Friday, 1 November 2013

Under Milk Wood... SE24?


 by Jon Tregenna
 

 
2014 was Dylan Thomas' centenary, Dylan was everywhere, yet one important question remained unanswered. What was the origin of the title of Thomas' most famous work, Under Milk Wood?
 
Researching for the Laugharne Lines website meant I've heard several theories over the years.
 
Was it a naughty reference to condoms – the African milkwood tree being a source of latex – as referenced in Paul Ferris' biography?  Alternatively, recognised authority on all matters Dylan, Professor John Goodby, suggested a more overtly sexual meaning: that, ''milk' is from the breast, 'wood' is slang for an erection'.

[However, the Dictionary of American Slang dates that particular euphemism to the US prison system in the 1980s.] 
 
David N. Thomas wrote about the variety of farms, homes and hamlets in the Newquay area, where Dylan spent some time, with Welsh names like Nant-y-Caws (Cheese Brook), Llwyn Gwyn (White Grove), Dan-yr-Allt (Under The Wood), Wernllaeth (Milk Alder Grove) and Wenallt (White Wood), not forgetting that Dylan's mother's background was in dairy farming. And on this 'milky' theme, people in Laugharne speak of a copse of trees over-looking the township that was once owned by Dylan's milkman – Dickie Milk's Wood...
 
Or was the name quite simply the welding together of two existing words by a dazzling wordsmith who rejoiced in such things, e.g. 'bibleblack', 'seathumbed', 'mansouled'...?  
 
I wrote the BBC ebook, 'Dylan Thomas: The Road To Milk Wood', and until recently I also managed Dylan Thomas' favourite drinking haunt, Brown's Hotel, in Laugharne. I was often asked about the play title's source and my answer was usually the optimistic, but ultimately unhelpful, 'I think he made it up.' But then I had a chance conversation with art collector and author, Barrie Maskell. We started investigating and heard about an interesting place name. This was followed by the discovery of an intriguing anecdote. Finally Barrie produced a fascinating letter...
 
***

 
The 'place' in question is Milkwood Road, Herne Hill, London SE24. Records state that:
 
'Milkwood Road was built and named as such in the late 1800s by The Suburban Village and General Dwellings Company. Named from 'Mylkewell woodde' in 1540, which was the name of the old manor of 'MiIkeweile' which means 'spring or stream with milk-coloured (probably chalky) water', from Old English.'
 
A further search revealed that:
 
'In 1868 development of Railton, Poplar, Milkwood, Lowden and Heron Roads began.'
 
***
 
The 'anecdote' is from a piece in the March 1959 edition of Wales: The National Monthly Magazine of Literature, The Arts and Welsh Affairs, which was published at 19 Great Newport St, London WC2. This magazine was edited by Welsh literary journalist, editor and poet Keidrych Rhys, and is now in the possession of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Entitled, 'A Welshman’s Influence on the new St Clement Danes', the article featured a Mr Evan Samuel, modeller and sculptor, who was born on Gower in 1884 and served his apprenticeship in Llanelli. After WW2 he was commissioned to model the main parts – the ceilings, the Royal Coat of Arms, the cherubs, parts of the Chancel – of St Clement Danes Church (of 'Oranges and Lemons' fame) in the Strand which had been extensively damaged in May 1941 by an enemy fire-bomb. The writer, A.F. Churchward-Tinsley, met Samuel who he described as a 'wideawake septuagenarian', who 'loved to reminisce', at his home in Tulse Hill, London. Samuel was a keen member of the London Welsh organisation and had played rugby for them. The club, now based back in Richmond after a 3 year residency in Oxford, was based at Herne Hill Track between 1919 and 1957. Churchward-Tinsley writes:
 
'Samuel's innumerable friends included the late Dylan Thomas whom he knew well. ‘Dylan used to come to watch the London Welsh games,' he recalled, 'And when, after the match, the teams would gather, as rugger clubs do, for a few pints at the old Half Moon Hotel at Herne Hill, Dylan would be there adding lustre to the gathering. He was a great conversationalist.'
 
The Half Moon Hotel is still there to this day. Immediately across the road is the start of the B222, or Milkwood Road. We can put Dylan in close proximity to the street name, but is that enough? Probably not. I put the findings I had to date on the facebook pages of Browns Hotel to see if there was any response...
 
Then came the final piece of the jigsaw.
 
***
 
Barrie Maskell is a keen art collector and has written a book on his collection. Entitled 'TWELVE/56: 12 artists in 1956 Wales and beyond', it features works by all twelve founder members of the Welsh art group '56 Group Wales.' The book is published by the University of Glamorgan and was launched at the Treforest campus on the 11th December 2012, the 56th anniversary of the group. There was also an accompanying exhibition of 56 works of art.  
 
