Halting before me, and spreading his legs, he thrust his hands deeper into the cross pockets of his corduroy breeches, and changed the straw he was sucking to the other side of his mouth.
‘Be you the young gent as is gwain ta bide wee widder Toop? ‘Cos if ye be, I be come vor ‘ee.’”
A year later he appeared at the Palace Theatre, Frome, with the “Black Diamonds”, a troupe which revived the tradition of the old black and white minstrel shows. Will closed the first half of the show with a “stump speech”, a tradition of minstrel shows in which a comedian used a quasi-political address to satirise local people and events well known to the audience. “The concluding item of part one was a stump speech by Mr Will Jones of Coleford, who very humorously described his imaginary visit to people of note in the town. The conversation which took place between him and the various gentlemen on the subject of beer as a beverage was highly amusing,” reported the Somerset Standard. The Western Gazette added, “One of the most successful members of the party was Mr W Jones of Coleford, as a comedian. His stump speech, dealing in a most witty fashion with local events and topics, was one of the tit-bits of the programme.”
A type script of the stump speech has survived, hidden amongst his sheet music. It’s a petition for the restoration of all-day opening hours for the pubs of Frome after strict licensing hours had been introduced during the First World War to help increase munition production. It begins, “My dear wooden-headed Brudders and Sisterns and Fellow-Ignoramuses:- It is wid de utmost difference and humidity dat I venture to undress you on de problem of – De liberty ob de subject in regard to de National Beverage.” When the character of “Bones” breaks in with “Beer”, the speech continues, “Massa Johnson if I get annudder interuption from dat fool niggah de bier will be wanted, also de flowers but he wont be able to smell dem.” In 2010 Will probably would have been arrested by the Thought Police, but in 1923 it was just harmless fun in front of an audience which had never seen a black person. The comedy is more at the expense of notable Frome citizens, from the editor of the “Somerset Standard” to the councillors and magistrates.
WMJ or Jarge Balsh?
It was only a short step from Will Jones, blacked-up, delivering a comic view of Frome life, to Will Jones, straw in mouth, appearing in the form of Jarge Balsh himself. In November 1924 he was in London to perform in a concert at the Kingsway Hall given by the Society of Somerset Folk, London. “Mr WM Jones of Coleford, who was specially engaged by the Society, gave several original songs of his own composition, ably assisted by the composer of the musical settings, Mr AA Gregory FRCO at the piano. Dree Burgewater Vairs and a character sketch of an old countryman “up to Lunnon” – Yur, hoi! What be at? What be doen’ o’ – were vociferously encored.” The Kingsway Hall was celebrated for its marvellous acoustics and was constantly in use after the invention of electrical recording in 1926 for recording orchestral music.
The “old countryman up to Lunnun” was a prototype of Jarge Balsh. Will’s original typewritten script survives, also concealed for many years amongst his sheet music. It consists of a verse, followed by the “patter” which often formed the centre piece of music hall turns, and concluded by a chorus. It’s very much in the music hall tradition of the performers represented in his substantial collection of sheet music; George Robey, Albert Chevalier, Harry Randall, George Leybourne, Little Tich, Sam Mayo and, of course, Dan Leno. No doubt there was a suitable piano accompaniment, probably worked out at home at the Crossway with my mother, an accomplished pianist from an early age and the “Gwennie” who assisted him in his “Policeman” sketch when just nine years old.
The second piece of patter is rather daring for the BBC of the day, as Albert John Hodges catches the eye of a tart in Piccadilly. “A Beautivul lady dressed up zummit zplendid in lovely clothes passed by and zmoiled, like as if she knowed Oi. Oi were that took to, oi did stan’ an’ gawky at her.” Albert John can’t puzzle out where the lady has seen him before, unless when he was working in the squire’s garden. Albert, however, is saved from his fate by the intervention of a woman policeman. It’s the same theme as George Formby’s famous “I wish I was back on the farm,” written twenty years later.
