Under Milk Wood – a tale of ‘Llareggub’!

3 08 2011

First Voice (Very softly):

‘To begin at the beginning…’

…’moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestones silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’ 

‘Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker,  preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives.’

‘Under Milk Wood’ (A Play for Voices) is unique in being specifically written for radio, by that famous son of Swansea, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote exclusively in English!

It was first broadcast on 25th January by the BBC Third Programme, with Richard Burton (an old drinking partner) taking the part of First Voice.

Within twelve months of that first ‘airing’ the powerful, evocative and poetic language of Dylan Thomas had been translated into a dozen languages from Serbo-Croat to Japanese.   

The action centres upon the little fishing town of ‘Llareggub’, a microcosm of human life, and the whole work is infused with Thomas’s lively and frequently bawdy Celtic humour.

Those who are familiar with the Welsh tongue will of course be aware that there is no ‘gg’ in the language. That it is present in the name of the town, nestling beneath ‘Milk Wood’, is typically Thomas – read it backwards!

Last week Chris and I took a short break to the land of her fathers. She first drew breath in Cardiff, spending her formative years in and around the South Wales coast.

The voice may not betray its origins (no hint of Myfanwy Price or Mrs Organ Morgan there) but a red dragon is stamped through her heart, particularly when ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ echoes around the Millennium Stadium and the men in red jerseys, embroidered with the Prince of Wales feathers, clash with those clad in white, bearing a thorny red rose!     

Our short break included a two night stay at ‘Seaview’, a restaurant with four rooms, in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. More interestingly it is the recently renovated former home of Dylan Thomas where he lived for two years, from 1938, after pursuing and marrying Caitlin Macnamara, a dancer and former lover of Augustus John, the Tenby born post-impressionist portrait painter. 

The same artist later famously captured the romantic doe eyed image of Dylan with curly auburn locks, which is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.    

The Thomas’s bohemian lifestyle was something of a curiosity to local residents, but they were happy, carefree days for the couple, and a productive time for the young but as yet relatively unknown poet. Cash flow was always something of a problem, and more often than not the 7/6d rent money, due at the end of each week, had already been spent in the bar of his favourite ‘Browns Hotel’. Perhaps luckily, the landlord of ‘Seaview’ and the landlord of the ‘Browns’ were brothers!     

Thomas had first visited Laugharne in 1934. And was to develop a lifelong love for the place he referred to as the ‘strangest town in Wales’, ‘a timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town’.

He was enchanted and intrigued by the sleepy, isolated, English-speaking estuary town, set in the heart of Welsh-speaking countryside, and fascinated also by its eccentric characters such as the deaf-mute ferryman and the mobile fish and chip proprietor who ran his business from a converted Rolls Royce!

Thomas was to draw heavily on the Laugharne locals when he began to people ‘Under Milk Wood’.

By 1940 mounting debts caused Dylan and Caitlin to leave, adopting something of a nomadic existence, increasingly dependent upon the support of friends and patrons such as Margaret Taylor, the wife of historian AJP.

It was for a five month period during 1944/45 that Dylan and Caitlin lived at ‘Majoda’, a small bungalow overlooking the bay at New Quay.  

If it is the voices of Laugharne that are present in ‘Under Milk Wood’ then it is New Quay that provided the inspiration for its setting. During there brief sojourn here Dylan began working on the ‘script’, although it is now generally accepted that it was mostly written in Oxfordshire and completed in New York.

It would be in that same city, on a later literary tour, that Dylan Thomas was to meet an untimely end, aged just 39, finally succumbing to a worsening drink problem. It is said tht the poet’s final line was, “Eighteen straight whiskies, that’s a record!”       

Chris and I spent a pleasant afternoon in New Quay, following the ‘Dylan Thomas Trail’, setting off after a couple of lunchtime beers on the sunny terrace of the ‘Dolau Inn’, a favourite of Caitlin who has a bar named after her.

The ‘Dolau’ was also the preferred haunt of actors Richard Burton and Paul ‘A Man for All Seasons’ Scofield, on their visits to New Quay, as well as one Alistair Graham, lover of Evelyn Waugh and model for the character Sebastian Flyte in ‘Brideshead Revisited’. It is not clear whether he took a teddy bear called Aloysius, with him when he called in at the pub!    

Dylan’s trail, as you might expect, includes a few local watering holes and makes strong claims for a number of locations and former inhabitants of the town as the basis for specific characters in ‘Under Milk Wood’ – notably Captain Cat, Dai Bread, the Rev Eli Jenkins, Lord Cut-Glass and Nogood Boyo.      

In 1949 Dylan and Caitlin returned to Laugharne , moving into the Boathouse on Cliff Walk, courtesy of Margaret Taylor – yet again. They spent their final 16 years together in this idyllic setting overlooking the ‘heron priested’ Taff Estuary with its views of the distant Gower Peninsula.

When Dylan wasn’t drinking and catching up with local gossip at his beloved ‘Browns Hotel’ (currently being renovated from its state of dilapidation and  converted into a boutique hotel), a home from home where he used the reception phone as a personal contact number, he would work in his ‘writing shed’ – a converted garage perched on the cliff ledge above ‘the Boathouse’, originally built by the previous owner to house his Wolsey car.    

Following his death, in November 1953, Dylan Thomas’s body was shipped back from New York and finally laid to rest in the local churchyard.  

In my mind’s eye I can see Evans the Death making the burial arrangements, a memorial service led by the Rev Eli Jenkins, school mistress Gossamer Beynon reading the lesson and Organ Morgan banging out the hymns, while Mrs Willy Nilly is busily passing a collection plate through a heaving congregation, where blind old Captain Cat, the Mogg Edwards’sMr Ogmore & Mrs Ogmore-PritchardMr Waldo & his wifeOcky Milkman, Butcher Beynon, Dai Bread (with Mrs Dai Bread 1 and 2), Mae Rose-Cottage, Cherry Owen, a tearful Polly Garter, Nogood Boyo, and the rest, are all singing with gusto.  

A burial of a more unusual kind featured at our final destination, Tregaron, a pleasant enough Mid Wales market town, ideally located for exploring Cardigan Bay, climbing in the Cambrian Mountains, or ‘spotting’ the circling  buzzards and kites.  

Back in the ‘60s Chris’s late uncle had been the local vicar and she had vague recollections of visiting at the vicarage. After asking around she was pleased to find a couple of old locals who still held very fond memories of him.

We stayed overnight at the Talbot Hotel, an old drovers’ inn dating back to the 13th century, and pretty much the focal point of the town.

While sitting in the front bar, tucking into our fish and chip supper, we were regaled with an amazing tale of the Tregaron elephant, now immortalized for all time, in glorious technicolor, on the table mats and coasters!   

Back in July 1848, ‘Batty’s Menagerie’, a kind of travelling circus came to town, complete with performing elephants. They had undertaken a long cross-country trek during which one of the elephants had quenched its thirst at the Bronmwyn lead mines. Sadly this was to prove fatal as it died, of lead poisoning, during the night in the ‘Ivy Bush’ stable, adjacent to the ‘Talbot Hotel’.  

It must have taken half the local town’s folk, armed with picks and spades, to dig a big enough hole to bury the legendary pachyderm beneath what is now the hotel car park!   






One response

4 08 2011

You can guess how much I enjoyed this posting. I think you had a brilliant idea for a short break. G.

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