REVIEW: The Laugharne Weekend 2023: Laugharne (24 to 26/03/23)

A weekend of culture, tsunduko and gin drinking in the spiritual home of Dylan Thomas.

The Laugharne Weekend is a literary festival in West Wales. It is unlike any other literary festival I have ever been to though. Well, I say that, but the only other literary festival I have been to is the enormous Hay on Wye Festival. Unless you count Anarchist Book Fairs as literary festivals – in which case I’ve been to loads and even organised a few. Oh, and there was an event in Cardiff a while back where I went to listen to Niall Griffiths. Hmmm – OK, it is unlike any other literary festival I have ever been to.

The event concentrates on literature, music and comedy: bringing talent from all over the world but always maintaining a particular kinship with writers and musicians from Wales or who have a connection with Wales.

The majority of speakers have a musical connection, but not all. There is no hint of politics in the advertising of the event, but speakers and the audience all tend to swing to the left. Alexi Sayle, Mark Thomas and Mark Steel have all been welcomed with open arms. Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning would likely be chased into the estuary with pitchforks should they dare to wander into the town.

The Boat House, one time residence of Dylan Thomas, overlooking the Laugharne Estuary

Whilst most attendees would probably wear their ‘Tofu eating, Guardian reading wokerati’ badge with pride, it has an incredibly relaxed and down to earth vibe with as many sore heads each morning as any rock festival. Conversations are struck up with strangers, connections made, Facebook friend requests are sent after just ten minutes chatting in a queue (because you realise you have mutual friends in Northampton), sharing a beer garden table or stopping to admire a dog.

The fact that Laugharne lies beyond the western-most reaches of the M4 and is an hour’s cab ride beyond the Swansea end of the Paddington to Swansea rail line, means only the most dedicated of bookworms and culture vultures make the effort to join the locals in the three days of literary geekery.

Everything takes place within the existing infrastructure of the town: the Community Hall, the Church and the pub. There are no marquees in the middle of fields, no compost toilets and no one wandering around selling ten glow sticks for a pound.

The festival is deliberately small-scale. The size of the town – which itself is very small – ensures that the festival will not grow beyond certain bounds. Its location means that festival visitors and townspeople rub shoulders with the artists and performers.

According to the festival’s co-founders, Richard Thomas and the Cardiff writer John Williams,

“The point is that it’s a festival that involves the locality.”

The festival directors have also said:

“I’d sooner start another festival than let it grow too big.”

It was first held in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2015 when I first attended. I instantly fell in love with it. I went home and told all my friends. Quite a few sounded very excited about the prospect of coming with me, but the excitement never materialised into action.

Then I found a Megan. My soulmate. One of the many things we have in common is a love of books. And after one visit in 2021, she also fell in love with the event. So it has progressed from an event that I fancied every year but only sometimes went, to a regular fixture in our calendar. This year it had to compete with the option of a trip to Croatia to watch Wales away, but the prospect of seeing Stewart Lee swung it in favour of Laugharne. (Lee actually pulled out, but the dye was already cast by then.)

There is no campsite in the village – well, there is Ants Hill Caravan Park, where I stayed in 2015, but they don’t do tourers or tents any more. So, it is a case of grabbing an Airbnb in the village, which sell out quicker than Glastonbury tickets, or staying in a nearby town and commuting.

This year we have opted for the Savoy. Not the famous one, the one down the road in St Clears. With Friday night rush-hour adding thirty minutes on to the journey, we arrived at the hotel at 18:40, dumped our bags, drove it like we stole it down to Laugharne, negotiated a parking space with two members of the church fund raising mafia and were wrapping a wristband on in the Millennium Hall by 18:55.

The festival used to do a combination of ticket for individual events and a weekend ticket that covered everything. It is now so popular they just do weekend tickets, and it sells out quite quickly.

LKJ and Colin Grant

It was standing room only for Linton Kwesi Johnson, in conversation with Colin Grant. I had no idea who Colin was, but that would change over the weekend. LKJ knew him though. Johnson’s no-nonsense approach to life made him balk at any intellectual analysis of his poetry, with occasional digs at Colin’s academic background, perceiving him to be middle class. It was all good natured though, with Johnson cracking a smile on more than one occasion.

