This week sees the 60th anniversary of the first radio performance of “Under Milk Wood”, Dylan Thomas’ wild and funny play/prose/poem. I love “Under Milk Wood” (which I first read in English lessons with my wonderful teacher Sue Brown) and was enchanted to discover on holiday in Wales in 2008, that the town of Laugharne where Dylan Thomas lived for many years, was the inspiration for Milk Wood. We were staying close by, so of course, I had to take a look. It was an important visit in more ways than one. I had just completed the first year of a tough writing course which had not ended well. In fact, I’d received some feedback near the end of term that had shaken my confidence so much I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a writer anymore. I love literary pilgrimages, but as I arrived in the rain-soaked town that August afternoon, I knew this one was going to be therapeutic.
I didn’t have a map, so I followed the signs from the car park past the bottom of the impressive looking castle, to take the walk along the estuary. It was a grey scudding clouds sort of day, the water as grim as the sky, but the kind of summer rain that invigorates no matter how many times you have to clean your glasses. I stuck to the path, marked by benches with quotes from Thomas poems till I arrived at a series of wet rocks. I slipped my way across them to a series of steep steps that led to the road to the Dylan Thomas Boathouse.
Thomas’ writing shed was the first excitement, a little wooden hut on a bend on the road just before the boathouse. I’m a sucker for writer’s rooms so it was a thrill to peep through the windows to see a desk, crumpled paper and the view over the estuary that inspired so many wonderful poems. The boathouse itself was a few yards further along. A white house with oblong black windows, it is set at right angles to the cliff, affording stunning views of the hills and river. It must have been a beautiful place to live. Now, it is run as a heritage centre. One of the children’s bedrooms is a little bookshop (naturally I bought a copy of Under Milk Wood, and a copy of Thomas’ very funny piece about Laugharne); there is a sitting room laid out as it might have been in Thomas’ day, a desk with some of his original writing (always exciting for a literary nerd), and an art gallery upstairs, with a timeline of Thomas’ life.
After hanging out on the balcony for a while, I wandered into town. It was wet and there were no cobbled streets, but I could imagine the characters in Under Milk Wood living in their terraced houses, the unrequited lovers Myfanwy Price and Mog Edwards who only meet in dreams, Organ Morgan and his Mrs, the Rev Eli Jenkins dreaming of Eistedfoddau and all the rest… Till it was time to head home via the graveyard. I thought it would be easy to find Thomas’ grave, but I hadn’t anticipated quite how big the cemetery at St Martin’s church was. It was chucking it down as I walked fruitlessly round and round the gravestones, feeling totally stupid that I couldn’t find something so obvious. I was on the point of giving up when I noticed a little field to the side of the main cemetery. It was another beautiful spot, overlooking St John’s Hill, apparent inspiration for Llaggerub*Hill in Under Milk Wood and still I couldn’t find the damn grave. Then I saw a plain white cross, marked Caitlin Thomas. Dylan’s must be round here somewhere I thought, but for the life of me I couldn’t see it. It took me about five minutes to realise I was being totally dense, they were buried together, Caitlin’s name, was written on one side, Dylan’s on the other. I found the simplicity of the cross, and the fact that Caitlin had chosen to be buried beside him forty years after Dylan’s death, intensely moving. I stood by the grave for some time, thinking about his writing, and how much it inspired me. I thought about the fact he was able to write poetry, prose, and drama, how he used words like magic, how his writing makes me laugh and cry. And I realised that despite my difficult year in college, I wanted to be a writer more than anything. I knew that I wanted to make my writing move people the way Thomas moves me. It was a turning point for me that helped me decide to finish my course, and made me decide I’m a writer come what may.
I drove home that day renewed and invigorated by this visit to the town that Thomas loved so much. As I mentioned above, I brought back Under Milk Wood and Thomas’ description of Laugharne which sits in the in-tray on my writing desk to remind me to be a writer:
Now, some people live in Laugharne because they were born in Laugharne and saw no good reason to move; others migrated here, for a number of curious reasons, from places as distant and improbable as Tonypandy or even England, and have now been absorbed by the natives; some entered the town in the dark and immediately disappeared, and can sometimes be heard, on hushed black nights, making noises in ruined houses, or perhaps it is the white owls breathing close together, like ghosts in bed; others have almost certainly come here to escape the international police, or their wives; and there are those, too, who still do not know, and will never know, why they are here at all: you can see them, any day of the week, slowly, dopily, wondering up and down the streets like Welsh opium-eaters, half asleep in a heavy bewildered daze. And some, like myself, just came, one day, and never left; got off the bus, forgot to get on again. Whatever the reason, if any, for our being here, in this timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town with its seven public houses, one chapel in action, one church, one factory, two billiard tables, one St Bernard (without brandy), one policeman, three rivers, a visiting sea, one Rolls Royce selling fish and chips, one cannon (cast-iron), one chancellor (flesh and blood), one Portreeve, one Danny Raye, and a multitude of mixed birds, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it, anywhere at all.
He was right, it’s a very special place, that I’m glad I visited. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you visit too.
* Bugger all backwards.