Geoffrey Heptonstall

Jack: a Mystery on the Green

This is the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

However we may encounter Jack, and the ways vary, he is marked as nature’s outcast. He is a rogue and a vagabond, sometimes seen as a knave and occasionally as a fool. What acceptance he may receive is a lowly position in the social margin. The house that Jack built is a ramshackle of driftwood and tin. Jack wins by discovering ingenious ways of survival, but he must keep his distance. His house stands alone.

We may think more benignly of him as Everyman Jack, the universal symbol of our common humanity, simple but not ignoble. Of course he must accept his place in the corner. He sells a cow for a handful of beans. But when the beanstalk grows, so does his moral stature. While remaining a simpleton, he takes on the role of adventurer, and even of a hero. He is resourceful and capable, a Jack of All Trades.

But the foolish or congenial part of him is only one part. There is the sinister side of him we must consider. As Stingy Jack of Irish folklore he has great cunning, sufficient to trick even the devil. We may see him even now as Jack O’Lantern, the wandering, ghostly figure, the will o’ the wisp, to be seen on dark nights in lonely places. Crossing the Atlantic, he becomes the Halloween spirit whose face is carved on a pumpkin. Children may tame him if they pay due respect to his power, but Jack O’Lantern is among the less savoury manifestations of Jack. At sea he is Jack Tar, the common sailor, whose life is one of harsh tasks and cruel treatment. Who is responsible for the cold but Jack Frost?

In rural Suffolk there was the traditional threat to children of Jack O’Boot. This persisted into the Twentieth Century, and is thought to have its origins in the Jacobite risings. The Bonnie Prince of the Scots becomes the child-catcher of the English. Out in the dark on unlit roads all manner of demonic mischief may be lurking. The fear is personified by a creature not of this world, yet recognisably human in its general features. The fearful country folk give the demon a name.

Stingy Jack invited the Devil himself to drink with him. Not wanting to pay for the drink, Jack persuaded the Devil to turn himself into a coin. This coin Jack put in his pocket next to a silver cross which rendered the Devil powerless. Jack agreed to release him on the conditions that he leave Jack alone for a year, and that on his death the Devil should not take his soul. After a year the Devil returned and was persuaded to climb a tree to pick some fruit. On the bark of the tree Jack carved a cross, and once more the Devil was powerless. The condition of release this time was that he leave Jack alone for ten years. Soon after Jack died, but was refused admittance to Heaven. Sent back to Earth with only a burning coal, he became no more a spectral glow among other wandering creatures of the night.

It does not pay to be cunning. Too much guile makes for a soulless existence. It suggests a savagely twisted naivety to believe one can fool the natural order of things. A soupcon of innocence, if no more, makes for the better human being. Jack climbs the beanstalk at his peril. If he runs up the hill he is likely to come tumbling down. From these misfortunes he may learn some of his life’s hard lessons, but not if he thinks he knows how to take on life and win where others have failed from time immemorial. The innocent fool is the wiser Jack than the ghostly wanderer of the twilight world that is neither death nor life.

Jack has known many lives, and has been called many things. Among his many appearances is Jack the Giant Killer of Cornish myth. He is the farmer’s boy in the reign of King Arthur, that legendary golden age of Celtic Britain. Jack’s first triumph is against Cormoran (Cornish for sea monster), the cattle-slayer. There follow Blunderbore and Thunderel. On the road the lady who serves the Devil is encountered. Jack breaks the diabolic spell and defeats the Devil. Finally in the enchanted castle is the giant Galigantus. (The names of these giants are so apt and memorable.) After his final triumph Jack is welcomed at Camelot to take his rightful place at the Table Round.

But this is a rare happy ending to the tale of Jack. In this version he is no longer outcast, but he has known a life of wandering lonely roads. ‘Now, where are you going, Old John,’ a Wiltshire farmer once asked me, following an ancient trail. Old John I knew of from a poem by Edward Thomas. He is the restless traveller of country roads. I once saw Old John on the South Downs (which is Edward Thomas country). This Old John was quite elderly, lean and fit. He was very clean but ragged. He was not down-and-out, but you could see how he was apart from society. You could see at once that he was an isolate content within himself. He lived here and there, by his wits, well away from the world. I supposed he walked everywhere, keeping away from busy roads and busy towns. ‘Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.’

In the remote Derbyshire hill town of Castleton there is the annual procession of the Garland King on 29 May. This is Oak Apple Day, the generally forgotten festive day celebrating the return of Charles II from exile. The Garland King is both Jack-in-the-Green, more usually seen on May Day, and Charles II. Charles I is said to be the original Jack Sprat of the nursery rhyme, lean from his inability to raise taxes. Charles II in the Civil Wars was a wandering figure, famous for his refuge in an oak tree (a real occurrence, not a legend). Far from courtly life he fled England in rags, more a personification of Jack-in-the-Green than of the monarch he became.

Not only does the wanderer keep away from us; we may not wish to be near him:

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
The candlestick

He is alert and elusive. To jump over a candle without extinguishing its flame was said to be a sign of good luck. This suggests a magical power, and magic is always of the unknown world beyond the visible and tangible. Spring Heeled Jack is more than nimble. He is capable of exceptional and impossible leaps. There is nothing comic or even pleasing about this. Jumping a candle may be child’s play, but Spring Heeled Jack is sinister indeed.

