Our Village Parliament

A Country Inn from an old postcard.

Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.

Like the oth­er Jarge Balsh books it is nar­rat­ed by a city man in stan­dard Eng­lish, while the yokels’ speech is report­ed in a ver­sion of north Som­er­set dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Par­lia­ment”, and so on. Here’s how the nar­ra­tor opens Our Vil­lage Par­lia­ment:

Away back in in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, in days when motor-pro­pelled vehi­cles had not begun to dis­turb the peace­ful seren­i­ty of the coun­try-side, and when the rur­al land­scape lay yet unsul­lied by poles and wires for con­vey­ing elec­tric pow­er or for receiv­ing the dis­tract­ing sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to fore­gath­er at the vil­lage inn to dis­cuss local top­ics and world events.

The pop­u­lar night was pay-night and Fri­day acquired an added impor­tant from the fact that the local week­ly news­pa­per was pub­lished on that day. The nation­al dai­ly papers were tak­en only by a select few who had to be con­tent with get­ting them a day late by post.…

A detailed descrip­tion of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chim­ney-place like a small room and the extra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters which make up “woold Moth­er Bark­er’s” clien­tele would but bore those read­ers who have met them in oth­er records by the present writer.

Though the action of the sto­ries in the book takes place in the pub it is not pri­mar­i­ly about pubs. There are nonethe­less some nice details:

Time, gen­namin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Bark­er. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thir­ty, mar­ra’ mornin’.”

There fol­lowed the usu­al ref­er­ence to watch­es which seem­ing­ly agreed that the King William clock was “vive min­utes in front o’ the Church clock – how a hit nine o’clock”, but our land­la­dy stout­ly main­tained the verac­i­ty of her time­piece.

Over­whelm­ing tes­ti­mo­ny that her faith was jus­ti­fied came from the Church clock itself, which inter­rupt­ed the argu­ment by strik­ing the fatal hour. Mrs Bark­er paused in the mid­dle of a heat­ed sen­tence and turned out the light.

And so we all went home.

Bat­tles between the reg­u­lars and Mrs Bark­er over clos­ing time are a recur­ring theme through­out the book (she is anx­ious about the new tee­to­tal vil­lage con­sta­ble) as is her stingi­ness with the oil lamp, “so dif­fer­ent to the glare of the elec­tric bulb”.

Jarge Balsh as depict­ed in 1926.

Chap­ter III is an inter­est­ing one to read in 2018’s cli­mate of polit­i­cal divi­sion con­cern­ing as it does the wis­dom of dis­cussing pol­i­tics in the pub. It opens with a gloom set­tled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abra­ham Nokes sit sulk­ing hav­ing dis­agreed over the ques­tion of “Nation­al­iza­tion and Pri­vate Enter­prise”:

If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on pol­i­tics out­side a polit­i­cal meetin’ should be shut up togeth­er ’til tha’ learned on anoth­er bet­ter. Whut good do ’em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?

Else­where there are pas­sages con­cern­ing pub seat­ing…

He who made the first set­tle must have chuck­led with Satan­ic glee after hav­ing test­ed and proved the poten­tial mis­ery con­tained in the thing… Not being blessed with even aver­age adi­pose tis­sue I can only endure the expe­ri­ence by press­ing a hand on the seat either side of that por­tion of my anato­my so essen­tial for the act of relief. This redis­tri­b­u­tion of pres­sure cer­tain­ly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is incon­ve­nient to one requir­ing the use of his hands for inhal­ing cig­a­rette smoke and imbib­ing cider… I might have men­tioned that its back ris­es straight from a seat which is noth­ing else but a nine-inch board.

…and pub fires:

In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chim­ney, the butt ends of oak tree branch­es blazed and crack­led mer­ri­ly. Mrs Bark­er pro­vid­ed the branch­es and her cus­tomers pulled them along the floor as the ends became con­sumed on the hearth. The pleas­ant aro­ma of burn­ing wood per­vad­ed the atmos­phere and the cider, for which the King William was not­ed, left one lit­tle more to desire.

There’s also what feels like an ear­ly use of the word “ban­ter” to describe the par­tic­u­lar kind of blok­ish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judg­ing the con­di­tion of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”

In short, if you’re after a por­trait of pub life as it was in the ear­ly to mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, that has­n’t already been milked to death by anthol­o­gis­ers and quo­ta­tion­eers, and that focus­es in par­tic­u­lar on coun­try life, then this might be the book for you.

Our paper­back edi­tion, dat­ing from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plen­ty of copies around.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this com­pre­hen­sive blog post by a rel­a­tive of the author.