In October of the same year Jarge Balsh was back in London. The “Radio Times” on October 22nd promised at 10.15 pm “Vun vrom Zomerset” next to the hallmark image of Jarge, adding, “Jarge Balsh, who is here seen in character, has been well known as a dialect entertainer on concert platforms for over twenty years. He is a real expert on the Somerset speech and tradition, and has published many songs and stories in the West Country Press.” After that those “listening in” at 10.30 pm would have been treated in contrast to dance music by Jack Payne’s Hotel Cecil Dance Band until midnight.
More than one review praised Will Jones, at a time when radio reception was less than perfect, for the clarity of his diction. “He makes an almost ideal broadcaster which is no mean achievement.” He was blessed with a remarkable bass voice, as rich and deep as a dish of cream. In later years, one of his gadget acquisitions was an early Grundig tape recorder, on which he intended to record, years before talking books became popular, the Jarge Balsh stories read by himself. Sadly, the plan came to nothing. At least we have the recent recording of “Discovering Somerset” by the Bristol actor Barry Paine. Jarge Balsh was born out of his author’s stage act and undoubtedly there is no better way to appreciate the books than to hear them read aloud. Barry Paine’s excellent recording is available on the internet from Poppy Records.
Will Jones’s first publications were in verse, but he won’t be the first writer who fancied himself as a poet, and who should have stuck exclusively to prose. His poems, first published in the Somerset & Wilts Standard, and then collected in “Living Poets of Somerset” and his own “Somerset Songs And Verse”, are rural verse of the most conventional kind. Orchards are “a-bloom” and daisies and buttercups abound in “white and gold array.” Public poems, like “R101, In Memoriam”, sadly recall the ludicrous Walter McGonigall rather than Alfred Lord Tennyson. His contemporaries were less critical than, perhaps, today’s readers might be, as his verse was always well reviewed and he was commended in a competition run by the “Poetry Review”. “A Song Of Somerset”, set to music by AA Gregory, was a minor hit, and was even scored for brass band.
Literary convention is less of a handicap and more of an essential element in his first prose publication, “Discovering Somerset and Jarge Balsh”. The story is written in the first person but the narrator is not Jarge Balsh, or even some local villager, but a “young toff” from London straight from the pages of PG Wodehouse. The anonymous story teller has exiled himself to Somerset on the recommendation of a Harley Street consultant “to rebuild the reserves of health” which the young man has thrown away in riotous urban living. Will Jones’s “I”, therefore, assumes a character quite foreign to that of his creator. Indeed it would be difficult to think of a dramatis persona more alien to his author than the hypersensitive and feeble youth who comes face to face with Jarge Balsh on the station platform at Castle Cary, although this “silly ass” character was a staple of early twentieth century writing. Bertie Wooster may be the most famous of them, but they people the pages of such disparate writers as Saki, Dorothy Sayers, Frank Richards, and Sapper.
Much of the humour in “Discovering Somerset” relies on the ironic tension between the attitudes and language of the young toff on the one hand, and those of the Somerset yokels on the other. The reader takes a dive into this comic world immediately the young gent clambers into Jarge Balsh’s battered landau to drive from the station to the village of “Springfield”. The old seat springs stick into his bottom and the horsehair stuffing tickles his neck as Jarge’s ancient horse, Friday, unwillingly drags them along. It is all very different from the “immaculate appearance of the family Rolls at home.” Jarge, of course, whose “continual grin” broadens as one embarrassment follows another, enjoys the discomfiture of the fastidious townie, and we laugh with Jarge, and at the narrator.
