Hellraiser's pub: The poet, the actor, a furore

When Neil Morrissey bought Browns Hotel in south-west Wales, he took over the watering hole of the legendary Dylan Thomas. Now a round-the-clock licence has split Laugharne
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The Independent Online

Binge-drinking has become one of the current tabloid obsessions, but there is a considerable ambivalence in our attitudes to alcohol. As the fulsome tributes to George Best last weekend showed, the British have a soft spot for self-destructive drunks.

In the collective imagination, figures such as Best, Oliver Reed, Jeffrey Bernard and Richard Burton become simply loveable rogues, cocking a snook at our nine-to-five, calorie-counting, regular-flossing lives. They seem to get away with the outrageous behaviour that we secretly wish we could too. Or at least they do until they have to pick up the bill - the agonising physical decline, the remorse for harm done to others, the early death - and they are admired for their refusal to complain or blame others.

Literature's point man in this field is Dylan Thomas. From the poet's arrival in literary London as a precocious and prolific adolescent in the early 1930s a legend began to form around him. He lived a boozy, bohemian life in rented rooms and the pubs of Fitzrovia and Soho, supported by tiny fees for poems published and the occasional book review. This was supplemented by a shameless scrounging. Throughout his life he retained an unshakeable belief in his vocation and that a poet had a right to be supported by friends and acquaintances.

His marriage in 1937 to the sexy and temperamental Caitlin Macnamara, a former lover of the painter Augustus John, only increased the pace of his life: poverty, binges, jokes, the increasingly occasional poem, brilliant talk, rows, infidelity, debts. Through asthma and subterfuge he avoided military service during the war: "I'd rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer", but eventually found work writing scripts for the Ministry of Information and later for the BBC.

But by 1948 his own poetry was foundering. Though he had said that "Wales was the land of my fathers. And my fathers can have it," Thomas realised that his only hope as a poet was to leave London and return to Wales. He persuaded his admirer Margaret Taylor, wife of the historian AJP Taylor, to buy him a house in Laugharne (pronounced "Larn") on the south-west coast of Wales. The town was home to a friend, Richard Hughes, the author of the novel, A High Wind In Jamaica, and he had often stayed with him at the Castle House there. (Augustus John was also a frequent visitor.) In spring 1949 Dylan, Caitlin and their two children moved into the Boat House, a picturesque building on the western shore of the Taf estuary.

Dylan took to writing in the shed above the Boat House and his life in Laugharne fell into a routine. He would write in the morning then walk the short way to his favourite pub, the white-washed 18th-century Browns Hotel, in King Street, the main drag of this sleepy, Carmarthenshire town. Dylan liked Laugharne for its eccentricities and called it "a legendary lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea". It is one of only two towns in Britain that still operates under its medieval charter. Its corporation is composed of 500 male burgesses who elect their own aldermen, jury and portreeve (quasi-mayor).

At Browns Hotel, he would sit in his regular corner to "moulder", as he called it, and write at a wrought-iron table. Tommy Watts, who later became the landlord of the pub, remembers Dylan, but says reports of his heavy drinking there were exaggerated. He only ever saw him drinking half-pints of Buckley's Best, the local beer still available in the bar. This is supported by Gwen Watkins, now 82, whose husband, Vernon, was among Dylan's best friends: "He would often fall asleep after a few pints. It did not take very much to make him quite merry and from merry just a little bit rambunctious and then fast asleep. Spirits were a disaster to him - he really could not take them. Caitlin could. Caitlin could drink a half bottle of whiskey and you would not notice any difference. She was an Irish drinker - someone who was brought up on whiskey."

Browns soon became such a regular haunt that he gave the phone number to people who needed to contact him (he had no telephone at the Boat House).

The idea for his most celebrated work, Under Milk Wood, had first come to him when he was staying in New Quay on Cardigan Bay. Early one morning he looked down on the sleeping town and imagined the thoughts of the inhabitants, which he later wrote as a short story in 1945. With his arrival in Laugharne, he took up the idea again and the townspeople and locals of Browns Hotel that he observed and overheard became the raw material for the final version of his "play for voices" eventually transmitted by the BBC in 1954. (He abandoned his original title, The Town That Was Mad.)

Though Dylan may have led a less dionysian life in Laugharne - he saved his excesses for his visits to London and tours of the United States - his regular absences allowed Caitlin to let rip, and her drinking and blatant adulteries became notorious. Gwen Watkins recalls: "They really were very in love in the beginning. But I think Caitlin got quite worn down by never having enough money. I felt sorry for her. She was a very beautiful woman but was left alone in Laugharne to bring up the children. It is all touristy now but in the 1940s it was the end of the world - it was a dump. Towards the last years she was in a constant simmering rage."

