1980s Glastonbury with a country wedding feel: the poetic charms of Laugharne Weekend festival

The comedian Stewart Lee plying his trade in Laugharne - Emyr Young
The comedian Stewart Lee plying his trade in Laugharne - Emyr Young

Among the many reasons Dylan Thomas gave for people moving to the tiny Carmarthenshire estuary town of Laugharne, a few remained obscure. Some residents, he believed, had no idea why they had come at all. He described them as “slowly, dopily, wandering up and down the street like Welsh opium eaters, half asleep in a heavy bewildered haze”.

Had the poet been alive today he would have seen a different tribe of people marching back and forth along the higgledy piggledy high street between the Millennium Hall, the Church and the pubs, where an impressive array of comedians, artists, authors and musicians were in conversation at the Laugharne Weekend festival.

Among those celebrating the 15th occurrence of this under-the-radar arts and literary event were Charlotte Church, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, Will Sergeant of Echo & The Bunnymen, the artist Jeremy Deller, film-maker Don Letts, comedians Alexei Sayle and Stewart Lee, Jess Phillips MP, Caitlin Moran and author Peter Paphides, Martin Carthy of Steeleye Span, crime reporter Duncan Campbell, and many more.

As a festival, it’s a truly brilliant thing, extremely independent, punches above its weight in terms of attracting talent, and always sells out its 500 tickets. It’s restricted from expanding by a lack of accommodation and venues but this year's running order ensured both were full. While other events have struggled to get post-lockdown momentum, the Laugharne Weekend, despite being postponed by the pandemic and challenged by the petrol shortage, really was a triumph over adversity.

A successful crowdfunding exercise meant the event was able to go ahead amid a sense of mild euphoria. Bunnyman Will Sergeant came to a talk on Friday afternoon and decided to stay all weekend, and Stewart Lee admitted “They’ve been trying to get me here for years and now I’ve been I’m going to always come.”

The names are obviously the draw but it’s the cosy familiarity and lack of officialdom that gives the weekend its appeal. Organiser Richard Thomas says “it’s laid back but efficient, and that’s a difficult combination, but things do start on time”.

Charlotte Church hosting a talk at Laugharne - Emyr Young
Charlotte Church hosting a talk at Laugharne - Emyr Young

The event has something of a large country wedding about it. Every day you pass or bump into the same people you’ve met earlier and quickly find yourself on nodding and chatting terms. There’s no division between the audience and performer; as Ant, a fellow guest in the Long Lane House BnB I stayed in, put it: “I love that you can just chat to the acts in the street.”

There is no real suggestion that the event takes place in the social media age, no banners with sponsors’ logos, no hashtags, no video cameras creating content. It’s very much like 1980s Glastonbury. Outside the church, James Batcup of Cover To Cover Bookshop of Mumbles sells 500 new books over the weekend alongside renowned rare books dealer Jeff Towns selling second-hand editions.

The old and new together works well and you never know who you are going to see paired up. Nick Reynolds is a sculptor and member of the Alabama 3 pop group, most famous for their Sopranos theme song, but he is also the son of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, which makes him the ideal man to interview leading British crime journalist Duncan Campbell who is happy to stop and chat on his way to see Martin Carthy of Fairport Convention. It is Duncan’s wife who adds a sprinkling of extra excitement to the event though. Here she is with no airs or graces: Julie Christie, Oscar-winning star of Dr Zhivago, Don’t Look Now and McCabe and Mrs Miller, a true Hollywood legend, who is happy to have her photograph taken or sign an autograph.

In the church, Stewart Lee and Alexei Sayle dissect the latter’s career from being the Comedy Store compere and The Young Ones landlord onwards. Sayle recounts the time his wife, Linda, stopped him from being attacked during a gig by accurately throwing empty bottles from behind the bar at violent stage invaders’ heads, and his own dismay at trying to become a family comedian when he discovered that no other families in Britain had spent childhood teatimes discussing the fortunes of the Albanian Communist Party as his had. He cited Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce and snippets of Richard Pryor as being his comedic influences.

Alexei Sayle appearing at Laugharne - Emyr Young
Alexei Sayle appearing at Laugharne - Emyr Young

As well as music and talks, artist Jeremy Deller gave us a slideshow of his notable works including the moving human memorial to the Battle of the Somme, and Stewart Lee showed King Rocker, his own film about cult Birmingham punk group The Nightingales. Welsh film and television director Kevin Allen showed his new kickabout camping comedy La Cha Cha, which was filmed locally.

Dylan Thomas loved how different Laugharne was to anywhere else and first-hand experience suggests it remains so. After a long and fascinating night in the New Three Mariners Inn with Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant and beer expert and author Pete Brown, I found myself still chatting to the social historian Travis Elborough - there to discuss his new book about spectacles - outside the town graveyard at 1.30am, when there was an almighty clatter and a man drunkenly forward-rolled out of the hedge.

Dusting himself down, he looked at us and said, “My mate’s dead up there.” As we were pondering whether he meant his friend was alcoholically comatose he climbed into a waiting taxi, rolled down the window and explained, “Yeah he’d been there for years but I like to go and see him every now and then.” Even the dead draw audiences in Laugharne and Dylan Thomas would have liked that.