We also enjoy the narrator’s astonishment at the language which Jarge uses. “I remained speechless, and could only goggle at the man, and wonder what strange noises issuing from that cavernous mouth could possibly mean.” We can understand, of course, exactly what Jarge was saying, whether we were born within spitting distance of Radstock or not, but the dialect draws us into a conspiracy with the author to laugh at the foreigner and to sympathise with Balsh. It is a conspiracy which is at the heart of the fun in Will Jones’s books, a fellow-feeling which would have been all too familiar between the “Coleford comedian” and his audiences in church halls and miners’ welfare clubs. Laurie Lee in “Cider With Rosie”, his memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village in the 1920’s, recalls in village entertainments “broad Gloucester exchanges between yokels and toffs, with the yokels coming off best.” In “Jarge Balsh” the Somerset dialect is the private language which the author shares with the reader, and which allows them both to laugh at the pompous pretensions of the characters, be they toffs or otherwise. It is the comic language of misrule, of the life of “cakes and ale.”
He wrote in dialect with remarkable fluency, as revealed by parts of the manuscript of “Our Village Parliament” which have survived. It is written in free-hand and in pencil and with very few corrections. He was able to reproduce the North Somerset speech and accent in his own phonetic spelling system as easily as if he was writing standard English.
Will Jones never wrote a better scene than the disastrous journey from Castle Cary to Springfield. The comi-tragic death of Jarge’s old horse, Friday, outside the Bunch Of Grapes pub is a triumphant cocktail of the cruelty and pathos which is at the heart of all comedy. The wretched Friday collapses in the road outside the inn, but George remains unfazed, explaining to the narrator that Friday was once a circus horse and that this is only part of his former repertoire. Friday will rise to his feet again in exactly half an hour and, meanwhile, Jarge and his passenger repair to the pub for a mug of cider. Friday, however, fails to stir at the required time, and a passing farmer declares that he is dead. A village drunk provides Friday with a fitting epitaph.
“George lifted poor Friday’s head, and let it fall back with a sickening thud. Overcome for a moment, George looked reproachfully at Friday for a full minute, and then in a hurt tone of voice exclaimed: “Well, I han’t niver knowed’ he do that avore!” Whereupon the aforementioned worshipper at the shrine of Bacchus again removed his clay and, with the skill born of constant practice, neatly deposited a jet of nicotine in the ear of the departed, as he sagely remarked: “No, an’, whut’s moore, thee’t niver know’n doo’t agen!””
“Jarge Balsh At Frome Cheese Show” was published in tandem with “Discovering Somerset”, and in the opening chapter promises more of the same as in the earlier story. When Jarge begins to describe his adventures at Frome Show to the narrator, however, there is a radical change in the author’s approach. The remainder of the book, and its sequels, “Jarge Balsh Goes To Lunnon”, “Jarge Balsh At Bristol Zoo”, and “Our Village Parliament”, are all virtual monologues in dialect by Jarge Balsh. The toff narrator becomes almost invisible. Through their serialisation in local newspapers, Will Jones had become aware of what his readers wanted, and that was unadulterated Jarge Balsh. He had discovered a successful formula, and he stuck to it, loading his repertory cast of Springfield characters into a charabanc driven by “Back-Fire” Jim, and sending them out to take on the modern world beyond the village, in which they would be ridiculed and humiliated but would emerge bloody but unbowed. If the Springfield folk do not always win, they at least fight an honourable draw against the forces of affected superiority and respectability.
As important as Jarge himself are his scolding wife, Mary Ann, and his dreadful mother-in-law, “the woold ‘oman”, two characters straight from the music-hall or a seaside postcard. Slapstick and pratfalls, Ford cars and fat ladies, may have been the staples of the “Jarge Balsh” books but they also have some delicious original moments. In a scene as darkly humorous as the demise of the old nag, Friday, Jarge and his two women receive a lift back to Springfield from their disastrous day at Frome Show in unusual company. The motor van is carrying the corpse of an elderly Springfield resident who has died in the Frome workhouse infirmary. The coffin is perched on trestles with the Balsh family sitting on either side. “’Twere the quietest h’ride I’d iver had wie ‘em,” recalls Jarge. Each lady sits silently staring in front of her, bolt upright and hands in lap, as the van and the coffin jolt their way back home. Jarge struggles to find some appropriate remark with which to break the ghastly silence, “as shid putt the ‘oomen at thur ease like, I patted me han’s on the coffin an’ zed: “Pity Yubby Nokes werden here now. We could have a proper geame o’ hap’ny nap.” His innocent suggestion of a game of cards on top of the coffin is less than well received, and the day ends at home in Springfield with a volley of crockery.
