“To begin at the beginning” – there’s really no other way to start a blog about Laughrne, the small former cockle-fishing town on the Carmarthenshire coast which I visited this week to pay homage to its most famous son, Dylan Thomas.
Laughrne is where Thomas lived out the last years of his short life and where he wrote he greatest work – ‘Under Milk Wood’ – in a windowed-garage overlooking the bay. The resulting ‘play for voices’ portrays a magical, voyeuristic, affectionate day in the life of the inhabitants of Llareggub – a fictional coastal village inspired by the gossip Thomas picked up over a morning pint in Brown’s Hotel.
Brown’s, of course, was closed for lockdown, which meant I couldn’t use the customer-only electric car charging points, but it appears that not too much else has changed in the intervening 70 years in Laughrne.
“Less than five hundred souls inhabit the three quaint streets and the few narrow bylanes and scattered farmsteads that constitute this small, decaying watering place..”, according to ‘The Voice of the Guide-Book’ in Under Milk Wood, “The main street, Coronation Street, consists for the most part, of humble, two-storied houses many of which attempt to achieve some measure of gaiety by prinking themselves out in crude colours and by the liberal use of pinkwash”.
This, however, was Thomas mocking outsiders’ failure to understand the everday complexity of a town like Laughrne. His true feelings for the place are better expressed by a different Milk Wood character, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, who proclaims in his daily doorstep sermon: “Dear Gwalia! I know there are / Towns lovelier than ours../ A tiny dingle is Milk Wood / By golden Grove ‘neath Grongar / But let me choose and oh! I should / Love all my life and longer / To stroll among our trees and stray / In Gooesgog Lane, on Donkey Down, / And hear the Dewi sing all day / And never, never leave the town.”
Dylan’s devotion is even more apparent in his poem ‘In October’, which he wrote on his 30th birthday while walking around the estuary, and which is lovingly reproduced on noticeboards along that route today, enticing visitors ever deeper into the woods of Sir John Hill, as I discovered on my ramble around Laughrne this week.
I often start a walk with the intention of finding a beautiful spot to sit and read for a few hours, but the urge to keep moving and find somewhere even more beautiful just around the corner usually conspires to keep me traipsing until dusk, at which point I remember my original intention and grab a few minutes with a book as the sun sets. In Laughrne, however, I covered barely more than a mile in my first three hours, drawn instead to rest on a series of thoughtfully placed benches, engraved with Thomas’ poetry and positioned to provide tree-gap views of the Taff tide filling up the estuary below. I had re-read ‘Under Milk Wood’ cover to cover before breaking open my lunchtime sandwiches.
The weather helped too. After a bleak, grey start, spring burst into Laughrne just as it did in Milk Wood: “Outside, the sun springs down on the rough and tumbling town. It runs through the hedges of Goosegog Lane, cuffing the birds to sing. Spring whips green down Cockle Row, and the shells ring out. Llaregubb this snip of a morning is wild fruit and warm, the streets, fields, sands and waters springtime in the young sun.”
A deep sense of place was certainly important for Thomas, but Under Milk Wood’s brilliance ultimately derives from the ordinary/extraordinary, intricately described characters of the play.
My favourite is Organ Morgan, who snores “no louder than a spider” while dreaming of performing Bach, and who plays the church organ “alone at night to anyone who will listen – lovers, revellers, the silent dead, tramps, or sheep.”
Polly Garter, meanwhile, courts scandal by her inability to refuse an offer of loving, yet in each moment of momentary ecstasy it is the face of “ little Willy Wee who drowned and died” she sees. Blind Captain Cat, meanwhile, also yearns for a lost-love and serves as a sort of guide to the town, visited in his dreams by long-drowned fellow seafarers, whose questions paint a picture of the constancy of Llareggub life – “How’s the tenors in Dowlais?”, “Who milks the cows in Mesgwyn?”, “Washing on the line?”, “When she smiles, is there dimples?”.
