‘The strangest town in all of Wales’ is a pocketed peppery settlement around and up and away from the deep and wide greens greys and beiges of the Taff estuary; a working class town with a few pubs, an Anglican church, a bookshop, a rugby club and Robert Courtemain’s imposingly derelict (but not quite ruined) twelfth century castle. Laugharne sits comfortably in the company of other peculiar coastal towns that made their own way in the world, as cut off from it as it was cut into it – places like Clovelly in Devon or Whitby in North Yorkshire, and many others – where the geography, the forced introspection of the generations over time, makes almost for an experiment in regional evolution. (They also have their strong literary connections that mark them out). Dylan Thomas commented on this unusualness when he arrived here in the 1940s, he could feel the ‘otherness’ of the place, although it was neighbouring his Swansea. It provided the necessary environment for his second most productive phase as a writer, and, famously, many of his characters and the setting for Under Milk Wood. There is little to be said about Thomas that has not been said, but the influence of the ‘strangeness’ of Laugharne on his work should not be underestimated. The writer and place are inseparable, and if Laugharne took some time to warm to him during his time there, it has now gotten used to the reason most people visit.
Thomas’ image lingers around the place. Brown’s Hotel, famous as his regular haunt, may now be an attractive oddity, refurbished and pitched somewhere between middle-class respectability and spit and sawdust authenticity, is a cutting tribute to the industry that Thomas unwittingly sprouted from his deathbed. Just a few years ago the beer was cheaper, the walls bedecked with framed volumes of Thomas’ work, the bar was unkempt and cans were the most common purchase from it. The barroom steamed with huddled curios and clogged with the grey cigarette smoke of farmhands and literati alike. Now there is art for sale on the walls: yet another painting of Thomas’ boathouse dashed out of one of only two angles you from which it is ever seen; a picture of Thomas with his knowing-clueless half-smashed half-smile; a tantalising oil painting of an ethereal figure in white lace dancing a turn in the Brown’s bar as two dark diabolical figures in the background at a table watch on with beer and fags at wrist and elbow – it’s no Degas but it is dimly alluring, odd, a tentative attempt at myth-making that four quid a pint swiftly knocks away. A few years ago fists flying, a crash of glass, a fumble, the spilling onto the street of the fracas, brought the rolling of eyes of the regulars and a few gasps from those down for the literary festival, now termed quite purposely no festival at all, but ‘The Laugharne Weekend’.
The Laugharne outside of Brown’s, to its credit, has done very little to smooth its edges for the annual weekend. The town seems politely reticent to get too involved. Past frictions caused by the invasion of the ‘weekenders’ has clearly settled, the Weekend is now a fixture on the town’s psyche, and no doubt brings some much-needed trade to the pubs and eateries. And the festival seems to have settled for itself, too. It is small-scale, and all the better for it, seeming to get tighter and more focussed every year rather than expanding for the sake of expanding. The Laugharne Weekend, under the sturdy tutelage of John Williams, now seems to know what it is, seems to know how it relates to its surroundings, and to the patron saint Dylan. It is a literary festival bespattered with punks, and a punk festival infested with the adventurousness of literary minds. It is irreverent and a little bit ramshackle; it has a rough shanty-lunged holler running through the whole thing, the unwilted watery air of the studious debauchery of the intellectual class. It is a festival free of pretentiousness, and yet fully indulgent of creativity and ideas, debate and lecture. It is something that has not come without work, and not without the exploratory demands of passing time, but there is, in essence, no bullshit to The Laugharne Weekend.
Literary Festivals (a term which now takes in any festival that involves famous people being interviewed in front of an audience as the bulk of the attractions), are by their nature reflective environments. Writer A reflects on the book that is being promoted, Celebrity B on their autobiography for sale in the foyer, Film-maker C on their influences and oeuvre. It is not often you manage to force people to look forward. That is fine, of course, it all goes down well with the slack-shouldered queuing and the ruminant artsy conversations whilst huddled over plastic pint pots in crammed pubs. But there are times when this air can be injected with something a bit more urgent, a bit more relevant, whilst retaining the attractiveness of the festival feel.
The Laugharne Weekend, now in its eighth year, once tried its hand at thematically arranging the festival line up, with a rather mischievous (and fitting) title of ‘Outlaws’ a few years back. It doesn’t do that any more, but if it had done this year the theme of ‘Starting Points’ may have been most apt. Starting points are often things to be reflected upon, and an easy place from which an interviewer can build a conversation, but here something more significant and resonant began to emerge as guest after guest presented various starting points as moments not of nostalgic interest, but of often profound life-shadowing.
A highlight of the weekend, and a real coup for the festival organisers (who, some years, have been lumbered with repeated faces), was literary shining light Eleanor Catton, the twenty eight-year-old New Zealander who last year became the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize for her second novel, The Luminaries. Catton’s own starting point will be the concern of a biographer one day. She is already a significant voice on the literary landscape, undoubtedly to become a major novelist of the emerging generation, the first generation making its way in a perennially depressed and disenchanting publishing world, a Marvin the Android of economic foot soldiers. But Catton will not have to worry about that any more, if she ever did. Her confidence and relaxed manner on stage during her interview with Jon Gower was as intimate and casual and charming as any I have experienced.