Yubby Nokes, along with Jarge and his women, are the author’s favourite characters. Abraham “Yubby” Nokes, cross-eyed and cantankerous, has his defining moment in “Jarge Balsh Goes To Lunnun”, in which the villagers have been unleashed on the Wembley Exhibition of 1924 and 1925. The oddest aspect of the writing of Will Jones was not so much what he included in his books, but what he chose to leave out. He was brought up and lived most of his life in a pit village, and went to work at a colliery when he was twelve. The village of Springfield, however, in which his books are placed, is picture-postcard Somerset without a winding wheel or a slag heap in sight. Will Jones lived at the centre of Coleford, at the Crossway, but Springfield, if it is anywhere except in his imagination, is the neighbouring hamlet of Vobster, and the King William pub is the Vobster Inn. When the narrator arrives in Somerset, it is at Castle Cary station, miles away south of the Mendips. It is almost as if Will Jones is smuggling his characters in by the backdoor in case the real world of the coalfield catches up with them. The station for Coleford, and for Vobster for that matter, was Mells Road, well-known to me as a small boy as we took the train from Hallatrow, through Farrington Gurney and Radstock, to visit my grandfather on Saturdays. He would meet us off the train, and his erratic driving would then subject us to a journey on to Coleford in his Triumph Mayflower car as perilous as any in his books.
Reality does peep into the world of Springfield when Jarge and Yubby Nokes visit the model coalmine at the Wembley Exhibition. Farmer Jarge accepts it all at face value but Yubby, who “had a worked in a pit avore a come to Zpringfield ta live…’twere over Koverd”, works himself into a fury of indignation at the electric lighting, high and wide roadways, ventilation, and pit ponies “vat as butter.” Before the party can escape from “this yur gentleman’s wine zeller”, Yubby treats the toffs to a slice of life in a real pit.
“Whur’s yur shutes ur gugs down yur’?...Shutes not much bigger’n a chimbley an’ a’moost sa steep. Shutes whut da get choked up wie coal halfwaay up, droo big nubs hitchin’ in the zupportin’ timmers. Shutes thit you got ta climb up ta whur the coal is caught an’ put booerds in the timmers above yur head, an’ then hang on wie yur knees an’ one hand while you da scratch wie t’other hand at the choked coal droo a hole you’ve left in the booerd an’ let it run on down ta your mates below. An’ up there in pitch blackness you da goo on scratchin’ at the coal an’ swallerin’ the bad air an’ the mouthvulls o’ dust until all the coal is gone down past ‘ee – if the booerds doon’t happen ta break vust an’ zend ‘ee ta the bottom to be crushed an’ buried alive.”
For a few pages Springfield meets “Koverd”, or Coleford. It is tempting to wish that Will Jones had ventured more often out of his comic fantasy into the real world on his doorstep but he chose to write “Jarge Balsh” and not “The Stars Look Down”, something which his readership, much of it made up by pit workers, obviously preferred. In the escapist world of comedy, a little reality goes a long way.
In a type script for what appears to be a lecture on West Country dialects, he contrasted the North Somerset accent of Coleford with that of the South of the county. “I say it with some reluctance as a North Somerset native but candour compels me to confess that the South Somerset accent is far more pleasing to the ear than any to be found in the County North of the Mendips.
