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Go Little Swale: In search of Jake Thackray

July 1, 2007

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Stepping around West Yorkshire in the rain, I’ve been trying to follow the spirit of Jake Thackray, the best poet-singer that this region ever produced. Jake was active from the 60’s to the 80s, and died a couple of years ago.

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Where is Jake located, culturally speaking? Between Wuthering Heights and The Last of the Summer Wine; which is to say that he’ll never require you to choose between high romance and low farce, and that Yorkshire Gothic is never very far away from fun and farce. Equally, airs of Jake blow about between Ted Hughes and Jimmy Saville, between landscape and caricature, between muck and brass.

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The Art of Being Peculiar

Was Jake just another professional northerner?  I can’t be bothered with the set of assumptions that accompany this question.  With Jake in mind, affected provincialism might seem to be quite a different business — that is, the flaunting of regional or provincial identity for art, image-making, or spectacle. Being a Yorkshireman (flat vowels, craggy forehead) is Jake’s thing. Eventually, though, this kind of provincialism, a decision made to cultivate oneself away from the obvious centre of things, is just the same as the milling, mincing, preposterous, preponderous dandy described by Lord Whimsy, and is therefore fair play.  As Whimsy reminds us, the Affected Provincial strives to live a “peculiar life”, without necessarily being obtrusive. In fact, this is why I plundered Jake’s song “My Pipe My Boots and My Lord” for its opening line “I lead a peaceful life, I’m the unobtrusive type”, which I paraphrased in my own domestic pop song “The Shadow Falls Across The Fridge, Frank”.  Being unobtrusive on your own terms is part of the Affected Provincial’s strategy; a strategy altogether more artful than that of completely chaotic bohemianism.

So what about Jake Thackray’s peculiarity?  His songwriting vocabulary comes from a completely different time and place.  Naturally, Jake’s provincialism manifests itself in familiar Old World class consciousness; this otherwise crippling sense of social place, however, is converted into something sparkling by way of a Chaucerian ability to ventriloquise social types and groups.  He is also a story-teller by trade.  Which suggests to me that I might find Jake, in essence, filed somewhere near Ray Davies, Luke Haines, or even Jarvis Cocker.  But it’s not all about little England.  Between low Leeds and high France, Jake becomes Jacques and can do high continental melodrama as well as Brel.

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So much for a sense of where. A sense of when is harder to come by (elusiveness is a fact of nostalgia).  The world described in Jake’s songs is one of effete feudalism.  It is by its own admission post-war, yet weirdly pre-capitalist, pre-urban; or else, the world exists apart, peculiar by choice, from post-industrial life.  In structure, Jake’s world might as well be medieval.  His songs are populated by blacksmiths and duchesses, village scallywags, blaggards, green grocer’s girls, coal black foals, breasts like apples, big bad bastards, shepherdesses, cocky thorough-breeders.  “I shan’t get shirty when they say I look peculiar”, sings shambling Jake to his thorough-bred beloved in “La-di-dah”, in absolute earnest.

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Bantam Cocks

A more delicate soul might notice that there is something fairly robust, perhaps even masculinist, in Jake’s humour.  I wouldn’t want it any other way, because the society described is one that is structured according to principles of uprightness or flaccidity; that is, it is unapologetically phallocentric. Without wishing to oversell Lord Whimsy, I could help noticing that in the space of a few pages, his Lordship advocates good posture for an “upright citizenry”, before informing the male half of his readership on how to assess their man-antler, and how best to use it in the art of self-congress.  The association of masculinist sexual prowess with the uprightness of society at large is as old as any kind of civilisation.  Add a bit of libidinous landscape portraiture, and the sexual shambles is complete.

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Enter Jake, singing “Pass Milord the Rooster Juice”, which wittily synthesizes these ideas about flaccidity and uprightness:
Gone are the old bold golden days
When the big hobnobs were always on the rampage
Nobs today don’t do the things they used
Pass milord the rooster juice.
This song is, in fact, one of two great songs about sexual and social impotence; the other being “Corkscrew King” by Momus in which a similiar scenario of sexual failure is played out amongst royalty in rural Japan.

I like a good sex tragedy.  From time to time, in fact, an idle tiger is a good sex tragedy.  However, a Great British sex comedy can be just as engaging.  Jake Thackray locates himself at the cleverer end of the sex comedy genre, somewhere close to Lord Byron.  There must have been something incredibly amusing about sex in the nineteen-seventies.  I can only wonder what it was.  Elsewhere in Jake’s work a “grand upstanding bantam cock” tups and tups his way to an early death, while a poor lodger becomes upwardly mobile by way of a stiff upper lip (and whatever else) in the face of amorous exhaustation.

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Uprightness is most easily achieved, of course, by one-upmanship (familiar to any gamesman); the principle of upness in general is key.  In his song “Family Tree”, Jake describes the social dubiousness of his ancestry, before concluding “We survive, we’re alive, so it’s Up With the Thackrays!”. 

And upwards we go.
 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2007 10:17 am

    What a terrific essay about Jake (and Whimsy)!

    The only thing I’d say is that the rural archetypes in Thackray come really from Brassens rather than Brel, although Brassens and Brel both link to the troubadours and trouveres, and to medieval poets like Francois Villon. So really you’re getting, in Thackray, a sort of Anglicization of the French Middle Ages.

  2. July 1, 2007 12:25 pm

    Nice to see you here, Nick. I’m trying to get to your show in New York, actually.

    Yes, that is the connection that I was probably trying to make. Any other factual inaccurucies are to do with this being written on the world’s worst dial-up connection so all my information is from memory, or the atmosphere…

  3. martin permalink
    July 18, 2007 2:35 pm

    “elusiveness is a fact of nostalgia”. Yes, coming from Yorkshire I feel an attachment to Jake over and above his great songwriting and style. But where this misplaced pride comes from I don’t know – I’ve never been on a rumbustous country bus with sheepmen and cowgirls and chickens galore up the back. And I’m not sure if I’ve ever rattled me clack either! And I can’t bear the rustic tweeness of Last of the Summer Wine. I thought your essay a fascinating piece on a fascinating, and to me at any rate, ellsuive fellow.

  4. Idetrorce permalink
    December 15, 2007 1:01 pm

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  5. February 6, 2008 11:21 am

    Dear Ideal Tigers,
    I came across your essay a few minutes ago -sorry, couldn’t find your name – and just wish to make a couple of points at present,though I may return to some of your interseting observations a nd opinions about Jake’s ‘oevre’. Jake is only provincial in the way that e.g. Wuthering Heights and many other great novels,poems etc have a local or regional setting, in my opinion. As a died-in the -wool West Countryman I have no trouble with the Yorkshireness of much of hie work :words like ‘gimmel’, the whereabouts of Kirkstall Road, and other potentially arcane references do not frighten ! His humour ,the sriking ability to find the most surprising and hilarious lines -and not least the ability to leave the best laugh until after you have expected the song/story to have finished, being already replete with amusmant : these are characteristics which subsume any of the weaknesses and extreme eccentricities you speak of. nd in any case his range of topic and mood within his 90 -odd lyrics and his ‘way’ with tunes and words mean that however many times you hear the songs,one is always refreshed by the repitition. His ability with internal rhymes is breathtaking -such craftsmanship! As I say in the notes to the 15 Jake-songs featured in the Notes to them on the series of five CDs I’ve produced (involving,except for the toe-in-the-water Trial CD,Bombers, 43 individual artiasts), ‘The Lodger’ , in the 4 up-tempo 8-line stanzas alone,, contain 40 words which contribute to the mid-line assonances, additional to the normal end rhymes ; and 41 words in 3 of the 4 8-line stanzas in ‘Pass MiLord..’, the same. These notes,in case you are interested, are on MBRRCD01, 04 & 05 (‘Bombers’, ‘The New Road’ and ‘Nothing Obvious’) at http://www.Rusthall Records.org.uk
    Yours sincerely,
    M.R.Ball (Mike)

  6. February 25, 2008 2:17 am

    I am necessary wish to find

  7. April 1, 2009 11:11 pm

    This was thoroughly enjoyable, thank you. Looks as though Google search will throw out an occasional gem.

  8. Rob Pewsey permalink
    October 21, 2010 6:32 pm

    Hi Ross, just read your piece on Jake, and thought you might be interested to hear about a bust of him I’ve just finished sculpting.
    you can see pictures of it on the “Jake Thackray website”. It’s yet to be cast in Bronze, and we’re also looking for suggestions as to where it should be sited. Any ideas?
    All the best. Rob

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