Most characters’ names caricature their personality or occupation, reminding me of how my Nan and Granddad’s provided nicknames to passersby on on the rail-side path of their council estate. They had ‘Lipstick Lil’, while Thomas gives us Evans The Death (the undertaker); No Good Boyo; Dai Bread – “hurrying to the bakery, pushing in my shirt tails, buttoning my waistcoat”, school teacher Gossamer Beynon “spoonstirred and quivering”; Mr Waldo – rabbit catcher, barber, herbalist and notorious alcoholic; and Cherry Owen, who never touches a drop by day, but is happily, if equally reliably, drunk by night – his antics joyfully replayed next morning over breakfast by his seemingly proud wife.
Visiting Laughrne was a chance to bring characters and place together, and I was delighted to find myself reading on a bench above Salt Lake Farm, where Mr Utah Watkins “counts all night the wife-faced sheep as they leap the fence on the hill, smiling and knitting and bleating.. Knit one, slip one; knit two together. Pass the slipstitch over”. Or standing down by the boats, recalling that “At the sea-end of town, Mr and Mrs Floyd, the cocklers, are sleeping as quiet as death, side by wrinkled side, toothless, salt, and brown, like two old kippers in a box.”
Everyone in Llareggub appears to have a secret and Thomas revels in each of their individual eccentricities, yet all the while and spinning a a story of a community in which everyone is comfortable knowing each other’s business.
Mrs Pugh beings the day by scolding her husband for proferring the wrong spectacles as she makes to get out of bed, complaining, “No, not my reading glasses, I want to look out, I want to see”. And no-one seems to mind that postman Willy Nilly and his wife steam open every letter before it goes into his postbag, so he can cheerfully impart their contents while delivering the envelope. Indeed, Lovelorn draper, Mog Edwards, is waiting at his gate, demanding Willy Nilly reveal the content of his latest note from sweet-shop keeper, Myfanwy Price, and sets to straight away dictating a response.
Importantly, however, Under Milk Wood can be interpreted as a dream sequence, where all the protagonists are asleep and only we, the reader / listener, “can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed, to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely drawn dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.”
Visiting Laughrne still in semi-lockdown, although in the first week that we are again able to travel further than five miles afield in Wales for leisure, I felt a similar sense of watching the town. Arriving early, Laughrne seemed abandoned, but gradually people emerged as the sun rose in the sky, just as in Under Milk Wood.
Starting from the castle, my walk took me in a figure of eight out and back into the town, returning to visit the church where Thomas and his wife, Catlin, are buried. Thomas died aged only 39, his health ravaged by alcoholism, and Under Milk Wood was first aired on BBC radio posthumously a year later in 1954 (gloriously narrated by another renowned Welshman, Richard Burton). Critically lauded, but not widely celebrated in his lifetime, Dylan’s burial place stands out in the churchyard by virtue of being marked by a simple white cross, shared with Caitlin (who died in 1994), amidst a fallen regiment of gravestones.
Today he is widely regarded as Wales’ greatest ever writer, a poet who so captured the young Robert Zimmerman that he renamed himself Bob Dylan. Laughrne celebrates Thomas as Stratford upon Avon claims Shakespeare, although somewhat more lightly and warmly, conveying real affection, rather than exploitation of a brand.
Certainly Laughrne inspired Thomas too. He moved here during a bout of writer’s block, but sitting in his tiny shed up a path from the cliff-top house he and Caitlin rented as their home, he penned much of his best work.
Leaning on the wall above The Boathouse, and peering into Dylan’s shed, where my walk ended, it was easy to feel how he drew inspiration from this beautiful place. Dylan’s writing desk is small and strewn with screwed up papers, the walls adorned with postcards, and the only form of heating a small un-chimneyed wood burner. But the views are magnificent and the writerly isolation perfect. It was an appositely reflective place to end a wonderful day’s walking and reading, so I lingered as the sun set, waiting for “the suddenly wind-shaken wood [to] spring awake for the second dark time this one spring day.”