What is extraordinary is the relative modernity of this manifestation. This is no figure from medieval superstition, but an urban myth dating from the first year of Victoria’s reign. In October 1837 Mary Stevens, a servant girl, was reportedly attacked in a dark alley by a madman whose manner and appearance she thought devilish. The following day he appeared again. Several witnesses reported that he leapt over a very high wall, giving out a ghoulish shriek of laughter as he did so. There followed several sightings of a cloaked figure with claws and an oilskin costume.

The sightings became so frequent and so seemingly authentic that they began to be reported seriously in The Times. The Lord Mayor of London declared that some trickster was at work. This, however, does not explain later sightings elsewhere in the country, including a group of soldiers in 1877 at Aldershot, a garrison town not known for mysteries. One possible explanation for the sightings is hysteria. Another is the presence of copy-cat appearances. One explanation need not exclude the other. It is curious how Spring Heeled Jack is an urban folk-devil, and how relatively recent (the last reported incident was in 1904).

By this time Jack the Ripper had appeared. Whoever he was, and whatever the causes of his horrific crimes, he is no legend, although his identity is enclosed by speculations so prevalent they have assumed the character of myth. His notoriety has been extraordinary, a figure who continues to hold a lurid fascination in popular culture. The story is too well known to detail here, except to say that the fascination has tended to anaesthetize the appalling nature of the crimes against defenceless and desperate streetwalkers whose daily lives were lived in peril. Attack was always a threat. The victims were vulnerable and available. That the murder should be given his famous soubriquet testifies to the fearful power of mythic presences even in a sophisticated metropolitan setting.

Jack the Ripper was all too real a man. There is nothing romantic in his crimes. The dark allure of his name cloaks his anonymity in an undeserved sense of thrill. There is more than fear associated with his name. He embodies an unalloyed evil, a presence that is to be found within our common sense of dread at any time and in any place. Sally Purcell, a poet in love with the mythic, named this strange presence Jack Shadow:

Jack Shadow changes tree to man,
or casual face to lost familiar

He knows his victim’s fears and frailties. And we are all potentially his victims. He lurks in alleys, or he leaps over walls. He changes manner but not purpose, which is to negate the good in life. He is not to be spoken of lightly, for his power extends into caverns of the human psyche. The other Jack is more amenable. Jack the Lad is a rogue, irresponsible and self-seeking, but he is not evil. He is the man of all trades and none, he is the thief and swindler, but only of the gullible and the rich. ‘A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jacke.’ (The Taming of the Shrew). He is the street corner man with a smile and a winning patter. But he is, if amiably and benignly, on the other side of the law. He is not respectable. He is a knave.

‘He calls the knaves jacks, the common labouring boy!’ Estella snobbishly and cruelly observes (thereby revealing her own kind of vulgarity) when she plays cards with Pip the blacksmith’s boy in Great Expectations. This touches on a sore point, for Jack Would be a Gentleman. Gillian Freeman’s novel of that title appeared in 1959, but the phrase has an archaic ring to it. And so it proves. The original phrase is ‘Jack would be a gentleman if he could speak French.’ The explanation for this saying seems to be that after the Norman Conquest a sure mark of gentility was the French tongue, a mark that lingered in English social discourse.

But of course it takes more than language skills to raise Jack from his lowly position. He has to learn manners, and not to spring out from his box so rudely. By diligence and resourcefulness he may pull out a plum, and say, ‘What a good boy am I.’ But that only serves to show how clumsy as well as crafty he is.

A possible source of the rhyme is the life of John Horner, Mayor of Glastonbury. Johnny Horner is Cockney rhyming slang for corner. The suggestion seems to be that John Horner, having a finger in every pie, was likely to be round every corner. Jack may have risen in society, but he cannot shake off so easily his crafty habits and a vulgar display of himself.

'From a Jack to a King' was a popular song of the early Sixties. It was gentle and wistful, a simple tale of love’s transforming power. 'Jumpin’ Jack Flash' was a later, and more violent, leap of aspiration. In the hedonism of Swinging London a clever chancer, like the eponymous Jack Flash, could succeed with charm and panache when gentility and culture were absent. There were a number of candidates for the possible source of the song.

Also in London of the Nineteen Sixties there was a real life figure by name of Jack Dash. To the powerful he was no more than a troublemaker. To others he was a champion of workers’ rights. Jack Dash was a leading campaigner and activist in the London docks. His career serves as a reminder that even in Swinging London there was deprivation, and there was the fight for justice among the underprivileged. But our particular interest is the wonderful name. It has an aura of myth about it. He is commemorated in Jack Dash House on the Isle of Dogs, itself a quaintly-named low quarter of historic London.

Jack lives on the margins of society. His power is derived from the sense of myth his marginal status offers him. He has no place in society, no social identity except the rumours, the trail of footprints, and the shadow that may be glimpsed as Jack moves from commonplace journeyman to the mysterious and elusive possibility that can survive by wit and wit alone against the learned and gifted of society. He moves among them unseen but felt as a presence, a reminder that material technologies do not provide a complete answer to life’s abiding complexity.

Geoffrey Heptonstall © 2014

[Ed: one also thinks of Jack and Jill, Jack Cade the agitator in the reign of Henry VI, and also the eponymous French brigand in Leon Garfield's Black Jack (1968), made into a film by Ken Loach in 1979].