Jake Thackray composed intricate, funny, satirical, pungent and erotic songs. He also told pretty good stories. His vision of life in a small, rustic English village is immediately captivating, being perverse enough to be utterly believable and affectionate enough to keep people from seeking the dubious protections of the Law. Should you find his text engrossing, before you decide to copy it and surf elsewhere, download the mp3 files (below)--for example, Jake's "Last Will and Testament," set to music. His "tough love" parodies of scripture and English poetry are playful, deceptively tender and, I think, irresistible. Perhaps you might think so, too.
I borrowed the following article from The
(Unofficial) Jack Thackray Homepage, assembled by Edmund Chattoe,
who subsequently incorporated his work into
The Jake Thackray Website, which is also pretty cool and features
some astonishing audio and visual material. Thanks guys!
Foreword: Jake's Progress (Jake Thackray)
Before I was a performing man . . .
Before I was a performing man, I was a teaching man.
Just now, in nineteen seventy seven, I've done as many years in the one job as I did in the other. My friend, Big Donald, asks me periodically whether I shouldn't, right at the start, have taken that labouring job when it came up.
The first eleven songs in this book are the ones I remember fondest - Statues, Black Swan and the old Country Bus; they're what I started out with, when I did songs to please Ian Gliddon and Maggie Skinner and Woodhouse Pamela. When all I did all day was be a teacher and read and at night go and see Sheila and drink and laugh in the Packhorse.
And then I turned into a performing dick. As if I'd been fairy waned and ting! There I was, a full time performing dick. I know the Wednesday when it happened. In the morning I was a mediocre teacher, chucking the blackboard at forty people every forty minutes. In the evening, a mediocre singer, coming on after Vi Tye (housewife and stripper) at the music hall in Leeds.
The next twenty odd songs after that are from when I was on television
a lot and had to write quick and sing agile for a living, and I'm not ashamed
of any of them although I remember them with less affection than the first,
but not much less. I am glad that you will not see the duff and dud ones
I did then. (There is by the way an important person in my publishing life
called Piers Dudgeon and he sorted the songs he liked from the ones he
didn't and chose all the duff ones and was going to print those and chuck
away all my darlings but was persuaded not to. Nobody's going to see my
bad songs ever again, or my name isn't Duff Luncheon.) During all this
time Legs Bertwhistle and Kate and Bob Haverley still talked to me, and
Molly Heath said she didn't mind the bad ones really and she thought I'd
The songs from Bantam to Lullaby I don't mind one bit and am still on good terms with, and with any luck Molly Heath may be right. I'm still pleased with The Singer and M. Metcalfe and the Cock. These days I was singing in folk clubs and small theatres. And that is what I prefer, clubs and theatres where you just sing and the people laugh and clap, drink, flirt, sit close together for one good night together.
Also in this time I got pally with Betty Haverley and Georges Brassens, and French Chloe got very pally with Big Donald.
I like the last dozen or so songs but all of them in this book have been good friends with me at one time or another. And all songs, like friends - like Reg Moulton, Gateshead Alexander and Paddy, Carol, Colin, Titmouse, Budge, Tadpole, and Chimney Thackray, Sam and his Coo, Danny Sullivan, Blind D. Blezzard - are much much better when they're alive and moving about with you and only mildly interesting written down.
About all the people in this book, the names, and places and dates and animals I am telling lies. I am even telling lies about me. In this book not even "I" am real.
Nothing is real here, everything is a pack of lies.
And to tell you the truth I could be lying about that.
I have only once written a song about one real person.
I do not write about anybody real.
I have a much better system than that and I can recommend it, if you need a system. What I do is make people up and then write songs about them. They're much more interesting like that and also you meet a better class of person.
The name of that one song is Leopold Alcox, and the name of the real person is Reginald Walter Sedgewick. He is real.
He is an extraordinary man; not because he's clever or witty or vibrant; he is quite dull; but because things happen to him. Funny things, coincidental or dramatic things happen to me about once every nineteen months and I think that is about average; the sort of thing that you rush home and tell everybody about and they go, 'Hmm?'. But with Reggie it is cruel. Something funny happens to Reggie about once every forty minutes. And that is day and night. To say that he is accident prone is pifflingly inadequate. He is doom-ridden.
Once, six miles outside Margate, and this was on the French side, Reggie
fell off a hovercraft. You cannot fall off hovercrafts, you cannot. But
Reggie has cracked it.
