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The Book of Bilk

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MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1961
(price: 12s 6d; 96 pages)

dedication: To those Paragons of Patience, Generosity, Long-Suffering Forebearance, Loyalty and Advance Royalty, our Publishers - without whom (or which) assuredly it would never have been written, this Work is gratefully dedicated by The Authors.

The blurb on the back:

It can have escaped None but the meanest of Intelligences that, in the World of Entertainment today, the onomatopaeic West Country Name of Mr Acker Bilk has become emblazoned across the Pinnacle of Achievement. With the gentlemanly Members of his jazz Ensemble, he has scaled those glittering Heights whereon dwell the Giant Success, and his Handmaiden, the Lady Fame. Indeed, so high a Place in the publick Esteem do Mr Bilk and his Myrmidons hold, that not only their Performances upon the Concert Platform, but also the very Trivia which make up their private Lives, become a Subject for general Comment and Remark. Less well known - in fact so little known that they are bruited about only in the innermost Circles of Mr Bilk's own close Acquaintance - are the Details of our Hero's peerless Ancestry. Yet, from Ackermemnon to Ackawatha, from King Ackered the Unsteady to John Osbilk, the Ackery Young Man, his splendid Progenitors stride across the Pages of History to proclaim in Letters of Fire his matchless Pedigree. It would seem, therefore, a Matter almost of Publick Duty to place before the Enquiring so much of this deathless Material as may fittingly be recalled, and to complement this, where possible, with Reproductions of the Statues, Paintings, Reliefs, Engravings, Daguerrotypes and even Photographs which commemorate these Men and Women. This, the Authors, to the best of their Ability, have done; Mr Gwynn-Jones with his photographic Apparatus, Mr Leslie with Notebook and Pencil, these Two have journeyed to many distant Lands to garner the Seeds of Knowledge whose Fruits this fascinating Volume reveals.
'Makes most open fun of tradition, of pompousness and history, while simultaneously implying the moral certainties of an older, stabler, epoch.' - Francis Newton in
The New Statesman
'A huge success ...' -
Daily Mirror

This is one of the more peculiar books I've ever come across. Back in the late-1950s, in the interregnum that separated the first wave of rock & roll and the birth of Beatlemania, a substantial section of British youth found its imagination seized by the trad jazz revival, bringing the likes of Chris Barber, Humphrey Lyttleton and Kenny Ball into public prominence. And perhaps the greatest beneficiary was Mr Acker Bilk, a West Country clarinettist with an image based on his sculpted facial hair, a bowler hat and a waistcoat. The fact that, shortly after this book was published, Bilk went on to score a massive transatlantic hit with the easy-listening instrumental 'Stranger on the Shore' has distorted his position in music history - he was actually much more roots than that untypical record, very much part of the duffle coat-wearing, CND-marching, mildly alternative strand of British society that greeted the dawn of the Sixties.

There was a vein of eccentricity to this whole sub-culture, but even so this is an odd exercise. Subtitled '41 Characters in Search of an Acker', it is a quick romp through history from the earliest days of Bilkdown Man, and taking in various key figures such as Johann Sebastian Bilk, Joan of Ack, Edgar Acker Poe and Ack the Ripper. Each comes with a photo of Mr Acker Bilk himself in costume, such as this portrait of Buffalo Bilk:

Buffalo Bilk

And each comes with some text from the pen of Peter Leslie, most of which is a tad heavy-handed in its humour, but some of which sparks into life. I'm particularly fond of the parody of Longfellow, 'Ackawatha', which paints a nice little picture of the period:

By the Waters of Southampton,
By the muddy Solent Waters,
On the Paths the Fans had tramped on,
Paths the cheering Fans had tramped on,
Strode the Chieftain with the Daughters
Of the Man whose Land they camped on;
Strode the mighty Ackawatha.

'Lay aside your cloaks, O Daughters!
'Lay aside your Mink Bikinis!
'Typists, Shopgirls, postal Sorters,
'Nurses, female Railway Porters,
'Lay aside your Cappucinis!
'Drink no more your mineral Waters!'
Thus aloud quoth Ackawatha

On the Road that led to Beaulieu
To the Girls whose former Idols,
Things they thought they pined for treaulieu,
He was denigrating deaulieu.
In a Mood near-suicidal,
Girls whose Feelings were not bridal
Heard him counsel, heard him neaulieu
Speak in Accents Thucydidal:

'Now, O Sisters! Now Decision!
'Now, for you, it's back to Nature!
'Lond black stockings and a mission;
'Stone-ground Bread and Nuclear Fission;
'Flat-heeled shoes; the Entablature
'Of a "We Disarm" Commission
'Daubed with "CND" - the Symbol!' (p.67)

It goes on for a while more, but you get the picture. Similarly the piece on Acker Wilde has attempts on Wildean epigrams: 'It is precisely because a man cannot play an Instrument that he is the proper Judge of Musicianship'; 'Anyone can be a commercial Star; it merely requires a complete Ignorance of Music, Musicianship and Stagecraft.'

The best gag in the whole book is John Osbilk, the author of Look Back In Acker and the original Ackery Young Man ('though why he was so ackery, and what he was so ackery about, nobody ever quite discovered').


from the maker of:
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The Man From UNCLE
click to enlarge
The Fakers

This page was added on 28 January 2004,
to mark the 75th birthday of Mr Acker Bilk.