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Morag MacInnes on Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood

Around the Fire

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‘To begin at the beginning . . .’

The record player had a red fabric covering with yellow piping round the sides – slightly frayed – and shiny brass clasps like a picnic hamper. It sat on the ground, because records were precious, needles were fragile and bumps would be disastrous.

Being an artist’s child, I read pictures long before books, and I loved the shiny HMV covers: the dog, the trumpet, Eartha Kitt’s arms opening wide. I wondered how she kept her dress up. Paul Robeson I confused with an Old Testament patriarch, because he sang about Moses and Joshua. The Under Milk Wood cover was my favourite, garish, 50s-ish, cartoonish I think.

But perhaps I made that up. I was only about 10. The division between life and pretend was fairly fluid. I know for sure that my sort-of-uncle George (known to the wider world as George Mackay
Brown) would come round for tea, they’d build up the fire, he’d have a pipe, Mum would get out the rag rug she was hooking, and Dad would gently lift the arm on to the disc. There’d be a pause and a hiss, and then Richard Burton’s voice would fill the room.

I didn’t know who Burton was; he was just the storyteller. I thought he came from Stromness like everybody else I knew except the dentist, who came from Kirkwall. His voice rose and dipped as Orcadian voices do. I lay on the rug watching Mum’s legs turn mottled red, and waited for the local folk to make their appearance – the folk I knew from the street and the stories George and Dad told the company when they’d had a homebrew or two.

In the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent . . . limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea . . .

Didn’t I run down those very streets to the pier where the Norwegian boats threw us fish fry? Didn’t I see ‘the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher’ ever

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‘To begin at the beginning . . .’

The record player had a red fabric covering with yellow piping round the sides – slightly frayed – and shiny brass clasps like a picnic hamper. It sat on the ground, because records were precious, needles were fragile and bumps would be disastrous.

Being an artist’s child, I read pictures long before books, and I loved the shiny HMV covers: the dog, the trumpet, Eartha Kitt’s arms opening wide. I wondered how she kept her dress up. Paul Robeson I confused with an Old Testament patriarch, because he sang about Moses and Joshua. The Under Milk Wood cover was my favourite, garish, 50s-ish, cartoonish I think. But perhaps I made that up. I was only about 10. The division between life and pretend was fairly fluid. I know for sure that my sort-of-uncle George (known to the wider world as George Mackay Brown) would come round for tea, they’d build up the fire, he’d have a pipe, Mum would get out the rag rug she was hooking, and Dad would gently lift the arm on to the disc. There’d be a pause and a hiss, and then Richard Burton’s voice would fill the room. I didn’t know who Burton was; he was just the storyteller. I thought he came from Stromness like everybody else I knew except the dentist, who came from Kirkwall. His voice rose and dipped as Orcadian voices do. I lay on the rug watching Mum’s legs turn mottled red, and waited for the local folk to make their appearance – the folk I knew from the street and the stories George and Dad told the company when they’d had a homebrew or two.
In the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent . . . limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea . . .
Didn’t I run down those very streets to the pier where the Norwegian boats threw us fish fry? Didn’t I see ‘the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher’ every day? Blind Captain Cat, who relives his voyages and lost loves in his dreams – I’d met him, his house all strewn with glass buoys and sea urchins. He and Dad drank whisky and talked fish politics. He gave me a ship in a cod-liver oil bottle. Mog Edwards the draper, who has an emporium, ‘where the change hums on wires’ – I’d stood with my nose at his counter, gazing at the flick of his Brilliantined curl, while his snooty wife sent the pennies whizzing in their brass capsule to the enormous till. I recognized the personalities; more than that, I learned about storytelling. This was more than a listening event; it was audience participation. There’s an etiquette about tale-telling in small communities. Everyone knows the story to start with. There’s a shared knowledge of the characters involved, the way they walk and talk, their back story. Mimicry is essential – George was a consummate mimic. As for the punch line, it’s not a shock or a twist – we’re dealing with something familiar here – though when and how it will be delivered depends on the teller. In fact there are no real surprises, rather a sort of comfortable security in the safety of the tale and the expertise of the teller. This means the audience knows its part too – when to ‘umm’, when to ‘ooh’, when to repeat, gently, a favourite line, when to pause, gleefully, for the climax. At favourite moments – a good turn of phrase, a bit of understatement or irony – George and Dad would join in with Burton and his cast, and slap their knees with pleasure. And so, in my innocence, would I. So when the awful Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, who would nowadays be the subject of a documentary about obsessive cleaning on one of the lesser channels, lines up her dead husbands and catechizes them, we chanted with the actors:

‘Tell me your tasks in order.’ ‘I must put my pyjamas in the drawer marked pyjamas . . . I must make my herb tea which is free from tannin. And have a charcoal biscuit which is good for me . . .’ ‘And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes.’

Then we’d catch each other’s eyes and smile. I came to know Under Milk Wood like no other piece of literary fiction; it was in me like nursery rhymes – dark, scary, funny, familiar, yet real as the Stromness shops. When the neighbours gossip by the pump about wanton Mr Waldo ‘using language!’ or Ocky Milkman’s wife, who ‘nobody’s ever seen, he keeps her in the cupboard with the empties’, I saw them at our pier-head, with their shopping bags, and the curlers under their headscarves. I understood, gropingly, the tension there is between guilt and pleasure which defines life in small towns like Llareggub and Stromness; not as fully as the adults sitting over me, to be sure – a shy celibate Catholic with a drink problem and a ranting atheist with a Hieland conscience – but I already knew there were children you didn’t lend your pixie hat to, bad boys who got their tongues scrubbed out with Lifebuoy soap . . . I knew there were things you mustn’t do no matter how much you wanted to. I didn’t understand quite why and how much that romantic pair loved Polly Garter, the life-affirming whore, in mourning for Willie Weazel, her true love. ‘Nothing grows in our garden, only washing. And babies,’ she says dreamily, careless of the town’s censure. Nor did I realize that Nogood Boyo – who, caught in the moment before he has to become a man, ships the oars on his dinghy, stretches out ‘among crabs’ legs and tangled lines’, looks up at the sky and says ‘I don’t know who’s up there and I don’t care!’ – was a favourite because George himself had spent years on National Assistance, unable to fight in the war like his peers. Not only did he meet all the Boyos in the pub, he was considered to be one of them, a failing, dreaming drunk. What could I have made of Gossamer Beynon, ‘demure and proud and schoolmarm in her crisp flower dress and sun-defying hat, with never a look or lilt or wiggle, the butcher’s unmelting icemaiden daughter’, who harbours a Dionysian passion for Sinbad Sailor: ‘I want to gobble him up, I don’t care if he does drop his aitches, so long as he’s all cucumber and hooves.’ Or of her hapless swain, all unknowing, who laments to his Guinness, ‘Oh beautiful beautiful Gossamer B, I wish I wish that you were for me. I wish you were not so educated.’ I suppose I just knew there were young women teachers, lots of them – and the war had taken all the men. Llareggub’s a gossipy, tight, backbiting place, enclosed by farms and fish, Bible-thumpers and small-town aristocracy. The etiquette of the middle classes is dead and dry. Working people have all the joy. Just like 1950s Stromness. Both the men by the side of our fire listening to Dylan Thomas hated school but loved books and the place they grew up in. No wonder they chanted some of the language. It was a kind of assertion of worth. There’s another side to the coin too, in the play – the misery and boredom of long unloving unions under the watchful eyes of kirk and community. I read it now with a certain admiration at the skill with which Thomas describes marital despair. Then I found it comic, I think. In the postie’s ‘dark and sizzling damp tea-coated misty pigmy kitchen’ his wife steams open the town’s mail, most memorably a package, Lives of the Great Poisoners, for Mr Pugh in the School House. In this icy atmosphere, ‘dusty and echoing as a dining-room in a vault’, he and his wife hurt each other daily:

‘Here’s your arsenic dear, And your weedkiller biscuit . . . Here’s your . . . nice tea, dear . . .’

Poor man. His revenges are all imaginary – but the hatred is palpable. ‘A play for voices’ it’s called, but it’s easy to forget how much music runs through Under Milk Wood. That’s another reason it struck a chord at that Fifties fireside. George Mackay Brown and my father grew up with Kirk of Scotland hymns and sea shanties, Gaelic laments and music-hall teasers. They loved to sing lustily and long late into the night, though George’s voice was compromised by his TB and had a wheezy rasp to it, and my dad was tone-deaf. Nobody minded. A song – a party piece – was integral to an evening’s entertainment. Thomas’s knowledge of Welsh village life was similar, of course – he had the miners, the valleys and the Chapel to draw on. The children sing in Llareggub; their refrains are not sentimental but deeply knowing; games turn swiftly into bullying – the unfortunate victim ‘runs howling for his milky mam . . . he’ll never forget as he paddles blind home through the weeping end of the world’, but the perpetrators head for the shop (post-rationing children, sugar crazy) – for ‘gobstoppers big as wens that rainbow as you suck, brandyballs, winegums . . . licorice sweet as sick’. It’s a lost world, in some ways; pre-television, pre-Internet. Later in life, when I came to study George Mackay Brown’s work, I saw traces of Under Milk Wood everywhere. I suspect, for him, as for me, it was simply part of his emotional landscape. The chorus of gossips returns in his poem ‘The Old Women’. Bullying children and hoydenish gypsy women appear in many stories, as do wastrels, drunkards and melancholy generous whores, stolid fishermen and repressed, joyless Calvinists. He makes them his own; but there’s an echo. Then, last year, I rediscovered with real joy a painting of my father’s, which is his own take on Under Milk Wood, Stromness-style, complete with Polly Garter in her garden full of babies. It’s an unusual outing for him – he was a marine artist – but a beautiful thing. It takes me right back to the red record player, Burton’s fruity tones, the painter, the poet and the rug-maker by the coal fire.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 39 © Morag MacInnes 2013


About the contributor

Morag MacInnes is a writer and lecturer. She was born in Stromness and now lives just up the road in Quoyloo, overlooking Skara Brae and the Scottish hills. Her father Ian MacInnes went to school with George Mackay Brown, illustrated his books and painted him several times.

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