In ‘Time Come’, LKJ selects some of his most powerful prose – book and record reviews published in newspapers and magazines, lectures, obituaries and speeches – for the first time. Written over many decades, it is a body of work that draws creatively and critically on Johnson’s own Jamaican roots and on Caribbean history to explore the politics of race that continue to inform the Black British experience.

Megan joins the queue to get what turns out to be our first signed book of the weekend.

Tonight’s entertainment down in the Fountain Inn was programmed as ‘Mr and Mrs’, hosted by local legend, Keith Allen. Previous experience told me the small room would be rammed, so we headed back to the Savoy to park the car, have a few shandies and get stuck into a veggie chilli, Brains Brewery style.


Our early night resulted us being up at the crack of dawn(ish) and on the ball down into town.

First on the agenda is Colin Grant. That’s the beauty of this weekend, we wouldn’t really have given him much of a priority if we had not seen him interviewing LKJ, because we had never heard of him. But now we were dead keen to hear what he had to say. He has a new book out, ‘I’m Black so You Don’t Have to Be’. It is a memoir told from the perspective of eight characters.

Jude Rogers interviews Colin Grant

On paper, the premise does not particularly grab me. Well, it does, but I wasn’t really considering investing in a memoir written by someone I’ve never heard of. At least, that was how I was feeling when I walked into the room. But Colin is eloquent, witty and charming. When he reads extracts I am totally drawn into his use of language. His story is inevitably the story of race relations evolving in the UK.

Interviewing him is Jude Rogers. Her latest book has been on my Amazon wish list for a while, so we might have gone to see her later over the weekend, but after hearing her chat with Colin, the pencil marks around her name on the programme become pen. Colin had been her mentor and it was interesting listen to her talking about advice he had given her on writing her memoir.

After the talk we make a point of grabbing his book and getting it signed.

We head downtown, stopping off at the incredible Poon Cafe. We are only after a snack, but the toasted sandwich we had was nothing short of amazing. I have no idea how you can get that much flavour out of two slices of bread, some cheese and some onion.


Our first ‘gig’ of the weekend in Browns Marquee is with John Higgs, in conversation with Robin Ince, discussing his new book looking at the links between the Beatles and James Bond. The marquee, you will be unsurprised to hear, is in the beer garden of Browns Hotel, the epicentre of the village. Legend has it Dylan Thomas spent a lot of time there indulging in his second favourite pastime. He spent so much time drinking in there he used to give the pub phone number out as his own. It was in here that he gained much inspiration for one of his most famous works, ‘Under Milk Wood’. Apparently, he left his one and only copy of the manuscript in the Coach and Horses in Tenby after a mammoth drinking session

Many other famous faces have passed through Browns’ doors, including U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Patti Smith, Pierce Brosnan, and Mick Jagger. It was owned for a time by actor Neil Morrissey before being sold in 2006.

Whilst Thomas got his inspiration for writing from drinking, both Higgs and Ince take things a little more seriously, doing actual research. Robin Ince is the type of interviewer that will come up with interesting questions because, if you are going to talk about your new book with him, he will have actually read it first. Today it is clear that not only has he read ‘Love and Let Die’, he consumed a few of Ian Fleming’s Bond books as well, for good measure. And watched some Beatles movies.

Robin Ince and John Higgs

You might be surprised to hear that I’m not really a fan of the Beatles. I’m not much of a Bond fan, either. I have rocked up to this one because of Higgs’ book on the KLF, which is an astounding piece of work. I’m not going into too much detail, cos his talk is not about that book, but it turned out to be a fascinating hour.

Whilst I don’t really have the time to read as much as Robin, I do spend a lot of time driving. So in addition to my tsundoku (buying books faster than I can read them), I do listen to a lot of audiobooks. I try to go for books read by the author, but sometimes I think, ‘you really should have stuck to writing and got someone else to read it out loud’. Higgs, however, has an amazing reading voice and his KLF book was a treat to listen to. As I sat through the interview, I was transported back to last summer with his voice accompanying me up and down the M4.