Reggie once, in Infirmary Street, Leeds, ran after and jumped onto a moving and crowded bus. He grabbed at what he thought was the steel pole at the corner of the open platform and is there for that purpose. What he grabbed was not the steel pole. He grabbed a brush handle held vertical by a homeward bound shopper. The shopper's grip on his brush slackened, the bus sped off, and Reggie was left looking after it in the middle of the teatime traffic with somebody's brush handle in his hand. Reggie once marched out of the Lyceum cinema, Leeds six, about twenty past ten one Friday night. His blueprint for the rest of the evening was this: motorcar, chip shop, home. Simple. Now it had been a John Wayne film and so everybody was walking, you know, a bit funny and little Reggie, feeling taller than most swaggered into the carpark and insolently, masterfully, he wrenched open the door of the Morris Traveller which was parked here - X - next to his own Morris Traveller which was parked there - Y - and he drove the wrong motor car to chip shop and home, and there were three dogs in the back!
I am not being too disloyal telling stories about him. I have asked him if I may and he says yes, he hopes it helps.
The thing about Reggie is that although his catastrophes are funny, he not only brings out the best in people, he fills them with unabashed love. You love him. He has more friends than anyone I know of, friends who will do anything for him, at any time, without any question, however criminal or shameful or sackless be the reason for the trouble he's in. If you have been a part of one of his disasters, you will do your very best, as the ambulance drives you away, to lift your head from off your stretcher and call to him through the blue window, "Reg, don't worry Reg, really it's all right . . ."
At the school where he teaches, the children adore him. They follow him home at night; they meet him off the bus in the morning. They would do anything for him. And this is not just the little bright-eyed eleven year olds who will hero worship anybody - this includes the big chunky spotted sixteen year old muggers who would flatten a staff room. They melt for Reggie. In a school where I worked with Reggie, a teacher said something funny about old Sedgewick and it became proverbial with us all to such an extent that the metalwork master made a stainless steel plaque, engraved the witty saying on it, and screwed it to the wall. It said - "The children worship the ground that Reggie falls on."
In the rural north, sheep farmers used to, and some of them still do,
count their sheep in a curious way; not with English numbers, but thus:
yan tan tether mether pip, azer sezer akker conter dick yanadick tanadick
tetheradick metheradick bumfit, yanabum tanabum tetherabum metherabum jiggit.
Jiggit is twenty, and there are no more numbers. So, if they've got more
than twenty sheep, they take a stone in the fist for the first twenty thus
counted, and begin again - yan tan tether etc.
Only sixty years ago - I say only, but sixty years is a long time and I never want to know what sixty years feels like; but I suppose it is short really, and well within the living memory of the standard Grandmother - sixty or so years ago, there was a shepherdess in North Yorkshire.
Shepherdess is a poor word for her! It is a word that gives me a picture of a well set up young woman, with porcelain skin and good teeth, a pretty pinafore and a cleavage. She was none of that, she was more a sheep minder. She had no family and was reared by neighbours and worked for them. She was sent to the moor when it was thought that she could look after sheep, get her own food, and count properly. This was at the age of seven or eight years - not unknown that people used to use children like that in those days, and give them a chance, and they still will. Not a lot was seen of her until she was found some years later in the way that a farmer will find a missed animal, dead, dying, rotten, rotting, scrap of bone, whisp of wool. It was calculated that she must have been twenty-five, twenty-six. That was the life, one end to another. The song, Molly Metcalfe, is about her and others like her.
I am grateful to Laurie Lee for letting me turn a story from Cider with Rosie into a song. The song is called The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker. I like the story a lot because for one thing it contradicts a slipshod idea that I have, and that we are all encouraged to have one way and another. This is the idea that there is a one and only kind of love, and everybody should be in it. This is not the untidy, dull, and difficult way that most of us are in it; it is the mighty thunderclap variety, the head over heels and passionate burning kind with never ending happiness and daily joy the result. (There is a recent stipulation that its consummation is not valid if it is not acrobatic.) And finally only young and beautiful people can find love like this. Golden boys and girls only need apply.
In this story, the two people are nothing. He is a balding, bow-legged blacksmith; she is a little ugly spinster, ageing, whiskery. Nevertheless they are in love as much as anyone; it is a love story, a lovesong, for all that.
Sedgewick, R.W., has got an 'A' registration Morris traveller and he is an amazing driver. The Morris 1000 is an endearing car, a good car. It is well made and dependable, the sort of car you get very friendly with. And that is why they stopped making it. ("Look here! Our cars are making friends with people. Got to Stop!") If you know these cars, you will know that the driver's seat in them is very low, and if you are small (if from nape to backside your trunk is short) then you really have to get a pillow, or a cushion, or some foam rubber to sit on in order to see anything out front. Reggie, who's got a very little trunk, doesn't bother with cushion, pillow or foam rubber and consequently he sees life on the road through the spokes of the steering wheel, his eyes slightly over the bottom edge of the windscreen. This makes a lot of oncoming motorists blench and swerve. He is the sort of driver who, when he wishes to change gear, looks down and studies the diagram on top of the gear lever to get it right.
