Sunday 25 October 2015

Bob Pretty

I have an understandable interest in Bobs. Bob the Island, Bob the Point, Bob the Province, Bob the Builder, Bob the Asteroid, Bob the Socratic, Bob the Gypsy, Bob the Thunderer, Bob the Farrrrmer, Bob the Cheap have all made an appearance on The Blob, some briefer than others.  Then I was looking across the room at the floor-to-ceiling book-case from my home-base on the sofa and thought it was time to offer tribs to W.W. Jacobs.  Who he?  I mentioned him a while ago as a off-piste author whose works I cherish.

I discovered his writings back in the days when I used to do yard-sales and church-sales accumulating historical atlases and Swahili dictionaries against the day when we would have more children who would need education. Many WW Jacobs stories are nautical in nature, echoing and elaborating tales remembered from his childhood fossicking around the London docks of Wapping and Bermondsey where his father was a wharf-manager. As a navy brat, I am favorably predisposed to books that go down to the sea again to the lonely sea and the sky [cue Masefield sounding like WB Yeats; or less sententious by Tom O'Bedlam]. As he was born in 1863, Jacobs' experience was at least as much with wherries, barges and lighters as it was with craft driven by steam or diesel engines. He did write several novels but he also submitted a great number of short-stories to the periodicals that flourished before wireless and television cornered the market in light entertainment from the 1930s. You may find wearing his attempts to render phonetically the dialect of his working-class protagonists but the same could be said of Kipling who had shares in the company that produced apostropes:
The uniform 'e wore   
Was nothin' much before,   
An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind,
Jacobs' reputation now lies almost entirely on his authorship of a ghost story called The Monkey's Paw which has frightened the bejaysus out of boy-scouts for the last 100 years and was filmed in 1948 and more recently in 2013. I've no time for that sort of stuff but his gentle, ironic, funny stories about ordinary folk in slightly out of the ordinary situations are worth the ten minutes it takes to read them.  A very common trope in the collection is to have the story started off one of two elderly men.

One is the nightwatchman on a London wharf who has a fund of comeuppance tales about three sailors ashore between v'yages. Their names are Peter Russett, old Sam Small and Ginger Dick and they usually contrive to piss all their money away in an astonishing variety of ways almost before they've found lodgings ashore. The stories are simple enough but you want to watch out for the throw-away remarks which are doubly funny because they are unexpected. The innocent are there to be bilked as the sheep are there to be shorn but nobody dies. Peter's Pence is reasonably typical.

After he married, Jacobs moved with his family to the suburb of Loughton in Essex before it got entirely drowned in urban sprawl.  He recast the village as 'Claybury' with a pub called the Cauliflower which has a permanent resident in an long retired peasant who idles the days away cadging drinks off passers-by. Anyone who buys the old codger a pint will get a story as sure as you can now get money from an ATM if you have a PIN. But it's delightful how many ways a stranger can be artlessly persuaded to do the right thing by the oldest inhabitant. The anti-hero in this thread of tales is Bob Pretty, the local poacher, fixer and bamboozler who always turns out to be innocent of whatever outrage is committed on the other villagers and is painfully hurt that any of his neighbours would think badly of him  . . . again.

It looks like almost the entire oeuvre of WW Jacobs has been put on line by The Literature Network.  It's not as good as reading his stories in an old cloth binding printed in 1924 but it's all there.  Enjoy, I did.

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