I went to Wales looking for poet laureate Dylan Thomas. I ended up finding a lot of him. Or rather, “hims.” There is the bardic Dylan Thomas, the one whose utter mastery of the language that transcended him into the upper echelons of the most honored of wordsmiths. There is the tourist attraction Dylan Thomas, the one that every pub, house, park, theater, and even a train station tapped into for brand recognition. There is the socially accepted Dylan Thomas, the one you find in biographies, museums, movies, and his former home-cum-museum in the hamlet of Laugharne. There is the overexposed Dylan Thomas, the one people are f****ing tired of hearing about.
And then there is the real Dylan Thomas, the brilliant, self-destructive, out-of-place, romantic, socially isolated one that forms the common thread throughout all his incarnations, but is the hardest to actually approach. This one is the most joyous, and the most sad.
Under Milk Wood
That thought came to me as I treaded along Dylan’s Birthday Walk, a forested path on Sir John’s Hill, a low headland overlooking Laugharne, where he lived the final years of his life. Serving as the prototype for Milk Wood, the bluff overlooking the almost-but-not-exactly fictional town of Llareggub in Thomas’s seminal work, Under Milk Wood, I was literally walking in the very footsteps of the man. Thomas would often wander out of then-hardscrabble Laugharne for the the airily vast panorama of the Taf and the darkly verdant headlands of Llanybri (the best name) beyond. Even the most word-clumsy wannabe would be inspired.
And it was here that I began to get at least a feel for this mythical man. He was none of the things I learned about him, and all the things I learned. Walking through the forest, and with the tidal flats of the Taf before me, I got a feel for what the man really was: Someone who desperately wished for the security of childhood, that someone was always there to take care of you, that you always had a safe place to go back to, that you didn’t have the responsibility (and regrets) of adulthood, that there was always a Prince Charming-type happy ending. He, like all of us, found out that life doesn’t play out like that. Totally worth a poem or two.
Maybe that’s why he haunted the forests. They asked nothing, demanded nothing. They were just…beautiful, empty. You can overlay whatever notion your have over the hill, and it would hold as fast as any fact or fiction.
Time Passes. Listen.
Much of “Thomasian” Laugharne remains. The Norman Age castle, the Georgian architecture, King Street (the main drag), and the fishing boats all still jostle for space. What also remains is the fact that to come here is to come to a tiny little town you can cover end to end in a morning. No wonder Thomas wrote so much here, there isn’t that much else to do.
But there is the Laugharne Weekend, a brilliant arts festival in April that is deliberately kept small-scale so regular mortals can rub shoulders with the cream of the Welsh artistic crop like Michael Sheen and Mick Jones of The Clash. And then there is the pub crawl, and do not underestimate how much a Welshman can drink, or assume that you can drink more. Laugharne’s pubs, the Brown’s Hotel and the Three Mariners among them, are renowned, each having earned their boozey stripes liver by liver.
Where the town excels at small-scale, in fact. This is not a place to go for city distractions, and doesn’t try to be. It is where you go to get away from all that, and settle into a schedule that goes more by season that it does by second. Laugharne is the very definition of a idyllic country town. I could have stayed there for a month and be utterly content.
End at the Ending
Dylan Thomas is buried just outside of Laugharne. It’s a simple, wooden cross that belies a vastly complex man. Thomas never made a lot of money while alive; he and wife Caitlin were always living hand to mouth and his grave pretty much follows that theme. Tradition keeps devotees from installing a more permanent marker, and when the wood rots in the notoriously wet Welsh to a point beyond repair, the townsfolk of Laugharne simply replace it with another wooden cross. But being titanium white, you can spot it a mile away whatever state it is in.
The myth is that he died after downing 18 shots of whisky in New York. The New York part is true, but the 18 shots part more fuzzy. It’s what he said he did to the staff at the Chelsea Hotel where he was staying, but as booze-addicted as he was at that point, 18 shots is nearly an impossible amount to put down or keep down. Diabetes, a morphine overdose, and pneumonia have all been put forward, but what is absolutely known is that the man died at 39, and was buried in the kirkyard of the ancient St. Martin’s Church just down the road from his watering hole at the Brown’s.
I visit the grave on a particular wet day when the clouds hung so low and heavy I could have reached up and tickled them. It’s a contemplative site, and it is not unusual for you to be joined by a few looks-loos and fans, but today I had it all to myself. It was as timeless as Wales gets, so much so that had it not been for the racing clouds I would have thought time had indeed stopped.
So I decided it did. And I sat down, damp butt be damned, and pulled out a cheap copy of Thomas’s paean to his youth, A Child’s Christmas In Wales. And I read.