His Morris has a whimper about it; it groans and shudders. Reg waves a vague hand, ' 's nothing Jake, nothing; 's the half shaft or transmission or petrol cap, or something . . .' Point is when anybody else drives it, that car purrs along like a good little cat. It only whimpers and shudders when Reggie drives it. That car is frightened.
I am a Catholic and when I was ten I was a clever one and got a scholarship to a Jesuit grammar school. Our form master was head of English and he put the fear of God into people. That was his job: fear of God into people. He put a lot into me and, although I've since got rid of some of it, there's still a good bit left. He was a six foot six man with a dark and hairy face.
"In this school, you boys, I am in charge of Finer Feelings," he bellowed at us. "This afternoon we have two-and-a-half hours together and you are going to spend it writing literature, LITERATURE! You will write a long composition entitled My Environment. Now, environment you boys is what is ALL around you. Street you live in, house, mam, dad (names and occupations), neighbours (ditto), sisters. brothers, friends . . ." (He was just a nosey bugger, that's what; he didn't want literature, he wanted information.) Now this essay suited me, for writing it was a way of pretending that I was not at this frightening place but was at my home. My nib was first into the inkwell and away to a racing start. I was first and then second up the aisle for, "Another piece of foolscap Father please." "Good! Good!" he shouted "Lots of Literature!"
The following week came "The Handing Back of Essays with Comments". He was a man who developed and worked hard on his scorn, flexed it like a bodybuilder does his muscles. And then he used to beat us up with it.
"Stand up Thackray J.," he roared. "Full marks for volume (it was an
inch thick, my essay), and full marks for imagination. But I wanted the
TRUTH! These aren't real people. You've made them up! You've been reading
books by Piers Dudgeon and listening to radio plays. These people of yours
I had been living with these people for ten years but if a Jesuit said they didn't exist, they didn't.
Most of his spleen was hurled in handfuls at a person in my composition called Arthur Wilkinson. Arthur was very unreal. Where we lived he was the local no-good. If there was any trouble drunkeness, windowbreaking, noise at nightime, fighting and swearing, vegetable marrows interfered with, unexpected pregnancies, missing bicycles, it was Arthur. If a good housewife took the washing off the line and there were items missing she would say to her husband, "John, at the pub tonight, just check what Arthur's wearing." He had no job and yet he rattled his trouserpocket change as well as another man; he was always telling stories and laughing a lot, and this irked people. He was a poacher - but not one of your Home Counties poachers who lift a fat trout here, a delicate pheasant there. If he could eat it, he would kill it. Geese, pet rabbits, crows; he used to kill cows. He was a stupendous man and all the children worshipped him and he worshipped them. I know I learned a lot more from him than from the Head of Finer Feelings. From then on I made people up.
The Women's Liberation Movement, of which, let it be said, I am a violent admirer, held, in 1970, a branch meeting at which it was decided to a man that it was about time they took matters into their own hands. They marched out of the meeting hall on to the cobblestones and pavements of West London, where they began to pinch men's buttocks, publicly and lasciviously, to show how equal they could be if they really wanted. It was a bit silly so I did a silly song, The Ladies' Basic Freedoms Polka. There is another silly song which is about an event that took place on the third page of the Sunday Express. Next to the Giles cartoon, and just above the skeleton crossword, there is a nauseating gossip section where it was announced, in solemn babylonian, that a party was to take place in Belgravia. It was to be an aphrodisiac party in that all the sweetmeats and sweet drinks were to be, one way or another, violent and enduring aphrodisiacs. What nailed me to the breakfast table was the news that the only people invited to the do were members of our aristocracy. This song is Pass Milord the Rooster Juice.
Reggie is very fond of taking children on school trips. He calls them Cultural Adventures. During his twenty years as a teacher he must have led little children on about a hundred of these trips, and every one a disaster. But they love to go with him. No sooner is the drawing pin thumbed home on the main noticeboard with the sheet saying, "All those interested in a Cultural Adventure please sign below . . ." than they are fighting and scrabbling to get their names down quick. They love going. They know that something is bound to happen. Here is an example of one of his Cultural Adventures. Reggie once took a party of twelve schoolboys, in the middle of one tropical August, from Hartlepool to Oldham (Oldham!) for four days. That is not the point; the point is, he came back with fifteen!
