DT – the final word.

Nearly fed up of the various Dylanothons or other Laugharniferous verbo-frenzies? Then look away now. I’m going in there for one last gloopy submergence; right in to the heron-stalked sticklebacked, reedy pockmarked estuarine slap of it. Fondling the cockles and snorting in the brilliant, briny green bay-ness. Because there’s something life-affirming in there, something wonderfully open. Isn’t there?

With Dylan, you either get it or don’t. Okaaay, we can say that of everything but what I mean is Thomas is seemingly destined or well-equipped to polarise. There are legitimate calls either way – he can be a pompous, adoration-seeking preacher or a deliciously boozy revolutionary – your call. You could hate him for that ridiculous voice, booming and faux (post elocution lessons) and for his dumb wading (or wallowing?) in the highbrow and the posh. Or you could melt, melt into the stream, the malt, the whisky that is Thomas at his finest.

I do know proper Welsh folks who simply cannot get past that voice, mind; I struggle myself. Because it reeks of a kind of appallingly grasping aspiration towards god-fearing elevation and therefore, well… private schools and hops and horses and England. How can anyone who sounds like that – like he’s auditioning for the RADA/BBC of the forties – be anything other than a complete nob? How, mun? Even if Thomas was effectively auditioning, more or less desperately, for the holy grail of paid work at the Beeb or elsewhere for much of his short career, Dai the Bomb of Solva won’t buy the sub-Etonian in-tone-ay-shunns. You need then, to be seduced past the bombast.

But what, pray, if you are (for example) a feisty gel minded to strike out at the poet’s diabolical treatment of ‘the women in his life’? Or immediately suspicious of anyone who needs a bevvy or eighteen to flush out the creative urge? Or anti-welsh? Or magnificently bright but favour the lean, the skeletally insightful, the tight-arsed prose of contemporary favour? Let’s face it, there are lots of ways to skin the Thomas cat.

Then there’s his status, which in the minds of some may convey instant naffness – ‘cos people love him. Ordinary peeps – yes, those trackie-wearing plebs, those lottery ticket-buying donkeys – some of them too, love Thomas because of those words; not from study but from the whiff or memory of Dylan and of something shared in the air.

Naturally (and maybe I do mean this as a sociological observation) the Welsh intuit or ‘get’ or tap in to something that hums between the landscape and the bloke here. Visitors to the province or the works may of course enter the kingdom of Llarregub or the teenier but no less compelling worlds of Fern Hill or A Child’s Christmas on production of a sherry-stained visa or perhaps just a big daft, responsive heart. Once in, all do feel welcome, I think.

There’s a fascinating link between this now iconic Welshman with his ‘ailing lung’ and the national sport of immersing in song. Is it that Thomas captures something pleasingly characteristic which has a particular rhythm? Certainly – but difficult to specify whether that rhythm is just felt or (even) trace how it springs from the page. The sensation is maybe received musically, as though in an alcohol-stimulated ‘glow’ – which again appeals to most of us as a notion as well as an experience. This should not however deflect us from acknowledging the imaginative power and prodigious intellect at work.

But let’s be honest, it’s more or less accessible poetry – sing-song – that wins us over. Does that make it merely… saccharoidal? No. The greatest triumph and therefore best example – Under Milk Wood – is way too rich for that. Popular sure but also funny, sexy and profoundly beautiful. I’ve been this way before but please do sit and draw in the magnificent windows-opening-simultaneously ‘bible black’ of the Michael Sheen opening to the 2014 Beeb Wales version. (Link in a previous blog – may no longer be available there!) It’s spellbindingly wonderful. Find it and stay with the entire production if you can. Here is all the proof you need, brilliantly understood, superbly executed.

This recent Under Milk Wood is excitingly contemporary as well as true to the work. It brings the words to life far better than Thomas himself could through his own readings. The Sheen masterclass is merely the precursor to a sustained execution of the poetry of this remarkable play. For me it’s then obvious – emphatic. Dylan Thomas may have been an incorrigible scrounger or duplicitous or worse but his legacy stands triumphant and triumphantly against cynicism. If you want to make the argument that this stuff is centred upon hypocrisy then crack on; for me what is left… is not for cynics. It’s for humanity and joy and I believe in it.

