Make room for the jester, p.1

  Make Room for the Jester, p.1

Make Room for the Jester

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Make Room for the Jester





  Title Page























  About the Author




  Stead Jones and Make Room for the Jester: well, I’d never heard of it. But there are books that are unjustly forgotten, and I think this is one of them. When I read it for the first time a few months ago I was enchanted with it, not only for the memories of place and atmosphere it evoked so skilfully, not only for the light touch and the sympathetic voice of the narrator, but mainly for the brilliantly drawn portrait of an extraordinary individual, about whom I shall have more to say later on.

  To deal with the biographical facts first: Stead Jones was born in Pwllheli in 1922, the youngest of a big family. He was actually christened Thomas Evan Jones: the Stead came, in a perfectly normal Welsh way, from the fact that his father once managed the local branch of the Stead and Simpson chain of shoe shops, and was himself known as Stead Jones. (When Make Room for the Jester was published Tony Richardson’s film of Tom Jones was not long out, and very popular, and Tom Jones the singer was having his first hits. Jones’ agent thought that the public would find it hard to cope with a surfeit of Tom Joneses; so the novelist became Stead like his father.) The young Tom was educated at Pwllheli Grammar School, and then at Bangor University, though his higher education was interrupted by service in the Royal Signals during the Second World War. He took part in the D-Day landings, an experience, he said, ‘which seems more alarming now [1964] than it did then’.

  After the war he returned to university, and then became a lecturer in Lancashire. There he remained until he retired. He died in 1985, leaving a wife and two daughters.

  So much for the quotidian, salaried and pensioned, golf-playing, respectable outward life. But where did this novel come from? Within four years during his forties, he published Make Room for the Jester and two others – and then there were no more. No more published, at any rate, for he continued to write: but publishers felt that for one reason or another the sort of novel he wanted to write wasn’t the sort the public wanted to read. Sometimes a writer’s tone, or subject, or world view, is not to the prevailing taste. Sometimes, dare I say it, publishers are simply wrong. Jones wrote on till the day he died; I hope there is another novel as good as this among the papers he left.

  One admirer of the book has called Make Room for the Jester ‘the Welsh Catcher in the Rye’, and it’s certainly true that Jones’ novel, like the infinitely more famous work by J.D. Salinger, contrasts the passionate authenticity of adolescence with the hypocrisy, the phoniness, of adulthood. But Stead Jones never had to deal with the sort of celebrity that came to Salinger. Perhaps his timing was unfortunate; if he too had published his novel in 1951, instead of 1964…

  The novel is set in the little harbour town of Porthmawr. It’s in North Wales: we’re not in Dylan Thomas’ Llareggub, with its fishing boat-bobbing sea, but in a harsher place where there’s little point in having a boat at all because the fishing is dying. ‘No competing with Fleetwood and Grimsby,’ says one character. The year is 1936, and the narrator, Lew Morgan, is a scholarship boy at the County School. The events that begin the story take place during the summer holiday, when Lew and his friends the hard and daring Dewi, the agreeable blockhead Maxie, and the superbly inventive and eloquent Gladstone Williams become involved with an ancient feud between the Vaughan brothers Marius and Ashton. Marius Vaughan is rich and solitary and lives on the hill, and the feud involves the accidental death many years before of the youngest Vaughan brother, Jupiter. The plot begins when Ashton returns to Porthmawr from many drink-sodden years of wandering.

  The events are farcical-tragical, and Lew is a good narrator; the story is safe in his hands. But one thing that lifts this book quite out of the common run is the character of Gladstone Williams. He’s seventeen, older than the other boys in this little gang, and whereas Lew is the educated one, the one set on a scholarship track towards matriculation and whatever lies beyond, Gladstone – for all that he has the best vocabulary, English and Welsh, in all Porthmawr – is what would later be called a dropout. ‘I found school very restrictive,’ he says airily.

  But here comes the originality of the book: Gladstone is no proto-beatnik or ur-hippy, absorbed only with his own unformed self. He has assumed the task of looking after his three little half-siblings, Dora, Mair, and Walter, his mother being a drunken slattern, and he does so superbly. The scenes with the children are funny and tender and full of Gladstone’s boundless inventiveness, for his method of keeping the children quiet or tractable or happy is to tell them stories. The older boys listen too:

  He told us one none of us had heard before – about a fisherman who found pearls in the seaweed bubbles, and how he collected them for his sweetheart, and how the pearls all became tiny fish on her neck. I swear he made it up there and then.

  ‘Don’t understand,’ Maxie said.

  ‘Why did they turn to fish, then?’ Dora asked. Dora was eight and wriggling with questions.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Gladstone. ‘You should never ask a poet to explain…’

  ‘Very good,’ Walter croaked.

  ‘Got a meaning,’ Dewi agreed. ‘Like a sermon in chapel.’

  But Gladstone is not just a charming fantasist. He represents kindly, protective adulthood as well:

  Then the children upstairs began to cry, and before Gladstone had moved from his position under the light they had come tumbling downstairs and into the room, little old people in their nightshirts, faces puffed with sleep and tears.

  ‘Now then,’ he said as he crouched down to them. ‘Now then, what’s this?’

  ‘Had nightmares,’ Dora sobbed.

  ‘Not all of you?’ He was touching them and kissing them and smoothing back their hair. ‘Not at the same time?’

  ‘It was terrible,’ Dora said.

  Gladstone felt Walter’s bottom. ‘Not wet the bed, have you?’

  ‘Never,’ Walter said firmly.

  ‘Tell me, then. What did you have nightmares about?’

  ‘Chips,’ Walter said.

  ‘And cockroaches,’ Mair added.

  ‘That’s a mixture, for sure,’ Gladstone smiled, and Walter and Mair smiled with him. ‘Recovered now?’ They nodded.

  ‘Then off to Lew by the fire, while I talk to Dora…’

  And so on. The gentle teasing and warm reassurance continues beautifully for two more pages. What I find remarkable about this passage and others like it is the unaffected authority that Gladstone displays. He’s in charge of these children, and he’s neither embarrassed nor resentful about it. The author’s touch with Gladstone and the children is masterly.

  There’s another aspect of Gladstone’s manner that is so delicately handled it’s only visible in the tiniest details. From time to time someone such as Harry Knock-Knees, the town bully, will call Gladstone a pansy or a nancy-boy; and someone else will say of him meaningfully ‘He’s a great friend of the Vaughans, that one’, and there’ll be a lot of laughter; or Ashton Vaughan will say in a spiteful tone (or sbeitlyd, as Lew thinks, the Welsh word having a wider range of meaning than the
English) ‘a proper little nursie boy, isn’t he?’ and this at a time when Gladstone, out of hearing for the moment, has been gently cleaning the vomit off Ashton’s face; or someone else will say of Gladstone ‘My opinion is that he isn’t right – never was…’; and there is Lew’s own observation that ‘He had a voice like a girl’s, not high, but with a girl’s sound to it’; and then, most importantly, there is Gladstone’s own general attitude to the world, which I can only call camp. One of his fantasies involves ‘a master-plan to move the Azores (why do they have such vulgar names?)’

  And his obsession with the Vaughans is due largely to his feeling that ‘they’ve got style, don’t you see?’ as he says to Lew, gripping his shoulder tightly.

  Is Gladstone gay? Certainly he’s not like anyone else, and his sexual nature might easily be one marker of the difference. I think that if Stead Jones were writing today we’d know for certain, because he’d feel more able to allow a sexual dimension into the lives of his little gang. For the strange thing is that whereas these are boys of sixteen or so, with their hormones presumably fully functioning, their lives and speech are entirely chaste. The only one of them to express any sexual feeling is the animal-like Maxie, who watches a girl running down to the sea, her breasts bobbing inside her bathing costume.

  Maxie sat up, pointing. ‘By God,’ he cried, ‘look at them headlamps…’

  That’s not to say that sexuality is absent from the novel. Sex is there, but mysterious, something for dreams and darkness. The consequences of sexual activity are only too evident, from the French letters washed up after every tide to the nightmare that poor little Dora whispers to Gladstone later on in the scene quoted above. And there is Eirlys Hampson, the glamorous woman with the ample breasts and the silk blouses, whose teasing makes Lew blush. It’s just that the boys have other concerns for the moment, and Gladstone’s fascination with the Vaughans is at the heart of them. Certainly his courage, in acting the way he does without equivocation or apology, resembles the courage of every gay young person who has to live in what he calls ‘the primeval swamp of respectability’.

  There are too many pleasures in this short novel to list in a very short introduction, but I must mention Jones’ character-drawing. Everyone is clearly imagined and clearly described, and everyone has a function in the story. There is a terrifying religious zealot in Mrs Meirion-Pughe; there is a philosophical carpenter, Rowland Williams, who has a quiet voice that says quiet, sharp things. There is the generous, teasing, troubling Eirlys. There are Dewi and Maxie, and there is the bitter and troubled Ashton Vaughan.

  And finally, not as a central theme but as something that sounds now and then like a bell from the future, and arouses harmonics in all sorts of other places, the big question for every teenager in a small town, whether it’s Porthmawr or Pwllheli, Caernarfon or Porthmadog, or for that matter King’s Lynn, or Weymouth, or any one of a hundred thousand small towns in every country in the atlas: will we have to leave our native place in order to live as fully and richly as we feel we need to? Gladstone’s ambition is grand and clear and unequivocal: ‘I want to be the finest man in the world,’ he says.

  But will that mean leaving Porthmawr behind and engaging with the larger neighbour to the east, whose language happens to be spread more widely around the world? One of the first questions Gladstone asks Lew after hearing of Lew’s ambition to be a poet is ‘Welsh or English, which do you write?’ Lew’s answer is already implicit in his name, which the headmaster of the County School is very scornful about: ‘Lew? No such name as Lew, boy! Llywelyn is your name.’ The language question is one, perhaps, that teenagers in King’s Lynn or Weymouth don’t have to consider. It’s a delicate and complex one, and adults aren’t much help: the ferociously pious Mrs Meirion-Pughe thinks the English Bible unsuitable for Christians, while Rowland Williams in his carpenter’s workshop, talking to Lew about the Nationalists who’ve just burned an aerodrome in Pwllheli, expresses with his prophetical eloquence a passion that goes right through Nationalism and the language question, and deeply into something concerning the nature of humanity itself: ‘It’s a great fire we want that’ll scorch away all the institutions of mediocrity…’

  This short novel isn’t perfect. But it expresses far more themes than many a weighty book five times the length, and it does so with a delicate precision that delights me more the more I read it. To this English lover of Welsh places, Welsh voices, Welsh weather (even), it brings back with a surprising intensity my own youth a quarter of a century later (at the very time Jones was writing this book, in fact) and a few miles down the coast from wherever Porthmawr is. And now that I know it, I’ll treasure it. The company of Gladstone has the same effect on me as it has on ‘the little ones’, as he calls them: he makes me happy.

  Philip Pullman




  ‘Geography begins at home,’ Evans Thomas announced. ‘No doubt we are all in agreement with that?’

  The class nodded, but very reluctantly. It was the last day before the summer holiday.

  ‘Porthmawr the fair, then,’ he went on, and paused for the laugh. ‘Sunset metropolis by an Irish Sea. Other Eden, demi-paradise – including the Palace Cinema, of course, where so many of you worship at the shrine of Metro and Goldwyn and Mayer; where Clark has a Gable, where Mae goes West, twice nightly, best seats one and six…’

  ‘Humour is the curse of the Welsh,’ Goronwy whispered to me. ‘Watch out for the catch…’

  Evans Thomas’ glasses flashed a warning as he searched the class. ‘Population of Porthmawr, Goronwy Jones?’ A whiplash question that killed the laughter. ‘On your feet, boy! Up!’

  Goronwy’s desk went bang as he stood. ‘Five thousand, Mr Thomas.’ Goronwy was using his insulting voice. ‘Main export – the unemployed.’ And the brave ones laughed.

