Vernon Watkins: Poet's death marked with plays and events

By Huw Thomas
BBC Wales arts and media correspondent


The death of Welsh poet Vernon Watkins is being marked 50 years on with a series of plays and events.

Mr Watkins, who died in 1967, was born in Maesteg, Bridgend county, in 1906 and spent much of his life on Gower.

He was part of the Swansea-based Kardomah Boys gang of writers, artist and actors, alongside Dylan Thomas.

A short play written by Mr Watkins' wife Gwen, depicting his friendship with Thomas, will be shown at The Hyst, Swansea.

Mr Watkins died at the age of 61 while teaching poetry at a Seattle university.

Mrs Watkins, now 93, has written a short play based on real conversations between her husband, Thomas and other poets who used to meet regularly at the Kardomah Cafe in Swansea.

She said the play was written a while ago and uses stories Mr Watkins told her about his time with the Kardomah Boys.

"It's not really a play, it's a sort of conversation with myself about him," she said. "Really, it was to get my memories down on paper before they became too enmeshed with other memories."

Mr Watkins' ability to remember every detail of the conversations he held left his wife confident her script reflects reality.

Image caption,
Gwen Watkins worked at Bletchley Park, where she met her future husband

"Vernon had verbal memory. He once wrote [an entire conversation] down in the train and the companion who went with him said: 'It's verbatim, this hour-long conversation with Yeats.'

"He had it all down, with Yeats's little Irishisms and things. He had this extraordinary memory for words. And no memory at all for his belongings or appointments or anything like that!"

The couple put their mental capabilities to great use during World War Two, deciphering Axis messages at the Bletchley Park station in Buckinghamshire. They met there, working in the same section of the secret base.

"It was a year before we started going out together. But your section was very important to you. They were the only people you could really partially talk to about what was going on," said Mrs Watkins.

"Anybody from any other section - you could play tennis with them, you could go to dances with them, you could have all sorts of friendship - but you never, ever mentioned [your work] and nobody ever said what you were doing."

Media caption,
Mrs Watkins talks about how she met her future husband at Bletchley Park

In October 1944, they married in London at the Church of St Bartholomew the Great. The best man would have been Dylan Thomas, Mr Watkins' closest friend - but he missed the ceremony.

Mrs Watkins, who has frequently written about the friendship between the two poets, said she was "devastated" by Thomas's failure to appear.

"At the time he said that he had got into a taxi in good time to get to the Charing Cross Hotel for lunch before the wedding, but that he suddenly couldn't remember where it was. And he and the taxi drove all over London looking.

"He didn't forget it, he was just shy. He didn't want to meet strangers."

Mr Watkins was the calmer, more respectable poet to Thomas's wild, boorish bard - while the latter chased whiskey and women in Wales and the United States, the former worked as a bank clerk in Lloyds until his retirement at 60.

Image caption,
Dylan Thomas missed his good friend's wedding after claiming to get lost

It was steady pay alongside his good reputation as a poet. His publisher, TS Eliot, preferred Mr Watkins to Thomas because of his dedication to Christianity - subtle religious themes are prominent in many of his works.

Though he may appear overshadowed by Swansea's most famous cultural icon, Mrs Watkins thinks her husband would approve of his legacy half a century on.

"I should think he's forgotten by most people. But there's a core of people who like Christian poetry, or who are not Christians but who like Vernon's. If you like it, I find you love it.

"And there is this small - perhaps bigger than I know - group of people who are devoted to his poetry. Which is what I think he thought would happen.

"He said, 'I don't think I'm for everybody. I write for the people who feel as I do and believe as I do'."