Some of the songs are adaptations of songs by the great French writer
and singer, Georges Brassens. I feel no sense of shame in saying that I
is the greatest songwriter in the world, bar none. He is head, shoulders, chest, knees above anybody else I can think of. Nothing he does is poor.
In France he is not just a household word, he is a household paragraph. The French do not doubt or debate his greatness. They love him, and have done for thirty years. He never disappoints them.
In this country he is little known. Indeed people have accused me of making him up. But he made himself up. He is not known much outside France because he does not travel. Unlike the usual run of intercontinental stars, Brassens sings only now and then and only his songs and only to his own people.
These adaptations are only pale reflections of his songs. Despite that, maybe the thrust and vigour of the originals will shine through.
This business about falling in love and getting married afterwards. It always fascinates me.
I have, actually, done all the falling in love and getting married afterwards that I could ever want to and I am currently living happily ever after. But I still like to watch other people at it.
I have a theory, a hypothesis. I have discovered a natural law; a trivial one I know, but still a law.
There is a kind of algebra about courtship. It goes like this: On the one hand: the more beautiful the girl is that you fall in love with. On the other hand: the more peculiar her parents turn out to be. It's frivolous, yes I know, but it's right. You just think about it. Especially if you've got a daughter.
Here is the most legendary thing that happened to Sedgewick, R.W. For eighteen very unsettling months of my career I taught in the same school as him. This was a small secondary modern in a place between Leeds and, say, Doncaster. There were five hundred boys and girls and twenty five teachers. (There were other teachers of course, there were headmasters, deputy headmasters, senior mistresses, under senior mistresses, under deputy headmasters, under deputy senior mistresses and so on, but that gang lived a life apart in the carpeted administration corridor. We were the pillars of that establishment.)
Now, we had a little staff room and it was dank and nasty and we hated
it. If that headmaster and his team didn't do something about the pokey
hole they would not have any teachers on their books by Christmas, never
mind the end of the academic year. This, by the way, was in '68 when, if
you remember, there was revolution on the streets in Paris and it was certainly
in the air in between Leeds and Doncaster. What they did, finally, was
to buy us some chairs. But how they had the nerve, or the money, to buy
what they did, is a mystery. We were presented with twenty-five Scandinavian
easy chairs. We were excited about their arrival and when we burst into
the staff room and saw them, we gasped with astonishment and gratitude.
They were wonderful things to look at. They had Scandinavian design lines,
you know, "strong . . . but nervous, stark . . . but vibrant", and it took
us thirty minutes of investigation to discover that they were very difficult
to get any comfort out of.
They were built thus: the business part about them, the seating bit, was three feet long by three feet wide - unusual in an easy chair. The front legs rose some thirty inches from the ground, reducing severely to four inches at the back; consequently there was a cruel gradient on them - presumably so that the rain water could escape easily. At the bottom of the hill there was a perpendicular backrest for your back. This was an unplaned slab of Scandinavian pine, with the original splinters still intact. If you looked at these chairs side on, they were for all the world like a teacher's tick.
And that was all there was to them. No arm rests, no bouncy Dunlopillo to comfort you; there they stood in all their nordic beauty.
Now, we were twenty-five educated men and women and it took us all of
three days to suss out the best way of sitting in the chairs; and it was
critical, you had to get it right. What you had to do was to back up to
the thing crablike, until the backs of your legs rested upon the sharp
edge of the agonising pine. With there being nowhere to put your arms,
they both swung freely at the side, apelike. (In that respect the little
teachers came off best. Having short arms they used to go home of a night
with clean fingernails.) The rest of you, knees, thighs, feet, were on
the other side of the thirty-inch cliff and you had to let them go their
way, let them surge. If you see it in your mind's eye, all this meant that
the top of your knees was always higher than the top of your head, and
your pelvic territory was, prominent.
Now that was the position that most of us adopted and if you went into the nasty staff room at any time at all, but chiefly after school dinners, you would see there twenty-five teachers, each occupying a Scandinavian easy chair, heads back, arms swinging, knees out, pelvic girdles up.
Such was the scene one unforgettable Monday. It must have been about twenty past one, on a November Monday dinnertime. There were ten minutes left before the bell would go and we would be off, into the trenches. So we slept; not a sound. When suddenly the staffroom door trembles open and Elsie Parkray (not a solid fuel heating stove, by the way, but a senior mistress) tiptoes in. What she is going to do is what she does every dinnertime as we sleep - get one of her notices onto the notice board without anybody noticing.
