“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.”
Thus begins one of my favourite books, a book of magical writing. It is a play for voices about a day in the life of Llagergub, a Welsh fishing village. Nothing much happens in terms of plot but it is buzzing with life, with people’s dreams and desires, with village gossip and children’s games. When it starts, the villagers are asleep, and the first narrator (there are two) takes the reader through the village. “It is 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 night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.”
You are then introduced to the characters through their dreams, and each one of them is memorable. The old blind sea captain, Captain Cat, dreams of his long-drowned mates (“Dancing Williams. Still dancing”) and the one love of his life “that was sardined with women”, Rosie Probert. Myfawny Price “dressmaker and sweetshop keeper” dreams of her lover Mog Edwards. The couple write passionate letters to each other (duly steamed open by the mailman’s wife) but never meet, although they live in the same village. Then there is Butcher Beynon, who dreams of “sneaking up on corgis with my little cleaver”; Polly Garter with babies from several men (“Nothing grows in our garden but washing. And babies.”); Dai Bread the baker with two wives, “one for the daytime, one for the night”; and Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, a twice-widowed guesthouse owner obsessed with hygiene, who won’t rent a room to a man because he might “sneeze on her china”. And then there is the Reverend Eli Jenkins, whose sermons are poems about the village he loves.
The magic is in the writing. Dylan Thomas used to agonize over every word, and you can see the result. Nothing is out of place. He is a master of language and uses it to immerse you, through all your senses, in whatever is going on. Take his use of sound and rhythm: the slow lilt of the night; the busyness of the day with “the clipclop of horses on the sun-honeyed cobbles of the humming streets”; the languid afternoon when the “sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town”; and the winding down of the day. When he describes old photographs as “the dickey-bird watching pictures of the dead”, you know exactly what he is talking about. I love the way he catches the women gossiping, with malice and humour in equal measure:
“Seen Mrs Butcher Beynon?”
“She said Butcher Beynon put dogs in the mincer.”
“Go on, he’s pulling her leg.”
“Now don’t you dare tell her that, there’s a dear.”
“Or she’ll think he’s trying to pull it off and eat it.”
My decades-old love of Under Milk Wood began when, as a teenager, I found the recording in my father’s collection. I had no idea what it was about, and it took me a while to get into—I kept waiting for a plot to develop. But repeated listening paid off, in which I was helped by my then boyfriend (and now my husband), a big admirer of Dylan Thomas. (I still joke that he dated me only because he found out that I had the record!) And the story doesn’t stop there but continues to the next generation. My nephew staged a memorable performance of the play at his university.
Under Milk Wood is funny, sly—Llagergub spells “Bugger all” backwards—and moving. And all these years later, when I hear or read the opening line, “To begin at the beginning”, I feel I’m being transported to a familiar and well-loved place that I will never tire of.
I cannot separate the book from the recording. If you have the time, I recommend buying the CD or downloading the recording (the 1954 one with Richard Burton playing First Narrator—please don’t see the film). I promise you won’t regret it.