“A Legendary Lazy Little Black-Magical Bedlam by the Sea”
Dylan Thomas’s Laugharne
by Niall Griffiths

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Laugharne is a small town on the coast of South Wales, not far from Carmarthen. The poet Dylan Thomas lived there, off and on, throughout his life. His last house is now a museum dedicated to his life and work on the muddy shore of the estuary. The town has made much of its connections with the poet; Brown’s Hotel, one of his favourite pubs, has an image of him on its signage and photographs of him cover the walls inside. There is a five-star hotel called Dylan’s. The actor Neil Morrisey has invested much money in the town, including, allegedly, buying Brown’s. The setting for Thomas’s most famous work, Under Milk Wood – a town called Llareggub (read it backwards) – is undoubtedly modelled on Laugharne, as well as Newquay in Cardiganshire, where Thomas also lived, for a much briefer period. His rotund and crapulent features dominate the town now as much as the huge castle does (and where novelist Richard Hughes once lived. But that’s another story).

FIRST VOICE (very softly)

Let’s begin:

It is mild, wild winter, February in the small seaside town, sunless, herring-smacks abob under a bruised-blue, contused-maroon sky, cobblestreets silent and only the lover’s wood snuffling and shuffling and rustling bow-legged down to the –

SECOND VOICE (loud)

Shite! It is 2006! He’s been dead half a century! And the only reason the place is so quiet and not full of gawking Yanks (whose homeland he died in) and be-tweeded scholars agog for the mystique of presence as if a fifty year’s dead ghost could ever offer such a thing is cos it’s so fucking freezing. I’ve been here before, and I’ve seen them peering dewy-eyed into the shed where he wrote and hoping to absorb something of the shore all mussel-pooled and heron-priested and the black cap of jackdaws that dons Sir John’s just hill and the hawk on fire hanging still and never do you hear them cry look! There! Those are the steps he fell down pissed and cut his head open or that’s the tree he vomited on or that’s the bush he pissed his pants under on one of the many nights he spent here parabloodylitic. I’ve seen them, ghoulish, worrying the bones of the talcum dead. I’ve heard them, foolish, blustering and fustian in their attitudes and words. They want him, they do. They’ve always wanted him. They need him desiccated in their studies and they hope that somehow It will rub off on them, the ecstasy that has left him as it always does rotted down to mulchy marrow in the sloping graveyard on the hill. All proxy and vicarious it is. You’re talking shite.

FIRST VOICE (softly still)

No, listen; only you can hear their dreams. Only you can hear the –

SECOND VOICE (loud)

Banging techno from the chav-wagons.

PASSING CAR

Dumph dumph dumph dumph DUMPH DUMPH dumph dumph

SECOND VOICE

And, in the Cross House pub divided now into Polly Garter’s Lounge and Captain Cat’s Bar and where every standing or sitting space is occupied by a close cramped crowd watching Italy play England in the Six Nations on the big screen, the silent local grumbling in his skull:

LOCAL 1

Them faces I dunno but them faces I’ve seen cos all the same they are; another bunch of Yanks or Sais queer for the ghost of the fucking poet.

LOCAL 2

C’mon Italy c’mon the Eyeties.

PINT OF LAGER

Ssssssss.

THROAT

Glug glug. Aaaaahh.

SECOND VOICE

And taken by a booze-buzz you are out of that pub and up the hill and down a wet-stone alleyway past the white clock tower that has a Mediterranean tale to tell and doesn’t ring in the mornings any more. In search of food you are but not yet and the Stable Door restaurant (which, you recall, does good tapas) bears an advertisement for the Dodo Modern Poets, £18.50 including two courses and fuck me you think, eighteen flippin’ quid, and you bend to stroke a friendly cat and hear a high humming like mad wasps caught in a bottle and you look up and you see two propeller planes looping-the-loop over Sir John’s Hill and it is like a small visitation from another age and you wish you had a topper to toss in the air. Who was Sir John? you think and for a while you watch the aerobatics.

FIRST VOICE (softly)

Yes, oh yes, you watch the weakening sun slice silver from their wings.

