ago, also pursued his interest in Ruthven to the school annals at Fettes (he wrote about him in Duncan Glen's magazine Akros). And Christopher Todd, Ruthven's son, sent me an MP3 recording of Ruthven reading 'Laugharne Churchyard in 1954'.
So the past is really not as past as we think it is. We hand the memories and anecdotes and events from one person to another. Dylan Thomas died in 1953, four months after I was born. It’s a living thread. We're all characters in the story. There are lots of chapter endings, but the book itself is never done.