Sunday, 7 September 2014

Ruthven Todd and Dylan Thomas

2014 marks the centenary (as if we didn't know it) of the birth of Dylan Thomas.

It's less well known that it also marks one hundred years since the birth of the Scottish poet Ruthven (pronounced 'Riven') Todd (1914-1978), who was not only a close friend of Dylan's for twenty years but was also commissioned to write the first Thomas biography, after the poet died prematurely in New York on 27 October 1954. That biography was never written but, thanks to an enterprising independent Scottish publisher, we now know why. 

At yesterday's Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Conway Hall, Holborn I met the poet and publisher Helena Nelson, founder of HappenStance Press. Their recent booklet The Ghost of Dylan Thomas is from an unpublished  manuscript unearthed by Helena in the Todd archives in the National Library of Scotland, and it's a wonderful discovery. Here's Todd in The Ghost of Dylan Thomas confessing to his growing uncertainty about the commission:

I started collecting material in both England and America, and soon began to realise I wasn't collecting material about the odd little Welshman I had known and liked; I was horribly involved in the creation of a mythology.

Ruthven Todd's great achievement is Tracks in the Snow, the best book ever written about William Blake. It was originally published by Grey Walls Press in 1948 and has (as far as I know) never been re-printed, although it certainly should be. It's a brilliant study of Blake and two other visionary artists: Henry Fuseli and John 'Mad' Martin. (The fascinating Grey Walls Press will certainly feature in a future blog. Run by a chap called Charles Wrey Gardiner from his home in Billericay, Essex, the Press published the first UK edition of The Great Gatsby.)

Todd is an interesting and accomplished 1940s poet, a brilliant Blake scholar and an intriguing literary figure, but largely forgotten. He is today best remembered for the popular 'Space Cat' series of children's' books he wrote in the 1950s after moving to New York. These are collectors' items, and you can see why:

You can order a copy of The Ghost of Dylan Thomas at It costs a ludicrously modest £3.60 and includes Todd’s wonderful poem commemorating the death of his friend, and an afterword by Peter Main. As I understand it Peter is working on a Todd biography, which I look forward very much to reading. May I suggest that the book should be launched in the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf Pub in Rathbone Street, Fitzrovia, where Dylan, Caitlin, Ruthven and a cohort of boozy bohemians used to congregate during the Blitz? This is the regular meeting place for a convivial bunch known as the Sohemian Society. You can find out more about them here.

Space Cat book cover ©  Charles Scribner's Sons, NY / The Estate of Ruthven Todd


  1. Michael A. Buscemi24 November 2015 at 19:26

    Dear David, Thank you for your comments about a man I knew in the spring of 1970 in the mountain village of Deya' Majorca. I was inexplicably seized with a memory of Ruthven about 2 weeks ago and had to go online to find out what I could. I came across Helena's Happenstance and wrote a comment. I have since been in touch with her and Peter Main, and I am trying to gather memories, and hopefully photos of that time in my life to give whatever help I can to Peter. I was a student in the Dowling College Mediterranean Institute when I met Ruthven. I can’t add anything that isn’t already known about his career and friendships with some of the 20th century’s greats; I can only add personal anecdotes about a gentleman who extended a hand of friendship to me as a very young man who found himself in a mysterious place. Ruthven quickly became a friend and mentor. I also look forward to reading Peter’s biography.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Please DM me with contact details as I have a journalist friend (based in Majorca) who would like to contact you for a possible interview. All good wishes, David