SECOND VOICE

And you go down the of course Dylan’s Walk past the com-memorative bench-stroke-shelter that bears lines from Under Milk Wood and you stop at the Writing Shed which, on a plaque outside, has lines from “Poem on his Birthday,” the last of which is “as I sail out to die.” You think two words: Melodramatic arse, and you peer in through the window and see the desk and the empty bottles and the crumpled papers and the images of Blake and Lawrence on the walls and the shells and the stones from the beach and the oil lamps and the fireplace with paper balls and dry sticks in it and the whole thing looks half a century old and just as you’re wondering how much at auction those crumpled and discarded work-sheets would fetch the alarm is activated either from some remote point or from a timer-switch and it bleeps and pips in your ear as if it has read your thoughts so you go further down the walk to the Boathouse itself (past a sign that cries “SAVE DYLAN’S WALK!”) which is closed now but you’ve been there before and you remember thinking what a wonderful place it would be in which to live and write and –

FIRST VOICE

die

SECOND VOICE

at the age of 39 younger than you are now no I don’t think so. I mean being alive is so fucking –

SEAGULLS

Laa-ger! Laa-ger!

FIRST VOICE

On down slow to the hushed and wave-washed, scalloped shore where –

SECOND VOICE

there’s another bleedin’ monument thing, this one a pair of wooden benches adorned with wooden fish and birds and a central totem between them with the letters “DYLAN’S WORDS” wriggling vertically down it like a worm. “ON MY SEA’SHAKEN,” it says, and “BREAKNECK OF ROCKS,” and the castle looms above it like castles always do. Looming is why they were built. And crows man or rather bird the battle-ments and you feel like you can see their eyes but you can’t, of course. They’re too far away.

FIRST VOICE (softly)

Oh yes but you can hear them, can’t you? Heed their bird-thoughts my lost one bounced from a good home. Only listen to how they fly:

CROWS

Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!

FIRST VOICE

Bugger.

SECOND VOICE

And see the marsh from where the Llansteffan ferry once sailed but not any more. And see the buoy in the waves which for one hopeful moment you think may be a seal or a dolphin and yes there are some boats, yes, not bobbing because they’re stuck in mud waiting for the tide to free them. And wonder if those waves lap over any drowned and dreaming sailors and if those drowned ones could talk what words would they utter or what do they murmur in their briny dreams? Maybe just one:

THE DROWNED (in a slow, low voice, like a 45 rpm record played at 3313⁄) reeeeeeeeeeggreeeeeeeeeetttt

FIRST VOICE

But oh the songs they sing! Oh the sadnesses and raptures of their salty celebrations and psalms! Listen, and you’ll –

SECOND VOICE

hear the splat of the shit that leaves the crow like a soft white bomb and lands on the wooden bust of the poet that stands in the little garden beyond the castle carpark. Dark wood now run with white shite over the accurate bulbous nose and across the full and blubber lips. “LAUGHARNE YOUTH CLUB” says a sign and sitting on that sign is a young lad in trackie and Burberry pecking with his thumb at his mobile phone.

YOUNG LAD

S BORIN ERE U WANA MEET L8R GOT SUM GANJ

SECOND VOICE

And you leave the carpark and cross the road and go back into the Cross House pub.

BARMAN

All go so quick they do once the rugby’s over. Which the fucking Sais won. But they’ll be back after they’ve done the rounds, up to Brown’s and The Mariner’s and then back down the hill to here unless they go off to St Clear’s for the change or off to a club in Carmarthen or Tenby like the young ones do. Don’t know what they see in the oh good evening, what can I get you?

CUSTOMER

Drunk.

BARMAN

Yes, and what would help you achieve that aim?

CUSTOMER

Vodka Red Bull.

BARMAN

Vodka Red Bull it is, then. Just passing through, is it? Not local then?

CUSTOMER

No.

BARMAN

Suit  yerbloodyself  then.  Another  one  wanting  the  fucking  poet.

Three pounds.

STOMACH

Gurgle, hoip!

SECOND VOICE

And three vodka Red Bulls for the energy because no food has been eaten and with that energy you –

FIRST VOICE

need to eat. Why don’t you eat while drinking?

SECOND VOICE

Because of the appetite suppressant qualities of the alcohol. Because of the delirium. Because of the euphoria.

FIRST VOICE

He was like that, you know. He’d never eat while he drank. I watched him starve himself.

SECOND VOICE

Oh yeah? Well how come he was such a porker?

FIRST VOICE

That was probably one of the things that killed him so young, the weakened body –

SECOND VOICE

bouncing jaunty up the hill to –

FIRST VOICE

Brown’s Hotel where he’d meet his father of a morning to share a beer with him as they pored over The Times crossword. See the photographs of him on every wall. See the Augustus John portrait of him on the swinging inn sign above the door.

GUIDEBOOK VOICE

One of the most famous taverns in the world now thanks to its connections with the dissolute Welsh poet who died in 1953 in New York at the age of 39. His table still sits in the alcove of the bay window surrounded by memorabilia, yet the barstaff and regulars will leave you in no doubt that this is first and foremost a pub, not a shrine.

