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“If you ask me, we’re up to here with Dylan Thomas,” said the lady with the dog. “You know, he was not popular with everyone around here.” I was taking one of my regular walks up Sir John’s Hill, itself the subject of a poem penned by Wales’s most famous literary export.
The dogwalker’s opinion of the poet doesn’t appear to be shared by everyone in town. For the centenary of Thomas’s birth, Laugharne – where he is buried and where I have lived for the past two years – is preparing all manner of celebrations, theatrical experiences, educational workshops, walks and talks.
The organisers of the already successful Laugharne Weekend, a festival of books, music and poetry (on April 4-6 this year and almost sold out) will put on no less than three extra weekend festivals. First up will be a poetry and theatre weekend on May 2-5, with plenty of poets, folk music by Welsh band Fernhill (named after one of Thomas’s best-loved poems) and Peter Blake, the artist best known for his cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, talking about a series of illustrations inspired by Thomas’s Under Milk Wood that he has been working on for 28 years.
In September there will be a music and film weekend (September 19-21) and a radio and comedy weekend (September 26-28). Also Dylan-focused are a series of 17 walks, tours and dinner parties planned under the umbrella of “A Dylan Odyssey” and a three-day street-theatre installation titled “Raw Material: Llareggub Visited”.
“It’s a reimagining of Under Milk Wood using a town trail, installations, radio, a local choir, Welsh celebs on screen and a Rolls-Royce fish and chip van,” says Jon Tregenna, one of the writers and also manager of the local pub-hotel, Browns. He says the town has embraced the project. “The locals love carnivals and wakes and the whole community leapt at the chance to celebrate their township and themselves.” It was at Browns that Thomas caroused with locals. While happily playing the role of hard-working, hard-up, hard-drinking bard, he listened carefully to gossip and bar-stool banter. Many characters in Under Milk Wood can be identified with people who once lived in the town.
While Laugharne no longer has the butchers, bakers, drapers and cocklers that inspired Thomas, it is still populated by spirited, open-hearted people who welcome the literary pilgrims. The Thomas connection brings in more foreign visitors and certainly more intellectuals than the more touristy seaside towns of west Wales, and when these mix with local tradesmen, farmers, council members (known as “portreeves” in this staunchly old-fashioned town) and rugby boys, the outcome can be entertaining.
In late 2013, the BBC arrived to make a television film about Thomas’s last days, A Poet in New York, starring Tom Hollander, which will be screened this year. More recently, Elijah Wood dropped in, taking a break from acting in Set Fire To The Stars, another Thomas biopic.
Wood said he was on a “pilgrimage” to the Boathouse, the Thomas family’s home. Now a humble house-museum, it, too, is hosting events all year, including talks by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and a reading by Wales’s poet laureate Gillian Clarke. Laugharne’s sole bookseller, George Tremlett, says Dylan Thomas had “the aura of a rock star”. His name certainly has pulling power.
In preparation, the township is being prettified – well, it’s getting wider pavements. The diggers are noisy but that is nothing compared with what will happen when the chattering classes descend en masse to honour their favourite Welshman. I’ve heard a few locals refer to the arty weekends as “the madness”, though perhaps they were referring to the £1.16m the Arts Council of Wales has spent on its “Dylan Thomas Centenary Programme”.
But the irony of celebrating a poet’s brief time in Laugharne with so much fanfare is that you risk missing the point of the place altogether. The town’s eternal verities – its castle ruins, raucous rookery, plaintive curlews and melancholy estuary – and its plain human qualities, from the characterful houses to the everyday friendliness of people, might get lost in the focus on readings and events.
On October 5 1953, Dylan Thomas made his last radio broadcast, reading a beautiful prose poem titled simply “Laugharne”. He praised, among other things, the town’s “sane disregard for haste: its generous acceptance of the follies of others, having so many, ripe and piping, of its own; its insular, featherbed air; its philosophy of ‘It will all be the same in a hundred years’ time.’”
Or, as Jon Tregenna puts it, “Now the world comes to Laugharne because of its adopted sons but writers such as Dylan Thomas were captivated by Laugharneys.” The real reason the town is special is far older, much deeper and more enduring than one dead poet or his centenary year.