This year will be the centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) and as a result there are regular references to his work, but perhaps above all, to his 'play for voices', Under Milk Wood. It was during one such radio broadcast that I heard extracts of this work; delivered with the rich, sonorous tones of Richard Burton. That's not to say that I hadn't heard of the poet or his work beforehand. I remember my parents' old LP record, with its odd cover, later learnt that Thomas had got married (to Caitlin Macnamara in 1937) in the register office in our town, Penzance, Cornwall, and finally I visited 'his' corner of The Ship Inn pub in the nearby village of Mousehole. However, I had never actually listened, until now...
|Mousehole; view over Mount's Bay towards Penzance.
The constant footage of the ravaged coasts of Cornwall during the recent storms made me idly wish, from the comfort of my home, to be able to go for an early morning walk along the seafronts, beaches and villages. There is no chance of that, as Cornwall and its coastline are both very far away in every sense, except my thoughts.
|View towards The Ship Inn.
However, it gave me the opportunity to look over some photos of what Dylan Thomas called the "prettiest village in England"; Mousehole. These are from previous wanderings, taken in the (not very sunny) summer months, in and around the village. The newly-married couple stayed in the Lobster Pot guest house there.
Under Milk Wood came into being when the young poet went for morning walks, imagining the dialogues and thoughts of the inhabitants of a still-sleeping Welsh seaside village. Called 'Llareggub' ('Bugger all', spelt backwards), it was based on several coastal sites; Laugharne and New Quay in Wales and perhaps even Mousehole in Cornwall.
The work reached completion just before his premature death, at the age of 39. Existing health problems were severely aggravated by alcoholism, a tumultuous personal life and chaotic lifestyle.
|Netting near Newlyn.
Who knows what may be obscured by a drunken, eccentric or senile exterior?
|Cats waiting to go in after a night 'out'.
To begin at the beginning:
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and- rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
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. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organ-playing wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jolly-rogered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before- dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.
Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, suckling mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman's lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread's bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.
Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding though the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.
Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
Come closer now.
Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see in the blinded bedrooms, the combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing, dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams...
|View next to Mousehole.