FIRST VOICE

Yes but this tavern on a tourist trail, heritaged here, this listing building listed now –

SECOND VOICE

and inside; more bloody rugby.

TOURISTS (a discordant choir of clamouring voices)

Where’s Neil Morrisey? Where’s Neil Morrisey? Man behaving badly with the cheeky grin?

SECOND VOICE

And up at the bar the snaggle-toothed old feller orders. Would call him a salty sea-dog type if that meant anything at all.

SALTY SEADOG TYPE

Whisky and a pint, Rhi.

RHIANNON THE BARMAID

What kind of whisky, Bill?

BILL THE SALTY SEADOG

Makes no difference.

RHI THE BARMAID

Double, is it?

BILL THE SALTY SEADOG

Better make it a small one. Started on the stuff earlier, see.

RHI THE BARMAID

Oh aye? When?

BILL THE SALTY SEADOG

Nineteen sixty-seven.

FIRST VOICE

And yes oh yes now you are drunk the living you can see in this man and the living to come in her. Born another time perhaps she might be saying to him and he to her: “Oh let me crash and come to grief, oh let me shipwreck in your thighs.”

SECOND VOICE

Take pint and peanuts to the bright bay window seat and drink that pint and several more as dark velvet rises over the rooftops and the sounds of the outside night-time blare and blur.

PASSING CAR (same as before)

Dumph dumph dumph dumph DUMPH DUMPH dumph dumph

SECOND VOICE

And you like him love that slow-lapping alcohol rush. And the blurred heiroglyphics on the TV screen that when you squint to read them tell you the best story you’ve heard today: WIG 0 LIV 1 and MID 3 CHE 0. Something else to drink to.

FIRST VOICE

Yes, ahgh ye fuckaaaahh! And drink they do all over the town, beer and spirits in the pubs and wine and green tea in the houses where once it would’ve been –

SEAGULLS

Laa-ger! Laa-ger!

FIRST VOICE

in The Mariner’s, yes, where –

SECOND VOICE

to me because I can see a terrible sadness prevails. This is the pub where after he died his wife would seek to drown her griefs (which learnt to swim) in beer and men (which burnt to him, for her, for her). Queue up they would to lance her loneli-ness. There is a tale concerning one of their children seeing her mother’s legs straddling the arse of a visiting navvy across a garden wall next door to the pub and his workmates forming a jostling queue up the street. Imagine the spread legs of your mother and that pimply arse and the –

FIRST VOICE

nuts, salted, in a bowl on the bar. You remember reading or being told something about nineteen different traces of urine found in a bowl of shared nuts cos of the, cos of the men who don’t wash their hands after peeing and then eat the nuts. Dirty friggers. Those men over there with the suspicious eyes and urinous hands. The dirty little friggers.

SECOND VOICE

And only you can hear their thoughts:

LOCAL 3

More of them queer for the fucking poet.

LOCAL 4

He’s fifty years’ dead, boy. Leave him be. Let him rest –

FIRST VOICE

under the sod like the boundless others and their alone-ness never even stifled by earth or worms. Hear them:

DEAD HUSBAND

Never leave me.

DEAD WIFE

I can’t, now. We’re in the same grave. You’ve got me forever, now.

SECOND VOICE

Oh to be free of the everyday obscenities, this smear of someone else’s excrement on the toilet bowl. Wiping your arse you hear someone enter the toilets and approach the urinal and then the trickle of their piddle and then a thunder-ous breaking of wind:

ARSE

BRAMPFT!

FIRST VOICE

And you go back out to the bar through a foul miasma unsteady on your legs now and you drink more and drink more and leave Brown’s for another pub and when the clock in the tower if it still worked would ring twelve times you –

SECOND VOICE

can hear their thoughts, now, yes. All the voices in this small town and all the songs they sing but in such a drunkenness as this it all sounds like one wailing, just one wailing. And there is an ecstasy that must burn itself out and there is a joy that will pillage as much as it awards and there is a long dark trailing shadow that will always leech off a certain kind of happiness. That’s easy to understand now.

FIRST VOICE

And accept?

SECOND VOICE

And accept, yes. Cos now I’m drunker than the crows on the battlements like short black soldiers but I don’t understand how, I mean it was you that was drinking how can I –

FIRST VOICE

fall into sleep and only I can hear the song in the earth:

VOICE IN THE EARTH

But I’ll always think as I tumble into bed

Of the silly little ones who are dead, dead, dead.

FIRST VOICE

Hear it? No? You will. Just listen.

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