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21 April 2016

Even for the strangest town in Wales, our festival crowd must have been a sight

From David Quantick hosting the pub quiz to Stuart Maconie singing karaoke, I can't imagine what the locals make of us.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve just been to Laugharne, described by Dylan Thomas as “the strangest town in Wales”, and he’s allowed to say that because he lived there. The annual weekend of music, book readings and poetry inspires much talking and drinking late into the night, a beacon of chaos in an over-organised world of festivals. I love it.

Dylan Thomas is, of course, the hook. He lived here for much of the last five years of his life, 1949 to 1953, and wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night” for his father who was dying in the green house immediately opposite my hotel room. I look across to it, and the other Georgian houses up the street, painted in shades of violet, pistachio and duck-egg blue, though the view, blurred by lashing rain, is less postcard twee than that sounds.

There’s an element of Stella Street for the duration of the weekend – when I arrive at the pub Keith Allen, in workman’s overalls, is serving behind the bar – and everyone who is here to do an event attends everyone else’s event, so it feels as if the Groucho Club has taken over a small Welsh village. You suspect Thomas would have approved. It’s a homely, boozy occasion, untroubled by glamping or upmarket street food, reliant instead on whisky and chips. And the town has that staunchly nonconformist atmosphere often found in places that sit on the edge of the land. A “black-magical bedlam by the sea”, said Thomas. Possibly after a night at the karaoke.

David Quantick hosts the pub quiz, which runs out of paper after the first round. The questions are random, obscure and hilarious – I triumphantly identify the voice of Roger Moore singing “Once in Royal David’s City” – but our team is beaten into second place by the people who did the spoof Ladybird books. As the evening progresses, I’m twice told an unrepeatable anecdote about an award-winning novelist, involving a Travelodge and a graveyard, although the second time I’m told, it’s a different novelist.

At the Millennium Hall next morning a crowd gathers to hear David Hepworth. We’ve all walked through the driving rain, so our damp coats are gently steaming, and a smell of wet dog pervades the room. Hepworth talks about 1971, his favourite year, subject of a new book. In my head I hear Frank Sinatra singing, “When it was ’71, it was a very good year.”

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Later, I walk out to the Boathouse, perched on the edge of the water, where Dylan and Caitlin lived with their three kids. The rain has stopped now and the sea, which is almost to the front door, is still and calm, lapping gloopily at the shore. Mist shrouds the hills beyond the bay, and as I look back to the town I think of Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that appears for just one day in every hundred years. Looking the other way, out to sea, gives me that dizzying sense of staring towards nothingness. Which I imagine might encourage you to take a drink now and then.

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Back in town, the pace picks up; the strangeness redoubles. I see a fantastic young female R’n’B band from Cardiff called Baby Queens, and then Brix Smith-Start telling an anecdote about taking Mark E Smith to Disneyland, and then Pete Wylie in a church singing “Alone Again (Naturally)”. The karaoke takes off. Stuart Maconie sings “Wichita Lineman” and Charlotte Church sings “Be My Baby”, after which I am seized with the need to tell her what a good singer she is, in case no one has told her before. And night falls on a quiet little town gone mad.

Through it all, I can’t help wondering what the local people make of it, having their home invaded like this for a few days every year. At the Spar, as I queue to buy crisps, the shop is giving away free shot glasses of wine. The lad in front of me is ignoring this and buying a four-pack of lager instead. He asks the girl at the counter what’s going on this weekend. She says she’s not sure. “I think there are, like, poets, and” – she looks up towards me – “singers, and the like. Doing talks. Performing. But,” and then she lowers her voice and leans in to him, “I don’t really want to say too much.”

I understand. 

This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater