From Laugharne to Rio Marina: Towns that were Mad


“Artists, as far as I can gather, have set out, however unconsciously, to prove one of two things: either that they are mad in a sane world, or that they are sane in a mad world.” (Dylan Thomas January 1934 to Trevor Hughes.)


In December 1939, Dylan suggested to Richard Hughes that what Laugharne needed was a play about itself, and the well-known characters in the town. He talked with Hughes again in 1943, and this time outlined an idea about a mad village, declared such by a government inspector, but believing itself to be the only place of sanity in a mad world. These ideas were then taken up with Constantine FitzGibbon, but the village was now deemed to be dangerous and not just mad:

         "Barbed wire was strung about it and patrolled by sentries, lest its dotty inhabitants infect           the rest of the world with their feckless and futile view of life."

FitzGibbon suggests that this development of the idea was influenced by revelations of the German concentration camps. Stories about the camps were appearing frequently in the popular press towards the end of the war. The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, for example, carried a vivid and horrifying description of Belsen by a local soldier. It appeared in May 18th 1945, when Dylan was living in New Quay. Three days later, he refers to Belsen in a letter to Julian Orde. Dylan also had other sources of information, such as his close friend, the painter Jankel Adler; some of the interviews done by Colin Edwards reveal Dylan's emotional responses to the Holocaust.[i]

Britain's own internment camps for Jewish refugees and others may have been equally potent in forming Dylan's ideas about the mad village. There were camps for internees all over Britain, based in derelict housing estates, disused factories, former holiday camps and boarding houses in the Isle of Man. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, lit by arc lights and guarded. Comprehensive internment was accompanied by a wave of anti-refugee/anti-semitic feeling in the country, led  by the popular press, particularly the Sunday Express.

 Dylan's ideas about snooping inspectors, suspicious London bureaucrats and a trial of the mad community relate directly to the experience of the internees. At the outbreak of war, "aliens" were obliged to register at their Town Hall, and restrictions on movements were imposed. A year later, comprehensive internment was introduced. Aliens were obliged to attend Enemy Alien Tribunals. After classification, they were rounded up from their homes by MI5, Scotland Yard and local police forces. They and their homes were usually searched, and they were then taken in Black Marias and other vehicles, some to interrogation centres, and most to holding camps.

 Internment camps were no safe havens: food and general conditions were poor and Jewish internees were physically and mentally abused by Mosley supporters interned with them. But self-help turned them into centres of sanity compared to the mad world outside: internees organised education and health care amongst themselves, and ran language, art, music and writing classes. By 1943, when Dylan was having a further discussion with Richard Hughes about the mad village, public opinion was turning against the camps. The government also realised it needed the internees for the war effort, and many were subsequently released into the mad world outside.

Camps for German and Italian prisoners of war may have also have been behind Dylan's thinking. By 1947, there were more than 300,000 prisoners organised in 250 camps around the UK. Prisoners were categorised as to their risk to national security, and many were allowed out to work on farms, including one at Waunffort, opposite Blaencwm, as Dylan describes in his letter of July 30 1945 to Oscar Williams. When Dylan and Caitlin were at South Leigh in 1948, inmates from a neighbouring camp for German prisoners chopped wood for them, looked after the garden and worked on the neighbouring farms.

 There were more than a dozen Italians on farms in the New Quay area, and some Germans, too. Jack Pat of the Black Lion took on an Italian prisoner to help with his cows and work in the dairy. These Italians came from Camp 70 at Henllan, near Newcastle Emlyn, which had been opened in 1942. It provides a good example of the supportive community set up in many camps by the prisoners, in contrast to the mad world of war outside. The Italians built their own church, with frescoes made from juice extracted from tea leaves and plants; candlesticks were made from corned beef tins. The prisoners also organised their own jazz band, orchestra, drama company, kitchen, menus and camp newspaper. They sold paintings, craft work and silver rings (made from silver three-penny pieces) to local people.[ii]

Philip Burton, a BBC producer in Cardiff, was another with whom Dylan discussed his mad town proposal. Burton has written that, at a meeting in the Cafe Royal in 1947, Dylan's ideas for the plot "largely depended on the bureaucracy of rationing". But Dylan's notions of inspection and control also relate to the much wider system of regulation introduced into war-time Britain. Communities like Laugharne and New Quay became adept in a form of economic self-governance; the black market created a buffer between them and the mad world, whose warring activities took away, and often killed, their sons and daughters. The authorities were well aware of what was going on, and people were often caught and brought to court. Rural communities with access to food from both the sea and land were thoroughly policed; in New Quay, for example, the two main roads into the town were frequently blocked by "the Food Inspectors", aided by the local police force.

By the end of the war, Dylan seemed less concerned with the idea of the mad/sane artist and more with the issue of the regulated one. He himself had become an instrument of the state, working for the Ministry of Information on wartime propaganda films. He was aware of how writers and artists had been harnessed to the state both in the Soviet Union and Germany. The fear that the state could control the creative madness of the writer was raised in his letter/poem to Tommy Earp of September 1944, complaining of the cultural police, verse inspectors and form troops. The difficulties facing the regulated writer were brought forcibly home to him when he attended a Writers' Congress in Prague in March 1948.