Dylan completed Under Milk Wood in spring 1953, during his third visit to America, and it was first performed there on stage. In poor health and drinking heavily, he collapsed in New York on 4 November 1953, fell into a coma and died on 9 November. His body was returned to Wales and he is buried in Laugharne churchyard.

After his death Caitlin moved to Italy with the children, first to Elba, then Procida, then Rome. She died in Catania, Sicily in 1994 and, at her request, was buried at Laugharne alongside her husband.

The popular reputation of Dylan Thomas has continued to grow since his death. Though some critics found the florid rhetoric and romanticism of his work overdone, these were exactly the aspects which appealed to the wider public. Literary pilgrims have included American presidents Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton - Laugharne plays host to 50,000 visitors each year on the Dylan Thomas heritage trail. The Boat House was converted into a study centre and the poet's corner in Browns Hotel became a shrine. The bar remained substantially unaltered since the poet's day - apart from many photographs of Thomas and a changing series of dartboards - each one sold by the landlord to a gullible tourist eager for a souvenir touched by the literary genius. Jeff Towns, the owner of Dylan's Book Store in Swansea, said Browns had managed to stay the way Thomas would have remembered it 50 years ago.

"It is very much a local pub," he said. "The landlord and lady there at the time of Dylan and Caitlin become very good friends with the Thomases. It was an absolute daily ritual for him to go there. It has never become a tourist trap and I kind of admire it for that."

For 33 years the landlord was Tommy Watts, but two years ago, aged 72, he decided to put the bar up for auction. It was the 50th anniversary of Dylan's death and several potential bidders expressed interest. One was the actor Pierce Brosnan, a longtime admirer of Thomas's poetry and a collector of his first editions and memorabilia. He owns a wooden double bed used by Dylan when he stayed at Browns in the 1930s and 1940s and his second son is called Dylan Thomas Brosnan. Mick Jagger, the producer of a Thomas bio-pic (still in pre-production), also entered the fray.

At the auction however the pub was bought for £670,000 by Neil Morrissey, the actor most famous for Men Behaving Badly and voicing the character Bob the Builder. His current wealth has been estimated at £10m. He is still acting, but with his business partner Matt Roberts he now operates a chain of smart hotels and bars. He had first come to south Wales in his teens on holiday. In Laugharne his first purchase was in 2003, a down-at-heel 16th-century farmhouse now converted into a boutique hotel called Hurst House (and recently voted the most romantic hotel in Wales), then the New Three Mariners Pub, and then, further along the street, Browns. Whether it was the locals or the newspapers who first came up with the nickname isn't clear, but Morrissey is certainly know as the Lord of Laugharne. His ambitions are not limited to Wales. He also has plans to open a club in London at Seven Dials (also to be called Hurst House) and last week bought Gore Vidal's villa at Rapallo on the Amalfi coast for €10m (£6.85m).

Morrissey has smartened up Browns Hotel without, it is generally thought, destroying its character. Dylan's bar remains the same, but better lit, there's now a cocktail bar in the basement, and there are now bedrooms upstairs (despite the name it was always just a bar).

He recently successfully applied for a 24-hour licence for Browns Hotel for residents and a closing-time of 1am for the pub on Friday and Saturday nights, despite objections from three residents living near by. Susan Edge told the licensing sub-committee: "Browns has gone from a well-run, orderly, quiet country pub to one that attracts a yobbish element. There is mayhem at closing time. Most weekends have been a misery for me with loud music erupting through the open bar windows. Youths and girls vomit or urinate outside my house and there is general mayhem at closing time. Customers either shout abuse or scream at each other, there are noisy cars with thumping radios and I have to seek refuge in my bathroom to escape the misery."

However the Laugharne police said they had a record of only two minor incidents in the past year at Browns. The company running Browns, Hurst House Farms, observed that the licence was for residents and guests only, and accepted conditions that music should not be heard outside and that notices be put up telling regulars to leave quietly. Browns' manager Stephen Watson said he "sympathised" with the residents and "took their views very seriously. At the moment Browns is only open on a Friday and Saturday. It is in a state of some disrepair. My company is committed to a renovation programme. I give my word as a local resident that we will manage that site as professionally as we can."

Dylan Thomas's response to the objections at closing time on a Friday can probably be imagined: part of him remained a permanent adolescent. He would always take the side of the young against the disapproving and finger-wagging old. He would definitely not have "gone gentle into that good night".

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