Sunday, October 01, 2017

`Without Moving or Speaking'

What a curse: to be inadvertently funny without trying, all the while remaining oblivious to the amusement you are providing others. If polite and highly disciplined, they stifle their laughter, releasing it only after safely fleeing the scene. I don’t mean cheap laughs at the expense of idiots. I mean laughing at intelligent, reasonably civilized people who live in bubbles of delusion. In The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas (Aurum, 2006), Byron Rogers reports many such episodes from the life of the phenomenally self-obsessed Welsh poet-priest. Rogers shares an anecdote recorded by Thomas’ wife, the painter Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge Thomas:

“At breakfast on my birthday he said, `August 1st is a very special day.’ While I was trying to work out why being 78 should be so very special, he continued, `August 1st is the first day of three months’ glorious bird-watching!!’”

This is the stuff of sit-coms. Rogers recounts the time he was invited to dinner by Thomas. The poet, his wife and their visitor were each served a solitary baked potato. Rogers writes: “I was uneasy from the start, eyeing the potato like an unexploded bomb, for I didn’t know whether he would suddenly say grace, he was a vicar after all. But he didn’t, he never did. And then the silence fell.” Roger was seventeen years old and “not used to silence, the Welsh are not.” To relieve his nervousness, Rogers talked endlessly: “I told anecdotes, I tried to think of the odd joke, I even, oh dear, tried to be intelligent.” He became aware that Thomas was staring at him “with an expression halfway between curiosity and amusement. Mrs. Thomas did not look up from her potato.”

When Gwydion Thomas, the son of the poet, was studying at Oxford, he was an actor and attracted the attention of the Welsh-born movie star Richard  Burton, who expressed a desire to meet his father. The story, as recalled by the son, is worthy of Ionesco:

“Present were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald [the “R.” of “R.S.”] and Elsi Thomas, and Gwydion and his girlfriend at the time. `It was extraordinary. My mother never looked up from her plate once, Richard Burton spent the whole meal trying to chat up my girlfriend, and, during a lull in the conversation, I heard my father say, `And have you tried plaice?’ He was talking about flatfish to Elizabeth Taylor.”

Rogers reproduces a comment about Thomas from a letter Philip Larkin wrote to Robert Conquest in 1962: “Our friend Arsewipe Thomas suddenly was led into my room one afternoon last week, and stood there without moving or speaking . . .”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"The Man Who Went into the West" is a very good and very funny book, partly because Rogers is such a perceptive and witty writer, and partly because Thomas was aware of how odd he seemed to others and simply didn't care. He could also be intentionally amusing. In the book, on page 244, one man who spent a few days birdwatching with Thomas says: "I remember laughing a lot myself during those three or four days. I've met three funny men in my life. One was Lenny Bruce, one was Ken Dodd. The third was R.S. Thomas."

George T