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 (

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.



  1. At the school I was at in the early 1960s they made a big thing of Remembrance Day, with photos of the trenches etc; odd to think that I was then closer to the 1914-18 war in time than I am now to the boy I was at that school. Ruthven Todd was a star of the old Penguin Poetry of the Thirties anthology, and I’ve wondered about him (without ever even knowing how to pronounce his first name – thank you).

  2. I knew Ruthven when I lived in El Terreno, Palma de Mallorca in the 60’s. We would sit in the Plaza Gomila bar and I would “assist” in his crossword puzzle. I think I managed about 10% of it!

  3. Hi, I have a watercolour of Ruthven dated 1971. The signature is quite difficulty to decipher. Regrettably Christopher Todd has not responded to Tim Moreton’s (NPG) enquiry. I would love to hear from anyone who might have an idea. You can trace me as Mortelini at hotmail. Thank you.

  4. I knew Ruthven Todd when I was a student in the Dowling College Mediterranean Institute in 1970. We were housed in the mountain village called Deya (Deià), Majorca, not far from Ruthven’s home town. He was one of our instructors in creative writing along with Robert De Maria and Jon Hall. Robert Graves of I Claudius fame lived in Deya and was a guest lecturer. Ruthven’s health had already been failing at that time, especially his lung disease which he called asthma, but would probably be diagnosed as emphysema today. He continued to smoke, drink and live his life as he wanted. I can tell you that the Ruthven Todd I know for that short time was a compassionate, gentle and incredibly knowledgeable and intelligent man, but he was also suffering physically and emotionally. His suffering did not keep him from reaching out to others, especially me, to make me feel welcome and important. Most of us students were in our 20s, and Ruthven would join is in our infrequent poetry readings where we would choose poems and have a read around. Although none of us achieved the status of Dylan Thomas as far as I know, I think Ruthven especially liked that atmosphere. The teacher in him enjoyed being with young and teachable students. I have no idea what caused me to search the internet for information about him on this day, 45 years later. Rest in peace, my friend. Michael

  5. Thank you so much for leaving this comment, Michael. It is a wonderful addition to Ruthven Todd lore. Sometimes the internet is a wonderful place. I am still treasuring what you said here.

  6. I understand that you knew him, but I don’t see from the writings how that was. Was he friend or family to you?

  7. Neither, Michael. I found his papers in the National Library of Scotland, while looking for someone else. I became fascinated by him and his story, and I met the person who is currently working on a biography for him. If you send me your email address via the contact box on the website, I’ll get back to you personally.

  8. Ruthven was my uncle, my father’s older brother (they were a family of ten children and Ruthven was the eldest). I have wonderful childhood memories of him on Martha’s Vineyard, Majorca and also in London shortly before his death.

  9. Dear Michael. I write a blog about Deia which you can read here http://www.charlesmarlow/blog. I would love to interview you about your memories of your time in the village and Ruthven. If you’re interested, please reply to I believe my friend David Collard also got in touch with you about being interviewed by me after you responded to something he wrote on his blog. Hope to hear from you soon.

  10. My father was one of the London “poets of the Fifties” and so knew Ruthven. I met him a few times in Mallorca, either in Galilea or in a particular bar in Palma whose name escapes me. I had most of the Flyball books and a few of his very precise and delicate flower drawings. All have gone now, as I have had a rather…interesting…life. I remember him as a very kind man who never patronised me (I would have been in my early to mid-teens) but always treated me as an equal. I realise with a shock that this frail old man was in fact probably younger than I am now.

  11. Max, that’s a lovely detail. Which of the London ‘poets of the Fifties’ was your father? Was he (I think he must have been) Alfred Marnau? I don’t know his work well but he sounds a most interesting man. Did he write in both English and German? I love to read your memory here. You are a link in a chain. And this is how it is for us all: suddenly realising we are as old (or older) as the people we remember as fumbling and aged. At each stage of life we suddenly realise how young we are, or old, depending on perspective. I don’t suppose you turned into a poet?

  12. Dear Mrs. Nelson
    we are going to publish a short biography on ruthven todd in one of our next catalogues. and would like to show a portrait of him. Could you send us a file with the picture you use in your blog?
    with kind regards
    Hans-Peter Wittwer
    Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

  13. I am rying to find Peter Main’s biography on Ruthven Todd. Is it out yet? I am writing Pulitzer Prize-winning Carolyn Kizer’s biography and she wrote “Love Song” for Ruthven Todd

  14. Dear Marian, no it is not out yet. I will try to alert Peter to your message. Nell.

  15. Dear Marian

    That’s very interesting. Helena Nelson will let me have your email address and I’ll contact you that way.

    Peter Main

  16. Dear Marian, Peter’s book, A Fervent Mind: The Life of Ruthven Todd, is out and it is marvelous. Here are details:
    Published: July 2018 by Lomax Press Limited, 13 Park Place, Stirling, FK7 9JR, UK
    ISBN: 978-0-9929160-6-0. 494 pp, sewn binding with limp card covers
    Price: £23 + £2 postage and packing within UK
    Orders may be made online at, (For orders from outside the UK
    please contact the publisher for a price including postage and packing: email

  17. I have 3 aerograme written by Ruthven Todd from 1960.
    I would like TO sell them. Are in perfect condition.

  18. I have published your comment Gabriela, though I have no idea what to do about it since I don’t buy literary letters, and have no money anyway. The National Library in Edinburgh holds some of Ruthven’s archive, so you could approach them about this. They might be interested. The University of Texas also holds a significant amount of material I believe. Suggest you do some googling.

  19. Dear list,

    I discovered you all while wondering what might have happened to Ruthven Todd’s autobiography ‘Dead Friends and Other Places’. I read about it (and him) in Denise Hooker’s biography of Nina Hamnett, a wonderful volume that is now nearly forty years old and it seemed to me that ‘Dead Friends and Other Places’ might be very interesting for what it reveals about London’s bohemia.

    Does anybody know where it might be?

    Thank you.


    John N. Smith

  20. Dear John

    Ruthven was a better starter than a finisher of books. I think you will find that the autobiography referred to in the Nina Hamnett book was one of many things he began but did not finish. The fragments that might have made up parts of it — character pieces about various people, can be found among his papers, probably in the National Library in Edinburgh or I think Texas. The best source of information for all of this is Peter Main’s biography of Todd. Christopher Todd, Ruthven’s son, also published a detailed bibliography of his father’s works, with details of where to find different things. It is called Ruthven Todd, a Finding LIst, Lomax Press, 2020. Best, HN

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