Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Mark Cocker and Jack Hargreaves

What was to be a straightforward review of Claxton by Mark Cocker turned into an appreciation of that bespectacled, bearded countryman of my childhood, Jack Hargreaves...

CLAXTON by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
I have an extremely loose and tenuous connection to Mark Cocker - he attended the University of East Anglia with my birding chum Nick Gardener, so I was aware of, and met the pre-fame version of his being some time in the late seventies/early eighties. As I suggested, tenuous...
Cocker has gathered a selection of his observational writings (as a columnist for various newspapers and magazines) and placed them in monthly (then chronological) sequence. The title comes from the Norfolk village of Claxton which Cocker calls home and from where the majority of the observations made in the book were made. He is mostly known as an ornithologist but the breadth of subjects tackled between these covers ventures heavily into the world of the all-round naturalist - for every bird you will read about a spider, a dragonfly, a moth and a plant - and for that I'm extremely grateful. What unfolds are bite-sized (roughly a page an entry) dips into a year in the life of the wildlife surrounding a Norfolk village, full of the acute observational skills that the author is known for. Economy of word is a fine skill to have and it is apparent here for all to read - quite often this avoids sentimental mawkishness that lesser writers fail to avoid. Not Cocker. I read the book in order, cover to cover, best to build up the waxing and waning of the natural cycle, although random dipping will reward you all the same. There are sentences that just wanted me to stand up and applaud. It is warming that there appears to be a current vogue for staying close to home to get ones natural history fix, and people like Cocker demonstrate how rich such a venture can be. One other aspect of the book is his knowledge of the folklore and ways of the countryman - and here is where I was reminded of one Jack Hargreaves...

Mr Hargreaves was always on the telly when I was a lad (1960s and 70s, when we had strikes, free love, financial instability, flares, parkas, violent footballers etc). He was a man of an indeterminate age (I always thought he was ancient but, like most middle-aged men back then, looked 20 years older than he really was). Spectacled, white-haired and bearded, always with a pipe in his mouth, he moved and talked with an economy of effort. Most of the time he was based in a country location, or a studio made up to look like a workshop, where he would be whittling sticks, sewing flies, laying hedges or making a gypsy caravan out of wattle-and-daub. Even then there was a certain amount of nostalgia about what he broadcast, which just goes to show that the 'Old Ways' were well on the way out back then. The programme that I remember most vividly in which Jack ruled the cathode rays was 'Out of Town'. Each programme was like what 'Countryfile' tries to be (but without the pandering to farmers and big business). In one half-hour episode we might be shown owl pellets, how a shepherd makes a crook, ageing a hedgerow, pub inn signs, country pub games, making sloe gin and we would then join him as he strolled along a canal tow-path as he puffed away on his pipe, placed Pheasant feathers in his hat and pointed out the hogweed, the Moorhens and the countryfolk plying their ancient trades, who would be ready to share their ancient ways with us townies. I wasn't the least bit interested in such things back then but watched anyway. It must of been a combination of Jack's laid back style, the soporific tone of the programme or maybe it was the first stirrings of my love for the countryside that had been awoken. There were two theme tunes (for the two versions of the programme) - one was a chirpy little number called, funnily enough, 'Out of Town', sung by Max Bygraves, and the other a delightful acoustic guitar number that reminded me of 'Tales of the Riverbank". If I hear either of them they catapult me back to those times, full of Spangles, Jimmy Greaves and glam rock.

And all this from Mark Cocker...

4 comments:

  1. Lurv Jack Steve... a real hero of my childhood too. The bit where had a set in a shed was excellent. In the North East there was a programme on Tyne Tees TV called Looks Natural. It was a panel show with local naturalists answering questions from the public and doing outdoor VTs. Northern heros such as old Tom Dunn, James Alder etc kept me transfixed! I wish I could see it now...

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    1. We are doomed to wander the corridors of nostalgia Stewart...

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  2. Never saw the guy (too young) but I reckon he looks the dog's b******s and would be delighted if someone like him was still about either locally ion the canal or on the telly. I can imagine Paul Whitehouse playing him in a sketch.

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    1. Funnily enough Andrew, the Fast Show character Bob Fleming was loosely based on Jack.

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