I attribute this mainly to the fact that the Southerners live, move and have their being, breathing the pure air, feeling the healthful effects of the bright sunshine, viewing delightful scenery, and what is probably most effective on their speech hearing the musical sounds of nature from songbirds, lowing cattle, running water and the wind and the rain.
Contrast this with the lot of the North Somerset collier who spends most of his life in darkness with such aids to speech culture as may be obtained from the dull thud of his pick in the coal, the rumbling of trams in the wet dark underground passages and the crash of the cage on the support at the base of the shaft.”
“Jarge Balsh At Bristol Zoo” was published in 1934 and collected the pieces written for the ill-fated “North Somerset Independent.” He dedicated it “To those women who, being unequally yoked to men who write, yet bear their unhappy lot with fortitude and patience, and, in particular to Mabel May Jones.” Sadly, his devoted wife had little time left to live. “At Bristol Zoo” is the art of Will Jones at its peak. The villagers of Springfield stagger from one disaster to another, from the perilous journey in Back Fire Jim’s “shaura” to Frome Station until they leave Bristol with a police sergeant’s advice ringing in the curate’s ears, “An’ doon’t ‘ee niver bring ‘em out again.” The chapter “Fun in the Restaurant” is a personal favourite, where the inhabitants of Springfield collide with the requirements and pretensions of the zoo’s refreshment room. “Maain posh pleace, ‘twere, to be shower. Vrench winders, girt high ruff, an’ iverything luxurious, like.” The Sanders family nick the tips left under the plates on their table, and Jarge and his women settle down to eat their own sandwiches and pickles which Mary Ann has brought with her, all to the outrage of manager and wiatresses alike. Chaos, of course, follows, finishing with the curate on the floor drenched in tea. “I didn’ like the expression on the Reverend’s feace.’Twere jist like Bob, my cow-dog, da look at me atter I’ve a beeit ‘en vur zummat ur nuther.”
His last book, “Our Village Parliament”, was written in the late 1940’s, twenty years after his most creative years had produced the previous three Jarge Balsh stories. The “Parliament” is the pub, of course. Will Jones was the most moderate of drinkers but he spent virtually every evening at Joe Moore’s “Vobster Inn” where he would sit in the snug and put the world right with his friend, Arthur Goddard. The appreciative foreword to this, his last book, was written by Ralph Wightman, who was then a household name as a broadcaster on country matters in his signature Dorset accent. The BBC was on the verge of launching “The Archers”. It’s a pity, perhaps, that the BBC chose to place Ambridge in the Midlands rather than Somerset. Instead of Walter Gabriel, we might have been treated to Jarge Balsh as the village’s comic relief. At least we could have relied on his creator to have delivered a character with a convincing accent and dialect, rather than with the “mummerset” of Walter’s “my old pal, my old beauty.”
Will Jones the author is remembered now only for the “Jarge Balsh” books. In the late 1920’s, however, he was busy also with his weekly column in the “Bristol Evening World” which was titled “Side Lights – On The World’s Light Side.” It had been commissioned by the editor, who had reviewed “Discovering Somerset” enthusiastically when first published.
It was a selection of humorous snippets, most of them trawled from American “funny papers”, according to his son, Dick. As a newsagent of long-standing, Will certainly wouldn’t have had far to look for his material. Strongly reminiscent of “Laughter The Best Medicine” in the Readers Digest magazine, “Side Lights” was two columns of jokey definitions, puns, and anecdotes. “The man with money to burn usually meets his match…After all, the dress of the modern girl isn’t much to complain about…When flying becomes more general, it will be more difficult than ever to get some people down to business…” and so on and so forth, week after week!
Will Jones thought enough of them to put them into a scrapbook, but far more original was his “Herbert Hopkins” column of the early 1930’s from his own “North Somerset Independent”. The “Independent” was a typical local newspaper of the period, full of traffic accidents, court reports, and, of course, a double spread devoted to the local football teams. The “Independent” tag described its political outlook. There is no doubt that Will Jones wrote much of the feature work, and that he is the writer lurking behind the household advice of “Over The Tea Cups by Maggie Murtry”, and the children’s corner, supposedly written by “Auntie Pat”.