We head to the Congregational Church to catch Tom Walker (him what does Jonathan Pie) at 4pm. When we get there, we find the running order has changed and he is not on till later. Slightly frustrating, but silver linings and all that, we can now go and see Pigeon Wigs down the Fountain.

The Fountain pub, opposite the car park at the bottom of town, doubles up as the home of Laugharne RFC. If I recall correctly, I think it used to actually be the rugby club clubhouse. Downstairs is a bar area, where a DJ will provide a soundtrack into the wee small hours, whilst upstairs they have live entertainment. In the evenings it is generally advertised as Keith Allen does Laugharne’s Got Talent, or Mr and Mrs. I have tried a few times to get in, but it is usually rammed, so I stopped trying. Annoyingly there are often tales the next morning of how Stewart Lee, or Mark Thomas or (insert comedian here) had got up and done an impromptu stand-up set.

In daylight they have a selection of up-and-coming Welsh bands performing live, this year hosted by Libertino Records.  Pigeon Wigs are circled on our programme and the moving of Tom Walker has conveniently freed us up to go and catch them. Or at least it would have, if the running order there hadn’t changed as well. We watched a little of the band that were on – although we have no idea who they were. The girl on the door thought it was Pigeon Wigs. After a few text messages to the band we establish that Pigeon Wigs now clash with Tom again. Sorry Erin!

We knew that there would be a big demand for Tom, so we made sure we were there as soon as it opened, in fact, we were there before it opened so we browse the bookshop and bagsy a book on the history of the music press. As soon as the session before Tom empties out, we rush in to fill the void and find ourselves front and centre. The Congregational Church is exactly that, and beautiful old church with wooden pews. In front of us is the pulpit and two chairs ready for Tom and today’s interviewer, Nick Revell.

Tom Walker

Tom became an internet sensation when he created Jonathan Pie, his alter ego,  a TV news reporter who rants when the camera is off. Tom had been around for many years prior to this success, but now is famous for being someone else. His conversation with Nick touches on his real politics, the perils of people thinking he is actually Pie, the Alf Garnett factor and more. Well worth getting there early for.

John Cooper Clarke in the Millennium Hall is another one that is sure to be popular, so we wander up and find ourselves at the front of the queue. When the doors open, we bagsy ourselves a seat right down the front.

John Cooper Clarke. “Get back on the drugs ya fat bastard”.

Clarke came to fame during the punk explosion of the late seventies, but had already been around the block a few times by then. He was a Mod in the early sixties. His irreverent humour and lyrical dexterity has won him plaudits way beyond the punk community and almost five decades on has become a ‘national treasure’. His patter between poems is as funny, if not funnier, than his actual poems. His line about the Welsh Mafia (Taffia) ‘making him an offer he couldn’t understand’ never gets old.

There isn’t a dry eye in the house when we file out into the night. We already have his book, so skip getting it again.

We pop into St Clears for a Chinese takeaway but end up having a sit-down curry in an award-winning curry house. The food was pretty damn good and we wouldn’t argue with their award. Elaichi St Clears

We head back to the hotel for a night cap and bump into two other guests that have also been down to Laugharne. As we exchange notes from the weekend we check with the landlord whey time the bar closes. 11pm he advises us. At 2am he declares, “Look, I need some sleep. This will definitely have to be your last one”.


Jude Rogers

We are up bright tailed and bushey eyed to catch Jude Rogers talking about her memoir, ‘The Sound of Being Human’.  It is about the soundtrack to her life. She has a very eclectic taste, and a lot of the teenage pop idol fandom is not really something I can connect with, or at least not in terms of the music. But I can connect with the emotions and if I replace Abba with Slaughter and the Dogs, the anecdotes have a certain resonance. Her tastes do evolve as she gets older though and there are tales of REM and her life as a music journalist. Add to that the beauty of the language she uses and there is no hesitation in grabbing another signed book at the end of the session.