Tuning right in let me say I know Laugharne well and can tell you that both the place itself and the writer himself make sense almost explosively, in some fabulous deep fashion, if you park yourself on a bench beneath (say) the castle walls. The estuary village is both quietly delightful and throbbing with daft stories but it needed to be written to be.

Nowhere have I been that gave the epiphanic thwack that standing by the Writing Shed in Laugharne offers. Under Milk Wood – and plenty else – becomes viable, thinkable, familiar and goes scorching to the very heights of word-as-document, as expression of the gorgeous. Both the sound of it and the glorious human warmth of Milk Wood embed it in the hearts of millions the world over. It’s unique in a way that’s at once a lot of fun and stylistically beyond (as we say in Wales.) Meaning it’s both entertaining and bona fide as a work of art.

This is my 200th post and I wanted to write about something important- to me. I love the madness and the boldness in Thomas. I love that being a palpably inadequate bloke, he blazed a trail, he made something mighty and essentially generous. Turn to Under Milk Wood and find his vindication, his moment. Here most obviously he surely floods out beyond local stereotype into things universal; foibles, the workaday truths, the daily poisons, love.

Thinking whilst writing of Thomas, I have been reminded of Joan Miro’s determination to ‘pursue the golden sparks in his soul’ – something I wrote about some moons ago. I said of the Catalan genius

He knew his purpose was to make a poetic response to experience. And he did it for decades. Call me an old tart, but I find that inspiring.

Thomas lacked longevity – that ailing lung failed him. But he had that drive towards the wondrous and I salute him too.

Llareggub – Peter Blake/Dylan Tomas.

Homage is such a weird one; part most personal, part public ablution of some other greater one’s feet. At whatever level it’s clearly revealing of both sides of a (typically) unbalanced relationship but when both idolised and genuflector-alike stand as considerable forces in The Arts, weightier baggage is lumped onto the laundry-cart.

It could be that the necessary cleansing routine for us ordinary folks includes the bawling-out of our deference but a) this is often from within some protected cohort of friends, family or fans and b) nobody’s listening – not really. But for a figure of stature – like Peter Blake say – to come out and darkling thrush his humble joy in the presence of some other, greater genius is well, significant.

This is not meant as some entrée to sychophancy. I can’t stand the idea that artists are better than the rest of us – although (in contradiction) the contribution real artists make is, for me, central to the quality of life itself. I mean specifically that there is likely to be meaning in the fact of the public adoration of one world-renowned artist for another. And Blake’s sincere but gobsmacking, painstaking, deliberate and normal-life-denying love for ‘Under Milk Wood’ is – when you are confronted with the scale of it – phenomenal.

Twenty-eight years and counting. Zillions of man hours that could have been spent on other ‘productive’ things. Used instead to tickle or tease out 170 (and the rest!) mini collages or water-colour scenes or pencilled portraits from some drunken Welshman’s ‘Play for Voices’. What is that all about? Obsession? Love? Vulnerability, even, to some sense of his own inadequacy? I visited Oriel y Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire to get a proper look – at Llaregubb.

In the sunken but airy, slightly creamily-lit gallery and…
Ok, so we get told the following; Blake’s been doing this Dylan Thomas thing since about 1985. At college (much earlier) ‘Welsh students’ had stoked his interest but the genesis of this project – or more accurately another Dylan Thomas project – came around the mid-Eighties. When that originally-proposed book of etchings was abandoned (apparently because it was a struggle in every sense) Blake continued with his Under Milk Wood obsession as a form of extra-curricular ‘hobby’.

But why this – Under Milk Wood -and why this intensity?

Knowing too little of Blake’s work to bypass these questions, I needed and was fascinated to break into the link between these two extraordinary and extraordinarily different men. So I cheated and listened to or read more of the background material provided by the gallery.