Places as well as people were an important part of this gestation period for the play. This was the time when the adult Dylan began to visit and explore the small West Wales seaside towns that many see as the inspiration for Llareggub. The idea of the cut-off or isolated community relates to Dylan's experience of both Laugharne and New Quay. He had lived in Laugharne in 1938, 1939 and for a few months in 1941. It is a town in Wales but not of Wales; it was an English-speaking and English-cultured enclave within Welsh Carmarthenshire. It was church not chapel, and had its own quaint traditions of government and custom. On one side, it had water, and on the other a hinterland of suspicious and distrusting Welshness. The town was seen as boorish, uncultured and violent. Its other, more attractive, sides are engagingly captured by Jon Tregenna. [iii]

New Quay was at the far end of Wales, as Dylan once described it. It was cut off in the sense that it had no railway, and the journey there from the station at Carmarthen was long and tedious, particularly in Dylan's day. It stood apart from its neighbouring towns because it was more sophisticated and cosmopolitan - snooty, as the people of Aberaeron called it. The distinctive and often eccentric nature of the town is explored further in A Postcard from New Quay on this site.

And it was in New Quay that the madness of the warring world burst violently into Dylan’s peaceful hide-away, as William Killick fired his machine-gun into Majoda. The powers-that-be from the outside world turned out in full force for Killick's trial in 1945 at Lampeter Town Hall; not just the judge sent from England to examine this particular bit of Welsh madness, but high-ranking officers from the War Office and the SOE as well. Five years later, as Dylan was working on the Mad Town idea, he wrote:

             “A Trial is arranged, a Trial in which the defendant is the sanity of the whole                                  community. The Trial is held in the Town hall. The Government has sent down an                         official prosecution.” [iv]

Two years later, on July 23 1947, Dylan and family arrived on the island of Elba, where they stayed for two weeks. They found a hotel in Rio Marina, a town, like New Quay, of steep streets, quarries and harbour and white and pink houses.

Perhaps Rio reminded Dylan of summer in New Quay, packed with South Wales miners, for he arrived there at the beginning of the iron miners' annual holiday. He enjoyed their company, and they regarded him with curiosity and "simpatia", the Elba historian Gianfranco Vanagolli told me: "He loved drinking like them. They were mariners and miners, strong people, who used to drink wine for an old tradition." Through these friendships, Dylan perceived "the soul of the community…as he was Welsh and the mine was in his blood." 

He drank with Pierino the anarchist, the most powerful leader on Elba. Augusto Livi, a Florence intellectual staying in the hotel, recalled a session in the bar:

     "One night Pierino started saying 'I'm a grand-dad, I have an eight years old grandson. I had     a trial. Everybody knows me along the coast…I am the thermometer; if I am quiet,                       everything is quiet. If I say 'it's enough', it's enough on land and sea.' Dylan Thomas frowned     his Bacchus head: he had a red stripe on his forehead, a kind of sunset. Dylan does not speak     Italian and Pierino, who is drunk, keeps on talking."

Dylan certainly enjoyed his stay there. He sent a postcard to Bill and Helen McAlpine, and then a letter: 

"…Rio Marina the strangest town…only fisherman and miners live here: few tourists: no foreigners. Extremely tough. Something like a Latin Cahirciveen. Notices 'Fighting Prohibited' in all bars. Elba cognac 3d…no licensing hours…a communist town: communism in Italy is natural, national, indigenous, independent. And the green and blue transparent yachted winkled and pickling sea! We are rarely out of it, except to drink, eat, sleep, sing, fuck, walk, dance, ride, write, quarrel, climb, cave & café crawl, read, smoke, brood, bask in the lavatory over the parroty fruit-market…"

Yet Rio was no picture postcard town. Vanagolli conveys a town under under siege, angry and aggressive, in a trial both of law and strength, aligned against the Italian state:

"The activity of the mines physically involved the whole town, which was crossed by railroads, fly-over bridges, canals and other industrial structure…the main road used to be closed during the explosions in the mines. Pieces of minerals could also enter the houses through the windows. There was a big workshop and chemical laboratory next to the church. Many workers were Communist and Socialist. There were a few anarchists, too. The riots were usually very hard. Many rioters thought it was a training for a revolution. Stalin and the USSR were adored by many of them. There was a lot of fanaticism. The war had just ended and everybody was exasperated. Life conditions were bad, the wages were low. Many families were living in such a misery that I can hardly describe. Social anger was affecting interpersonal relationships: fights were very common. The police had a lot of work to do."         

Perhaps in this strangest town, with its own customs, dialect and history, sometimes more French than Italian, colourful, anarchic and fiercely independent of the Tuscan mainland, Dylan saw  familiar elements of the mad town that he wanted to write about.


[i] On Dylan and Jankel Adler, see pp334-336 in Dylan Remembered 1935-53 vol 2 (Seren 2004) ed. D. N. Thomas; on Dylan and the Holocaust, see the interviews with Elizabeth Ruby Milton, Mably Owen, Brigit Marnier and Alban Leyshon in the same book.

[ii] J.M. Jones, ed. (1977) POW Camp 70, mimeo

[iii] J. Tregenna (2014) If He Were Still With Us in Dylan Thomas: A Centenary Celebration, ed. H. Ellis, Bloomsbury.

[iv] MS at Texas, on Savage Club notepaper and quoted by Davies and Maud, pxxi.