The “Herbert Hopkins” column was something different. The writer seems to have realised this himself as, although he did not paste the cuttings into a scrapbook, a fat bundle of them survives, carefully cut from each weekly publication. It’s possible that he meant to collect them into a book.“Erbit Opkinses Artickel” affects to have been written by the Independent’s office boy, an aggressively illiterate youth who offers his personal world view on a wide range of subjects from love, education, and parents to football and the Irish Hospitals Sweep. He appears in a rather splendid caricature at the top of his column, in a flash three-piece suit, tilting back in his tall office chair with a Woodbine dangling from his lips. As with Jarge Balsh, the language provides most of the fun, outrageously misspelled in a tidal wave of phonetic Somerset cum cockney.
No doubt Will Jones wrote Erbit Opkins with the same effortless fluency as Jarge Balsh, but it must have given his typesetters a nightmare in hot metal. Even now in the days of mega fast keyboards, Erbit would test your stamina, but here are a few scraps of the Opkins world view.
“Krismis partees is aul Rite so long as they last but oh! That thair mornin after the nite befoar! Last nite I ad rubarb wine, mins-pies, parsnip wine, 2 binanas, the Leg o the turkey, pikled waulnuts, plum poodin, Kaufee, sicks kind of nuts, Cowslip Wine, trifil, 2 appils, a norinj, jinjer-wines, and Abowt a poun a choklits.
I aulso smokt 10 Seegrets but wat took aul the Interest out ov the perseedins for me was a big Blak seegar, I was chalinjed to smoak. I kum to a Fool-stop after smoakin a ninch, and fell into a Comma. Too ov the Mail guests karrid me oam with Allis follerin up Behine. Praps I may be able to – you moar Necks weak. Yu must Eckscuse – still taist that thair seegar – feal I am goin to Be – sined, ERBI -
I av dun with wimmen. Finily, an konclewsivly, I av desided to av nuthink moar to do with the seck witch as been the dounfaul of man evir sinse she went into the rong orchurd an pinched a fig-leef ful ov Tom Puds and then temtid man to becum an aksessiry after the fack – as the lawyers put it
At the momint the Leeg of Nashins hav on its side 180 per cent rite, an 20 per sent Mite. Wot thay wants is 100 per sent Mite and 100 per sent rite. Then thay mite do Somethink. Havin maid the Faur Eest problim cleer I will leev the Grayter kwestchun of “How to maik munny bi folloin orses” til necks weak.
It is not genrily noan that “partee politicks” is an afeckshin of the brane and in its acute staijes maiks the victim appeer to be dementid. Wun of the laws ov this kuntry is that 600 odd districks shall pick out a man who shall sit in a fine big hous an get £400 a yer for doin ov it. Aul he got to do is to wauk out into a lobbee now and then an voat for his partee’s bills”
Those who still remember Will Jones wonder at his “never speaking the way he wrote in his books.” In his own introduction to “Discovering Somerset” he recalled that up to the age of fourteen he spoke only in dialect “when outside the village school and away from the influence wielded, and made absolute, by the parental rod of correction. In those days one had to speak standard English at home and at school, but to do so abroad would certainly have secured condign punishment from one’s play-fellows for ‘biggetyness’.” In a photograph of Will as a little boy with his mother, he stands, dressed in a smart suit and holding a straw hat, while his mother sits with her hand marking a page in a half-open book. The picture encapsulates Millicent Jones’s aspirations for her eldest son; a life of respectability and learning. Will Jones certainly grew up to realise all her ambitions for him, even though it was often a struggle, and even if, at a moment’s notice and with a change of voice, he could become Jarge Balsh, and mount Back-Fire Jim’s charabanc for a journey into a world of comic mayhem.