The painter/artist (in filmed interview) rather flatly describes the ‘separate me’ who is the illustrator – the non-painter, the other bloke – who makes this Milk Wood stuff of an evening, after a day’s work. He is not so much restrained as simply quiet; a quiet, serious but madly zealous fan, then? Quietly-voraciously zealous rather than madly anything, was my impression. In truth – you can’t help but calibrate along with the interview – Peter Blake is pleasingly unpretentious but a smallish, dare I say dullish personality.

Like his handwriting beneath the pictures he is orderly but yes, so undemonstrative he may appear small-hearted. Hard, then, to immediately reconcile this on-screen, quintessentially English keeper of deep secrets with the Welsh torrent himself.

The cod psychologist in anyone works overtime in situations like this. (Erm, or is that just me?) The real live artist discussing the real live art in front of us. O-kaaay. But he doesn’t get asked ‘why Thomas?’ Or ‘why Milk Wood?’ so we must either go to the work for that which confirms or denies or figures, or simply close down the detective instinct. Who needs reconciliation? Who needs explanation?

What matters is the stuff on the walls (alright) but it feels right to offer a doubts-and-all response, a personal response and this began with concern at what felt like a lack of passion; or the lack of a key into that passion. The admittedly short film provided suggested that Blake isn’t the sort to rave colourfully in conversation, even when (surely?) measuring out that which he treasures. Meaning the fear that he may be a (prosaic? Skilled but mechanical?) builder of metaphorical train sets in some spotless attic did occur.

It is not until he offers a snippet of

secret information
on the
disguised portraits… including Terry Wogan as a woman… and Billy Piper

that encouragingly fecund tones begin to bubble out, gently.

I remind myself – or perhaps Blake does? – that this is the geezer who was poptastically famous in the sixties, who dun that seminal album cover, who was all about hallucinogenic brightness… or something.

Instinctively, I go look at the Portraits. They are (ahem) quietly sensational. Beyond alive; they are life-affirming in their twinkling, mischievous, animal presence. It’s a game-changer. Evans the Death, Nogood Boyo and Mr Ogmore-Pritchard and Mr Ogmore are visceral or tragic or ghostly or wicked but what they have in common is a triumphant presence – they are with us, here and now. The doubts have gone.

On to the Dreams, which similarly float free from the shackles-that-might-have-been. They too have their own, brilliant, independent being. The pictures are no longer merely piggybacking ‘captions’ –

Now behind the eyes and secrets of the dreamers in the streets rocked to sleep by the sea, see the titbits and topsy-turvies, bobs and buttontops, bags and bones, ash and rind and dandruff –

they are works of art, in fact. And if there is a language in these pictures, let it work; read it; it trills and dances – voluptuously – or it nails that sense of a bloke with all his daft and tragic dimensions. There is suddenly a flow, a dialogue, a shared exuberance between poet and illustrator… and onlooker.

In retrospect I made the error of underestimating at first contact the apparent modesty of this show against the flooding brilliance of the inspiration. I walked into Oriel y Parc and feared smallness. Foolish. Lazy and foolish. Wrongheaded too to wonder if it may have been a tactical error by the curator/gallery/artist/his ‘people’(?) to set the thing out with Illustrations of scenes and locations up front; but this I did wonder. Because these pictures are simply less immediately arresting than the Portraits and the Dreams further in to the exhibition.

Only when I had read my way into the pictures (and actually contemplated at some length the triumph that are the Portraits and many of the Dreams) did I successfully gather in the whole experience. Lesson learned.

Blake makes both his reverence for and his sheer enjoyment of Milk Wood gorgeously explicit. In the Portraits he captures a winking Mr Pritchard, a Voice who might secretly be Samuel Beckett. In the Dreams, Mrs Rose Cottage’s eldest Mae smoulders in something close to fire, nakedness and poster-paint whilst Sinbad Sailors sincerely and absurdly

…hugs his damp pillow whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon.

It’s alright for it to be a lot of fun, this art thing.
This exhibition now goes back to the owner but I am informed that a New York show is a distinct possibility. Go mad and unquietly extravagant. Go pay homage.