The thing about Elsie was that she was little, and she could not accept
that; she wanted to be big. She was really very small; she was nearly a
dwarf. And in trying to look big, she used to dress all wrong. This day
she was wearing what could only be called period costume. She had an extravagant
long skirt oh, rustic/gypsy in style; it swung and billowed. If she was
peasant girl down below, up top she was all drawing-room. She wore a tight
Edwardian blouse, high collared, puffed at the shoulders, tight sleeves
and sticky out cuffs. (Imagine. A dwarf dressed up like that!) Well she
stuck up the notice, and then turned to acknowledge us all with a hello,
hello, and a little wave, a Queen Motherly job. As she waved, out of her
cuff slipped and fell her nosekerchief which was a flimsy of cambric, about
the same size as a beer mat. It slipped and slid through the air, parachuting
down. It landed (where else could it land?) upon Reggie Sedgewick's pelvic
basin. Which was up.
As soon as it touched down, twenty four pairs of teachers' eyes opened. Reggie dozed on. We sat up and leaned forward with interest, waiting for something to happen. Elsie, by the way, was no woman to take a bold lunge and grab to retrieve. No, she froze. We waited.
After a minute, Reggie shifted in his uncomfortable sleep to change
his position and, as he did so, he must have half opened his eyes and through
the narrow slit, though the curtain of his lashes, he must have glimpsed
something white and basically unfamiliar. Some unimaginable sentence must
have gone through his head. We could see it written on his poor features.
He must have said to himself, "Hey up Reggie . . . Oh Hell! Oh hell! .
. . The flybuttons are open . . . and the best white shirt is poking through.
Oh hell." Most other people with that thought would first of all have been
appalled, but then they would have faced up to it, sat up and had a right
good look. But Reggie? He doesn't do things like that. He shuts his eyes
tight, then after a bit he drops his hand to the floor and furtively begins
to trot it along to the ankle. To the shin, the knee. And he does it casually,
casually as he thought, not knowing that twenty-five people are watching
every move he makes. And then - I'll never forgive myself for not rushing
across to stop him but we couldn't move, we were paralysed by inevitability
- and then, Reggie tried to tuck the bugger back.
I promised his mother that if ever I sang a certain song in public, then I would dedicate it to our second son. The song is called Country Bus and the boy is Peter William.
Now there's nothing I can explain further about it. The connection between the baby and the song about the bus would be actually quite boring for you to listen to. I like both of them and, I suppose, both of them were conceived in similar bursts of enthusiasm.
This was to have been the part of the book where I write autobiographical notes for you to read. I tried to do it but gave up. I've also tried, and given up, writing songs about myself. Not because I am secretive, or ashamed, or modest, or idle, or saintly, or winsome about it; but because it just bores me. I've no interest in my autobiography. I've read it.
And there's another thing. Try to tell the truth to people and the eyes glaze, the lids fall. Tell them a lie and they'll whoop off home and wake up neighbours to spread the news.
I've got a good system for evading questions that I'm too thick, or shifty, or listless to answer. I say to the questioner this, I say: "Look, I can't or don't want to tell you the truth about what I think or feel. But I can always lie. If you let me lie about it, I can say all sorts of things and we can pass an hour or two together. Go on - let me lie." And they smile at the charm of it all and say - "All right then, go on, lie a bit." So I do. I lie and lie and say all sorts of things and they listen and listen and then . . . and then they start believing it.
I once told a yawning duty features reporter that I was going to tell
him lies, all lies, and he said, "Yes? Righty ho." And even now people
come up and ask me about my early years in the orphanage, and who was it
I opened the bowling for Yorkshire with, and is Elizabeth Schwarzkopf really
such a good dancer.
So. About this autobiography. Let me tell you about Archie Barraclough, a schoolboy who is the champion excuse maker of England and once told me he was late for assembly because he'd been held up by a flock of swans.
Let me tell you about a man I know who has sworn to court and won the heart of the most beautiful girl in Manchester and who now spends every breathing living minute, street by street, looking for her.
Let me tell you about Curly Bernard who ran a pub in Redcar and had
a yard so long he could fish it out of his pocket and lay it along the
Let me tell you about my friend Bob's beagle, Moby, who is food crazy and can be trotting and sniffing three streets away but will still hear a cream-cracker falling off the kitchen table at home and can, moreover, get back there in time to catch it, easy, first bounce.
Transcribed by Howard Gardener.
To download Last Will and Testament
To download Romance
To download Castleford Ladies Magical Circle
To download Leopold Alcocks
To download The Bull