  The colour left Evans Thomas’ face, came back again bunched up and dark below his glasses. ‘Insolence!’ he thundered. A purple vein coiled itself across his forehead. ‘Big lout! Buffoon! Think you can say what you like, don’t you? Father on the Education Committee, so you think yourself privileged…. Let me tell you, boy…’ But he never did. Suddenly he was swaying there in front of us, one hand clutching at his chest, the other searching for support. ‘Sir!’ one of the girls cried out. ‘Sir!’ said Goronwy at my side. The dinner bell rang. Evans Thomas seemed to lunge out for his tall desk. It went over with him, the bottle of red ink in the air, splintering against the wall.

  The class rose. A silence that hid screaming, then there was a rush to the front. And I would have been with them had Goronwy, his face the colour of lard, not blocked my way. ‘He’s dead,’ he was saying over and over again…. But now the staff were in, even Mr Penry, the Head, and they were saying ‘dead, dead’, too. Form VA were back in their seats, graveyard faces, a graveyard silence. ‘Take them out,’ the Head cried. ‘Will someone take them out?’ We filed past the prone body of Mr Evans Thomas. I never saw his face, never even tried to look.

  The summer holiday began like that, with a sudden, public death. It was an omen, Meira said – would set off others, a thing like that. I’d got some of my colour back now, she said: it must have been a terrible shock. She licked the jam off her knife. ‘Married, was he?’

  ‘Bachelor,’ I said. ‘Used to call him “the Snake”.’

  ‘There you are, then,’ she said, as she buttered another piece of bread. ‘Get married is the motto. Single – and they go like that.’ She gave me a cheeky smile. ‘Not upset, are you?’ She was all sympathy, but anxious for the details. ‘Kept you in, did they?’

  ‘That’s the Head all over,’ I said. ‘Always getting to the bottom of things.’ I remembered the hole in the seat of my flannels, and how a girl had giggled as I left the class. The Head and Super Edwards and Alderman Mrs Meirion-Pughe from the Governors were behind the table in the study. Mrs Meirion-Pughe’s thick eyebrows made remarks as I entered.

Name?’ said the Head. Lew Morgan, sir. ‘Lew? No such name as Lew, boy! Llywelyn is your name.’ Lew, sir. ‘Rubbish, boy. Where do these boys get their ideas from?’ Smiles all round. ‘Home address?’ Number Twelve Lower Hill Road.

  ‘Ffordd Allt Isaf,’ said Mrs Meirion-Pughe, giving our street its Welsh name. Mrs Meirion-Pughe was so Welsh that she thought the English Bible unsuitable for Christians. She was very religious, too.

  ‘What did they ask, then?’ said Meira.

  ‘Lot of nothing,’ I said, remembering the agony of backing to the door, one hand clamped over my behind.

  ‘Some cake,’ Meira offered. ‘Only workman’s, though. Baked them this morning.’

  Workman’s – pastry and raisins – was fine, and so was sitting there in the kitchen of Number Twelve Lower Hill Road, Porthmawr, Wales, with Meira making things ordinary – even the sight of a man dying – with a cheeky word, a lick of the knife, a smile that came from the eyes. She was my cousin – my only relative now that my mother was dead – a small, dark woman with dimples like stars in her cheeks. Living in Number Twelve with her and Owen was fine, even if they did act like lovebirds, even if she did talk about sex all the time. Meira was thirty-five in 1936, the year all this happened, and now and then there was mention of how she was getting past it, talk of the third month being bad, and how she’d lost them every time. Talk I had to pretend not to understand.

  Owen was tall and fair and very thin. He was a handyman, Owen, capable of any work, except that economic conditions, as he said himself, were against him. Most of the year he was on the dole, but now, for the summer, he had a job up on the beach, minding the boats and deckchairs. He wanted a boat of his own but there wasn’t much point because, just as the quarry had died in the hills at the back of the town, so the fishing was dying in the bay. ‘No competing with Fleetwood and Grimsby,’ he said through his bread and jam, ‘so this boat I saw today might as well have been the old quinquireme of Nineveh herself. Know about that, do you?’

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