She talked about The Luminaries with professional ease and aplomb, every answer seemed like the first time she had been asked the question, rather the millionth time on leg X of her world book tour. She is a woman who exists entirely in cahoots with her fiction, it moves in and around her as truly as does air and electrical current, and her remarkable feat has been condensing this imagination and intellect into a book for the rest of us to experience. The Luminaries, she tells us, was originally to be designed in tune to the formula for the Golden Ratio, to be a book where the equation that defines beauty is applied to romantic love, but the equation meant the book would be ‘three times longer than War and Peace’. So it was hemmed back to a jaunty 850 pages, the formula adapted, inverted, and the characters made to stand upon their own two feet. Catton is exciting because of ideas like this. She is a writer through and through, but she is just as preoccupied with non-literary concepts as she is with the circumnavigating of novelistic headaches. That The Luminaries has for its bedrock the Golden Ratio and the astrological chart is one thing, that she pulls it off and has convinced the awards judges of its apparent worthiness makes for a significant note in the development of modern literature.
Catton is drawn upon the subject, by Gower, of the tradition of New Zealand literature. ‘You have to remember,’ she says, ‘that up until the early twentieth century the literate communities – the European settlers – were concerned with nation building, not writing novels. So New Zealand literature starts with modernism.’ New Zealand emerges from its isolated amniotic sack in the early 1900s and begins creating culture in the white western tradition, and the starting point is the maelstrom of modernism. It is a startling idea that pings around the hall, and one that begs the question, what else is alien about New Zealand, what else of it stretches comprehension? It was the point when many in the audience straightened up in their seats.
Catton’s novel, set in 1860s New Zealand during the gold rush, is about a period of history unsurrounded by literature, a period when the Victorians on the other side of the world were creating some of the greatest literature of all time. The figures in the novel, and their story, is closed off, on mute, with only the constellations over head for eternal company. Catton’s book emerges from between the shoulders of her characters like Kaspar Hauser, like a Jackson Pollock painting, new and unfettered and uncorrupted. Her fascination with the patterns of astrology mark a deeply searching intellect but also marks the power of literature to hold her firm to it. She has not been ‘drawn to writing’ since handing in the final draft of The Luminaries over a year ago, but Catton is a literary mind first and foremost, and wherever she goes, there will be a lifetime of significant novels that come back from her.
A starting point of an altogether less sedate nature is discussed between Julien Temple and the former road manager for The Clash, the inimitable Johnny Green. They wander unhurriedly through the origins of punk, and specifically, the role The Sex Pistols played in Temple’s career. With film camera the band was Temple’s first love affair, having come across them in a warehouse near Streatham, following the allure of sandpaper melodies across the air. ‘I asked if I could film them, to which they replied, “Fuck Off”, which pretty much defined our relationship from then on, really.’ Temple is a gentle if wiry presence, but this seems an investment of battle-weariness. Johnny Green’s cocksure cockney elder-statesman is the perfect foil for the film-maker’s laconic lower middle-class reflections on his artistic beginnings. It was Temple who was front and centre for the grizzled gobby strut of punk from that Streatham warehouse to an American tour, the infamous Russell Harty show, and the implosion and fallout that all bands of any worth eventually arrive at. He was caught between the rivalry of the Pistols and the Clash and forced to choose who it would be he would film. His loyalty to the Pistols, having ‘been with them from the beginning’, meant that he chose them. He had been through a baptism of fire to get as close to them as he had, to become accepted by them. Now, Temple is a pre-eminent documentary maker, and although the absence of Wilko Johnson from the festival is an unfillable hole in the line-up (the terminally ill Johnson was a late cancellation), a brief clip of Temple’s film about Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, adds credence to his mantle of significant contemporary historian, a teller of people’s stories wrapped in the exhilarating context of the rock ‘n’ roll of the seventies and eighties.
Temple pinpoints hearing ‘You Really Got Me’ as the point which made him a man. ‘As it was for so many who are asked that question,’ says Green. And it’s true. The influence of that one guitar riff from The Kinks is cited as often as the entire body of work of The Beatles or The Stones, and perhaps as integral to the punk movement as anything The Velvet Underground or The Stooges can lay claim to. And, as if manipulated by the gods, Temple swaps seats soon after to interview the writer of that riff, Ray Davies, in his latest visit to the festival.
