Literature, comedy, and music galore. Rhodri Jones follows in the footsteps of Dylan Thomas and takes a look at what to expect from this year’s Laugharne Festival.
If, in previous years, you’ve been to the Laugharne Weekend, I’m pretty sure that you’ve already got tickets for this year’s event. It’s that sort of weekend. And with this year’s event kicking off on 1st April, the only fool is the person who has decided to give it a miss.
Synonymous with Dylan Thomas, the small town on the estuary of the River Tâf comes to life during Easter with one of the best small festivals you’ll ever have the pleasure of attending. It’s hard to describe what it is. It’s got some great music but it’s not a music festival; it has some great writers attending but it’s not a literary festival; it attracts some of Britain’s funniest stand-ups but it’s not a festival of comedy. What it is however, is something marvellous. It’s one of those strange experiences where you start off as a punter and end the weekend as a member of a select and privileged community.
Laugharne itself was the place where Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood and when you visit you can see how the town might have helped him to create his memorable cast of characters. A drink at Brown’s Hotel, his favourite haunt, and a brisk walk to the Boathouse where Thomas wrote will give you an idea of the locality, both its people and its beauty. And that’s part of the charm of the weekend. It’s not the type of festival which takes over a town or becomes more and more corporate from year to year. The organisers quickly worked out its charms and while attracting some great names have succeeded in keeping it small and homely. Another reason not to miss it.
As for the line-up, where do you start? The opening Friday night gives you a great idea of the eclectic nature of the event. At the Church you can catch Gwenno playing songs from her brilliant Welsh Music Prize winning album Y Dydd Olaf while Alexei Sayle and Dom Joly appear in the Hall. If you make it that far, of course. The first session in the Tin Shed is led by Peter Brown, a beer writer who will be demonstrating how to match your beer to the music you’re listening to. If you’re looking for a bit of hwyl, you’ve come to the right place.
In this, the festival’s tenth year, there are plenty of names that will guarantee a weekend to remember, if you don’t drink too much local ale. If literature is your thing, you won’t be disappointed. The master of crime writing, Ian Rankin, is making an appearance. It’s easy to imagine Rankin’s most famous creation, Rebus, walking moodily through Laugharne’s streets, and Rankin’s presence is surely one of those that should be marked as ‘not to be missed’. His novels might be classed as crime fiction but they go beyond the simple formula of that genre. And with Rankin such a fan of great music, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with him at another event during the weekend. A fellow Scot whose writing has been influenced by the music he loves is Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting is still one of the great contemporary British novels and one of the best contemporary British films. With the resurrection of some of Trainspotting’s characters in his most recent novel Skagboys and Welsh’s own colourful past through his involvement in the punk scene and a series of arrests for petty crime, some time in his company would be time well spent.
Musicians with literary flair also make an appearance. Gwenno, whose album is based on a Welsh language dystopian novel is also a staunch preservationist of minority languages. Other musicians who have something to say are plentiful. It’s a festival for the mind as much as anything else. Charlotte Church is making an appearance as is Tracey Thorn. The latter’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen deservedly became a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller while her second book, Naked at the Albert Hall appeared to much acclaim last year. The diversity of the line-up is reflected in the fact that Martin and Eliza Carthy and Thurston Moore both appear. Moore of the influential post-punk band Sonic Youth should be well worth seeing, especially in the light of his ex-wife and fellow band member Kim Gordon’s recent book Girl in a Band. Hearing Moore reflecting on his musical life should be one of the main attractions.
Two years ago, Wilko Johnson, the legendary guitarist of Dr. Feelgood, was meant to make an appearance. What kept him from Laugharne was the news that he had pancreatic cancer. While he initially decided against chemotherapy, he is now well on the road to recovery and is coming to Laugharne this April. Julian Temple, the revered documentary film-maker who directed the film on Dr. Feelgood, Oil City Confidential will also be there. When Temple appeared in 2014, it was with a touch of sadness at Wilko’s condition. Not so this year. Other legendary figures who’ll be attending include Brix-Smith Smart, once a member of The Fall, and Richard James, one of the founding members of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and, in recent years, the writer of some beautiful solo albums.
The Laugharne Weekend is also a great place to catch those up-and-coming voices. We’re sure to hear much more about Jonathan Edwards, winner of last year’s Costa Prize for Poetry. His first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes has its feet firmly on the ground. With many of the poems based on Edwards’s own family, it’s full of the type of humorous observations that are typical of the south Wales valleys. A fervent Welsh football fan, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s written anything on Bale and co. to go with his poem on Wales beating Germany at Cardiff Arms Park. Kate Hamer is another local writer whose work has appeared on the Costa Prize list. Her debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat has won plenty of admirers as has Brecon-born Holly Muller’s debut, My Own Dear Brother. It’s having these new voices amongst such familiar names like Deborah Moggach and Richard Osman which makes the Laugharne such a diverse and rich experience.
Equally funny and thought-provoking, comedians Josie Long and Mark Thomas, will ensure that there’ll be plenty of political issues to discuss as well. But no Laugharne Weekend would be complete without two more things. Firstly, Stuart Maconie. Radio personality, writer and a walking encyclopaedia, Maconie champions the weekend at every possible opportunity, waxing lyrical about the town’s charms. Laughane has a funny way of doing that to you. The other thing is an event which sums up the festival, Laugharne’s Got Talent, hosted by Keith Allen. Held in the local rugby club and billed as an “anarchic X Factor alternative” it sums up the communal nature of the festival where everyone can have a voice.
With the ghost of Dylan Thomas overseeing it, an impressive line-up and the idiosyncratic location, the Laugharne Weekend promises to draw us out of the wet winter blues and give us a taste of the summer.
Laugharne Festival, Fri 1 Apr-Sun 3 Apr. Tickets: £85. Info: www.s452743659.websitehome.co.uk