The last surviving member of the 56 Group Wales was the painter, Michael Edmonds, a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts who exhibited at the Royal Academy. After leaving the Department of Architecture and Civic Design of the GLC in 1984, Mr Edmonds, who was born in 1926, retired to Montgomeryshire. Mr Edmonds told Barrie of his own Dylan-related memory which he subsequently wrote down in a letter now in Barrie’s possession. I met Mr Edmonds at the 56 Group Wales exhibition and he confirmed the tale. (Sadly, Michael Edmonds died on the 30th March 2014.) Barrie saw my posts on Facebook and we subsequently met. The Michael Edmonds letter, dated September 2009, puts Dylan not just in the vicinity of Milkwood Road, but actually in the street itself. Edmonds wrote:  
 
'In the 1950s I lived in Penarth and worked in Cardiff as an architect. Visiting the National Museum, I recall being impressed by the Portrait of Dylan Thomas by Alfred Janes. Later when we were setting up the 56 Group I got to know George Fairley, visiting him once at Caswell Bay. Much later, living in Kent, George got in touch and offered me a job at the Croydon College of Art. He also told me that Alfred Janes was now living in Dulwich and I called on him there. Alfred told me that for a time he and Dylan shared a house in London. It transpired that this house was in Milkwood Road and one can surmise that its name was immortalised.'

 

 
 




Alfred 'Fred' Janes was one of Dylan’s closest friends and had known him since the Kardomah Café days in Swansea. It is well-known that they roomed together in 1934 in Redcliffe St, London SW10 but until now there has been no record of the Milkwood Road address. However, newcomers to London are often itinerant due to a combination of poverty and opportunity and there are gaps in Dylan’s chronology, especially between August 1933 when he first went to London at the age of 18, and April 1936 when he met his future wife, Caitlin Macnamara.

  

Hungry for more information, biographers, researchers and fans regularly sought interviews with Fred Janes over the decades since Dylan died. Why had Janes never seemingly mentioned this crucial detail to anyone else? Well, according to 'The Dylan Guy', Jeff Towns, Fred Janes was not a man who bragged about his friendship with Dylan. He was a self-contained individual who lived for the present and the future; a man whose main motivation was the evolution of his own artistic technique and not a man to dwell on the past. Indeed Mr Towns once asked Janes if he would draw him a sketch of Dylan from memory which Janes politely refused. Maybe Fred Janes didn’t offer up the 'Milkwood' titbit because he was never asked the question.

 
***

Before we conclude, Andrew Dally of www.dylanthomasnews.com pointed out that  John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan's US 'agent', recorded a pertinent incident in his book, 'Dylan Thomas In America'. Brinnin writes:

 
'En route to Waterloo Station I recapitulated to Dylan my sense of the plans we had touched upon during the bus ride... When I suggested that perhaps he might find a better title than 'Llareggub Hill' for his play for voices, he agreed at once. The joke in the present title was a small and childish one, he felt; beyond that, the word Llareggub would be too thick and forbidding to attract American audiences. 'What about Under Milk Wood?' he said, and I said 'Fine,' and the new work was christened on the spot.' 

 
The bus was journeying from El Vino in Fleet St across the river to Waterloo Station. Maybe Dylan had his old South London address in mind... 

***

Whilst the source material for Under Milk Wood will always be Dylan’s witty, poetic and satirical observations of the lives and loves of west Wales seaside townspeople, largely inspired by his time in Newquay and the stories and gossip he heard in Browns Hotel in Laugharne – and the inspiration for the 'milk wood' itself no doubt the leafy luscious south west Walian hills – might the title not have come from Dylan’s memory of his youthful carefree days in a south-east London suburban street?  

We can never know for sure, but this theory does carry a certain weight, backed up as it is by some big hitters from the world of Welsh culture, especially when compared to some of the gossamer light theories about milky pastures and contraception that have gone before. And until a better theory comes along, it’s Under Milk Wood SE24 for me.
 
 
 
 
Milkwood Road SE24 with the Half Moon pub in the background.

*** 

In early November 2014 cartoonist Gary Dexter emailed to see whether he could use this blog as a basis for one of his 'Title Stories' cartoons. It was published in The Spectator on the 12th of November 2014.


 
 
This article has also been referenced here:
Brixton Buzz 
 
 
 
 
 

Copyright Jon Tregenna & Barrie Maskell 2013
(Updated January 2017)
 
 

5 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I buy that theory.

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  2. excellent piece - I enjoyed - plausible too

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  3. Excellent and its the best and most plausible theory I have heard so far.

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  4. Really fascinating piece of local history for anyone who knows Dulwich well and loves the work of Dylan Thomas. I always imagined Milkwood Road a far too prosaic place to be associated with such an ethereal story, but I am always reminded of it every time I happen to pass the street.

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