Make Room for the Jester by Stead Jones

Stead JonesOn the map of Welsh fiction there are those places, as R.S. Thomas suggested, we do not go, and in English, certainly, the town of Pwllheli scarcely features as the backdrop for novels or stories. So Stead Jones’s Make Room for the Jester helps redress that imbalance, allowing the seaside town – wrapped in nom-de-plume as Porthmawr – to fill the emptiness of the map of Eifionydd fictions.

And what a sparkly book it is, coruscating like those little waves that bring in tiny crabs to pincer children’s feet on a warm, summer’s day. Set in the 1930s, in a former fishing town which has seen the real action move to Grimsby, it’s a tale of two boys, Lew Morgan and Gladstone Williams, steadily aching their way towards adulthood, with its allure and ready dangers.

Comparisons have been made with J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and there are similarities in that both books compare and contrast the innocence, passions and authenticities of youth with the mendacities, hypocrisies and general phoniness of adult life.

Sex is there, of course, pulsing under the surface, not least in the ambivalence of Gladstone, who is the complicated hero of the book. In some ways he’s been forced to be an adult before his time. He looks after his three younger siblings because his mother’s too drunk to do so, and what he lacks for in material wealth and grown-up resource he more than makes up for with his boundless inventiveness. Before bed, Gladstone’ll tell his charges’ stories, fanciful and fantastic, holding them in his thrall:

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 all the pearls became tiny fish on her neck. I swear he made it up there and then.

Gladstone is an outstandingly engaging character, and Stead Jones has breathed such vigorous life into him. Stead’s own life has some of the hallmarks of his creation’s ready stories. Born Thomas Evans Jones, Stead had a father who managed the local Stead and Simpson shoe shop and thus the dad was unofficially re-christened Stead Jones. When Make Room for the Jester was about to see the light of day, an agent thought there were too many Tom Joneses about, as Tony Richardson’s film of Fielding’s novel Tom Jones had just been released not to mention the growing presence of the singer from Pontypridd, busily climbing up to the stars.

Make Room for the Jester is one of a clutch of books Stead Jones wrote in the Forties (he published three during the course of just four years) and, like the others, it seems to be shored up by charm. He describes life, and lives, with great gentleness and tenderness. And fun. One day the children sit ‘at the unfashionable end of the beach. It was the only place for us with our bathing gear. Dewi and Maxie had their sisters’ knickers on, a bit modified, but with moth holes in the wrong places; I was wearing a pair of khaki shorts which Meira had picked up in Capel mawr jumble … But Gladstone, of course, had a proper pair of bathing trunks, Marks and Spencer, blue, with a white stripe down the leg and a white belt with a chrome buckle. Gladstone always managed things right.’

The novel is studded with telling and felicitous details, from Dewi’s comprehensive collection of scars, ‘on knees, face, hands, even through the close-cropped hair on his scalp you could see them’ through the local drunk who’s ‘nothing but a sponge’ to the ‘white bodies which sometimes come ashore on Porthmawr beach after a great storm.’ Little wonder the book has created enthusiastic fans, not least Philip Pullman who considers the little novel to be unfairly forgotten. In the preface to this edition he opines that 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 … When I read it … I was enchanted with it, not only for the memories of place and atmosphere it evoked so skillfully, not only for the light touch and the sympathetic voice of the narrator, but mainly for the brilliantly drawn portrait of an extraordinary individual.’

All in all another book deservedly dusted off and re-presented to the world under the Library of Wales banner. Gladstone is a classic, entirely lovable fictional character, and spending time with him and his seaside friends and cronies leaves an authentic tang on the lips, the taste of a lick of sea salt and the slight, tentative caramel of early sunburn. Stead Jones is a fine writer, deservedly brought back into the light, and, specifically, the bright and often dazzling sunlight of seaside Llŷn, itself dancing energetically on the sands.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis