Book Of A Lifetime: Under Milk Wood, By Dylan Thomas
Friday 20 May 2011
In Nicholson Baker's book 'The Mezzanine', he discusses the periodicity of recurring thoughts, wondering about those thoughts which travel on a loop, each taking intervals of weeks or months to complete their orbit and resurface again. I first read 'Under Milk Wood' by Dylan Thomas on a coach in Australia when I was 24, and I'd guess I've thought about it every two to three weeks since then. It joins a jumble of other regular visitors, including: diminishing fish stocks, guilt-induced but wildly unfeasible resolutions for being better at staying in touch with friends, Helen Keller, the phrase "you pays your money and you takes your choice", and scientific footage of a white rat with spinal injuries swimming in a tank.
The play centres around one day in a small, unexceptional Welsh coastal town. We first meet the colourful residents at a point before dawn, the night "flying like black flour", as the reader drifts in the dark over the fields and streets, through the bedrooms of the sleeping residents and into their dreams. From there we watch as they wake up and work, following them out of bed over this one day and then finally back into bed as night falls.
Thomas's melodic and beautiful use of language creates a charming world, a fish tank of eccentrics affectionately observed with all their passions and peccadilloes. He writes with great warmth, rogues and saints alike treated with charity and humour. The reader views all characters with an easy sympathy, happy to be in their company. When I read it, as I have done so many times, I am reminded to be more generous with people.
My stock of pet quotes from 'Under Milk Wood' often surface unbidden and at random. As "a play for voices", it's always extremely tempting to say them aloud, despite being in a queue at the supermarket: "Tell my missus no I never, I never done what she said I never"; "Call me Delores like they do in the stories". Occasionally, when I'm nagging my boyfriend over some dull domestic task I remember the tyrannically house-proud Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard ordering her two ghostly husbands to list their morning duties: "I will eat a charcoal biscuit because it is good for me; I must blow my nose in a piece of tissue-paper which I afterwards burn."
These blend in with other memories of Richard Burton's famous recording of the play. I made a hash of putting it on my iPod. The play starts with Burton "beginning at the beginning", introducing the sleeping characters, his fabulously commanding voice informing us that "From where you are, you can hear their dreams" - at which point it immediately, mysteriously, cuts into Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba". Curiously, this mishap goes some way to summarise my feelings about 'Under Milk Wood' – for me it's a sunny, spirited toast to humanity in all its grand and mundane, reluctantly loveable messiness.
Rebecca Hunt is the author of 'Mr Chartwell' (Penguin)
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