13 August 2022

Jake Thackray biography Beware of the Bull now available


The Jake Thackray biography having arrived, I couldn't resist devouring it immediately, even though it's the kind of work which ought to be savoured at leisure. What follows is more by way of a few initial thoughts than a comprehensive review, but based on my frantic run at the thing the good news is that the book is all that might have been hoped for and can be recommended without reservation to thoroughgoing Thackrayites and the Jake-curious alike.

Written with the cooperation of family and friends from all stages of his life and career, there is almost no section of the story which doesn't benefit from several viewpoints, to say nothing of extracts from Jake's own public and private writings. There is even an appendix with lyrics of a large number of unrecorded songs (although, sad to report, a song I remembered fondly from Tickertape survives only as a title).

If fans already familiar with the outline of Jake's career have concerns about the portrayal of his final years they can be reassured that this period is sensitively handled. For those not already acquainted with the basics, Jake Thackray was raised a Catholic and became a teacher, writing songs for his pupils to sing, before those songs came to the attention of radio and television producers, leading to national fame through his regular appearances on Braden's Week and elsewhere. Over the years, however, an increasing dissatisfaction with performing, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led to his withdrawing from the spotlight altogether. 

The account, in the book's closing chapters, of his decline seems perfectly pitched: it's not sensational but does include the odd telling comment from friends about evidence of some further deterioration. It all makes for saddening reading, of course, but the pace of those revelations feels exactly right - there is no sense of the reader being hurried along to the inevitable ending. It's also heartening to learn that for quite a while, when the wind is in the right direction and Jake feels thoroughly comfortable, he can still do a good gig - provided he has no sense of the weight of the audience's expectations beforehand.

You could, I suppose, view this story as a cautionary tale about the corrosive effects of fame - even though fame wasn't something which Thackray actively pursued. Once on the performing treadmill, however, it seems to have been difficult for him to get off. His dislike of larger venues, preferring the intimate connection with audiences in clubs and universities, forced him into doing more gigs, cutting into time once available for reflecting and songwriting. Yet there are contradictions here: he may have disliked TV's weekly deadlines, feeling he was producing substandard work as a result, but later he came to regret the absence of the discipline which such commisions had once imposed.

This fable-type aspect of his rise and fall may mean that the book's appeal could extend beyond the devotees who pre-ordered their copies and attract a more general readership for whom Jake might be a distant, if fond, telly memory, or perhaps a name cited as an influence by some artist they admire. Here's hoping it will prompt them to explore beyond his best-known comic numbers. 

For those, like myself, already broadly acquainted with the story, the pleasure will be in having so many gaps filled by this admirable book, which it's difficult to imagine being surpassed. Quite apart from anything else, it represents a technical triumph in its marshalling of so much information: despite having hordes of voices to sort out and arrange, the narrative always remains clear, the chapter endings compelling the reader onwards. The writers' style isn't showy, but there's no doubt that this is a book by people who know and understand their subject - hardly surprising, as both are intimately acquainted with his work in practice: John Watterson performs as tribute act "Fake Thackray", and Paul Thompson has also sung his fair share of Jake's compositions. 

Which may explain why the many capsule accounts of songs in the book are so satisfying, whetting the appetite by conveying a sense of Thackray's intentions without falling into the trap of quoting from the lyrics at length and spoiling the pleasurable surprise of the recordings exploding in the listener's ears for the first time.

Question: As a result of reading it is this complex man now, to use Arthur Miller's phrase, "wholly known"?

Answer: Despite the multiplicity of voices, no; but maybe we are now as close as it's possible to get. 

This really is a consderable achievement and a great service to all those who have wanted to know more about this beguiling artist.


Paul Thompson has asked on social media that people buy a book directly from the publisher, Scratching Shed, rather than a certain well-known online retailer. You can do so here.  I can certainly vouch for the fact that Scratching Shed dispatch their books promptly: I ordered a copy for a friend which arrived two days after placing it.


Two Jake Thackray-related posts on this blog: 

 On Again! On Again! or Strangers on a Train

Ralph, William and Jake (and Davey) or Act As Known


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