Davies pays homage to Dylan Thomas for his lyrical richness, but Under Milk Wood was only influential on the classic Kinks album Village Green Preservation Society in that there is a kinship between Davies and Thomas in the love of creating characters. Davies calls himself a ‘local writer’ and ‘a lonely sketch artist’ at different points of the genial conversation. This is a more relaxed and impish Davies to the previous times I have been in his company, when he can come across as almost bitter, and certainly cantankerous. But he is witty and warm and naughty, name-dropping and offering anecdotes about famous ‘troubled’ artists such as his New Orleans neighbour Alex Chilton. But this interview has a real purpose, and although Davies breaks us in gently, he is here to promote his new book, Americana, a musing on his relationship with the land across the sea, a relationship racked with love and admiration, but one also dominated by pain and frustration. Davies wrote the book as it became apparent to him that one of the patterns of his life had come full circle. In 1965, The Kinks became the sacrificial lambs of the British Invasion and were banned for four and a half years from touring America because of their lewd and provocative songwriting. It was a decision that was taken hard, even though it meant that Davies began to shun Americanisms in his work, looking inward, and to his childhood street corners, for characterful inspiration. Village Green and other albums like Arthur were born, as was Davies’ true authorial voice.
Forty years later he chased a mugger down a New Orleans street and was shot for his troubles. His book tells the story of the aftermath of that shooting, of his time in hospital and the usual evaluation of things as life hangs in the balance. Davies is a songwriter of rare talent, of real poetic depth and touch, and he is a speaker of genuine charisma (albeit with a certain Mephistophelean arch to his eyebrows at times), but, as a writer of prose, he is given over a little bit to prosaic flourishes and then cliché. But Davies is here to ‘settle some scores’, as he says, and you look at his body of work, and you can understand why he comes across as a little tired of people like me picking at him over the years. In Arthur and Village Green alone he has contributed as much to the identity of England as Vaughan Williams, and maybe even Holst and Elgar, his songwriting is as good (if not always as melodious) as Lennon and McCartney, and that riff…
The reflections and focus on origins continue. Jon Ronson delivers a trademark lecture, this time on the roots of his own career, picked from down a phone line during his job in a students’ union to fill in on keyboard for Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band. It was the beginning of a long association with Sidebottom and a peculiar friendship with his peculiar creator Chris Seivey, who sadly died last year aged 54. No less peculiar is the career of Ronson, writer, DJ, journalist, general auteur. He has been on hand for the birth of Mrs Merton, the emergence of Craig Cash, as well as having seen George Clooney turn his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, into a hit Hollywood movie. Ronson has a lilting vocal, and his clauses can be incongruously biting. His YouTube interview with three academics who had stolen his identity for a twitter spambot (or infomorph) is a fascinating insight into the potential arrogant wankery of the pseudo-intellectual in the new age of post-Nathan Barley double-speak and self-aggrandisement, and had an extremely satisfying conclusion for the largely liberal rural-minded audience.
Ronson spoke about the strange life on the road with Sidebottom, and the tragic end that will soon redouble back as a film about the papier-mache-headed band leader starring Michael Fassbender is almost upon us. A peculiar starting point for a peculiar story, and it is difficult not to think that Ronson may be just as odd as any of the other characters in the story, formed by his circumstance, but also somewhat inevitably having a hand in sculpting the oddness of those around him.
The rain lashed down all weekend, and it made for a subdued experience in many ways, and one that fell perfectly between the cracks of such fiery cameos as those of Mark Thomas, Phil Jupitus, Keith Allen, Luke Wright, Martin Rowson and all those who were there to puff out chests and make a mark. It was a shame that former-television personality, former-Coventry City goalkeeper, former-Messiah and current lizard-leader conspiracy theorist Davie Icke decided to ignore his commitment to appear as it’s quite likely the Laugharne crowds were getting ready to cut him down to size. But if Icke was absent, he was not forgotten, and several references were made to him throughout the weekend.
Jupitus and Wright were exceptionally entertaining in their poetry ping pong hour at the Anglican Church, funny and poignant in equal parts. Performance poetry has been trapped in the land of punchline and doggerel for so long now it’s difficult to figure a way forward, but Wright especially gives it a real punch with his satires, even if Jupitus is still a little hammy and obvious. Keith Allen continued his laddish wizardry by hosting the joyfully chaotic ‘Laugharne’s Got Talent’ at the Rugby Club (the remaining drinking temple to Laugharne’s wild west reputation). And Martin Rowson, currently in residency with the muse of Dylan Thomas for the anniversary year, was a constant presence through the town and the weekend, his distinctive, Hogarthian artwork popping up all over the place.
Mark Thomas is never less than entirely committed to his performance, and he closed the festival with the audience in the palm of his hand, pushing the boundaries of decency as far as they would go. His latest show, mixing fast paced political comedy with tales of his activism, is educational, crusading and often inspirational (as he so often is). 100 Acts of Minor Dissent was an excellent way to end the Weekend, nobody leaving thinking the thing had fizzled out, but rather savouring a two and half hour blast of anti-establishment cannon-fire.
As the Laugharne Weekend seems to have grown tighter (and smaller) it seems to have grown its own identity. This has not been forced, but has been organic and necessary for its survival. The Laugharne Weekend is not just another festival (albeit with a quirky attachment to Dylan Thomas), it is now a festival with an attitude lean on affectation, strong on the emotional exuberance of the place in which it is set. As Hay continues to grow and spread, and other Welsh festivals wheeze and pant in hot pursuit, Laugharne does its thing, and in a few years when it has its tenth birthday, we can mull over its own starting point, and hopefully rejoice in it.
Illustration by Dean Lewis