The Family Battenberg keep popping up on my social media. I have been wanting to see them for a while now but, for various reasons, keep missing them – today we get the chance because they are playing in the Fountain Inn. The first jangly psychedelic notes of their set are drifting through the air as we walk up the stairs. Just as we enter the room, they flick the rock switch and become something a lot heavier. We are almost knocked over by an unsuspecting punter, who had presumably been planning a lazy Sunday afternoon, being dragged out by his very startled dog.

The Family Battenberg

This young outfit are surfing on a groovy wave that appears to lapping on the shores of Cardiff. Heavy, but not metal; funky, but not dance music; psychedelic, but not psyche. We are immediately won over by their grove, charm and wit. The lead guitarist breaking a string does not put them off their stride, it just becomes a thing to laugh about between songs. Only musicians truly confident with their talent can get away with this. Megan and I are sat down the front and both spontaneously start thinking about coming out of promoting retirement to put them on locally.

After their set, we have time to grab a curry in Poon. Yet again, delicious. We cannot recommend this place highly enough. It is slightly chaotic, but this is probably their busiest weekend of the year. Despite the chaos, they are incredibly friendly and the food is superb. The fact that their chef is from Thailand adds more than a little authenticity to their Thai curries.

The rest of the day is going to be three events on the bounce in the Millennium Hall.

First up is Martin Rowson, infamous cartoonist, satirist and all-round thorn in the side of the establishment. He is a Laugharne regular and turns up in one form or another every year. This year he is running through the Prime Ministers he has drawn throughout his career, accompanied by ranting about how he came up with each of their caricatures and how much he hated them all.

Martin Rowson

To break it up from being just death by PowerPoint, he draws each of the PMs live on stage using food. With messy results. I had wondered why the stage had been covered with bin bags.

We head outside ready to get straight in the queue for the next event. Megan turns to me and says, “I fancy some chocolate”. We look at our watches, think about the distance to the shop, and decide we will just get in the queue for Robin Ince, sans cocoa products. Then, as if by magic, an ice-cream van drives past and Megan flags it down for a 99! Life doesn’t get any better than this.

Robin Ince is another Laugharne regular. Last time we saw him we scoped up one of his previous books and got it signed as a Christmas present for me sister. She is a big fan of his radio show, ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’. It is difficult to single out Robin for being associated with any one particular thing. Radio presenter, author, comedian, interviewer of other guests – he has his fingers in so many pies he is impossible to categorise.

Robin Ince

Today he is talking about his new book, ‘Bibliomaniac’. It is about his mission to visit one hundred independent bookshops in one hundred days. Although he is supposed to be selling his books at each shop, he ends up buying a shed load of books in the process.

His talk is unscripted and over runs. He just talks passionately about the books he has bought this weekend, what attracted him to them and occasionally reads extracts from his new book. He talks twenty to the dozen and is incredibly passionate, eloquent and above all, friendly. Yet again, a book that we had not planned on buying is purchased and autographed.

And then our finale, Mark Thomas. I have been a fan for a good many years now. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen him live. I’ve even had the pleasure of interviewing him for my zine a few years back (read it here)

Mark Thomas – very shouty

More often than not his shows are tales of his activism, like disrupting arms fairs, highlighting the bad deeds of Coca Cola or breaking records for the number of protests outside parliament in one day. But tonight it is more of a traditional stand up set, with lots of digs at the Tories, Starmer and doggers. It isn’t as thought provoking or educational as his trade mark set, but it is as rib-ticklingly funny as we can hope for from a stand-up comedian. And I can’t knock him for that.

We head back to the car for one last drive back to the Savoy, satisfied that we had got our money’s worth from our ticket, satisfied that we made the right decision in not going to Croatia and eager to get stuck into our stash of new books.

A few days later there is an on-line vote on who the best acts were. Turns out it was Chris Difford, who we didn’t go to see. That’s another beauty of Laugharne, there is just so much quality to choose from, it is impossible to see it all, and in the few years that I have been going, I have yet to go to an event that was anything short of brilliant.

See ya all again soon.