If you ever startle blackbirds, blackbirds go away.
Since at least the sixteenth century, the figure of the widow in literature has been associated with the expression of sexual and economic freedom for women no longer bound by the need for patriarchal marriage contracts. Nadine Mueller‘s research on widowhood in the nineteenth and twentieth century offers a more nuanced recent picture – but in ‘The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington‘, Jake Thackray seems to be celebratorily drawing on an older view of the liberated ‘lusty widow’.
Indeed, from its jaunty opening guitar figure, we might expect something even more rambunctious, less tender, than this lovingly-drawn portrait of a woman with too much life to be contained by the busy-bodies of a small coastal town, whose days — alongside dancing, laughing, and sexual exploration — also contain quieter, more reflective moments:
And sometimes she would drop the shopping, leave the bed unmade
And sit till evening on the esplanade.
That Jake alternates the thumpingly emphatic verses of this song with those slower sections humanises the character, preventing her from becoming merely a boisterous Chaucerian type of the kind we find in, say, ‘The Lodger‘. Instead, glimpses of interiority — ‘My only darling’s dead, he is, and all my children grown; / The house has emptied, all the love-birds flown’ — add pathos to her rollicking course through life, further heightening the sense of outrage and anguish in the song’s brutal third-act reversal.
Before that tragic turn, however, the song’s formal features help to build a sense of unstoppable momentum around the character. From the first line onwards, the repeated verbs (‘she was, was the widow of Brid’) establish a pattern of ceaseless affirmation: ‘Whatever she thought she ought to do, / She did, she did, she did.’ We might contrast here the mocking, subservient repetitions of the Kinks’s ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion‘ (‘Oh yes he is!’) to clarify how far the Widow is from being a follower of anyone or anything.
She’s more closely aligned to the many older female figures in the Thackray canon who take their life, and their sexuality, into their own hands, from the toffee-maker in ‘The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker‘ to the mischievous ‘Castleford Ladies Magic Circle‘, and the various countesses and colonel’s widows in ‘The Ballad of Billy Kershaw‘, and doubtless elsewhere. The far more miserable widow figure in the chintzy ‘Mrs Murphy’, nurturing her pet bird and watching a diffident suitor drive away, day after day, provides a counterpoint: when it comes to the treatment of female characters in particular, Jake has no single defining approach.
But here, the focus is unambiguously on a sense of growing agency which, ‘unsettling’ though it might be for the local populace, is a wild ride to be on. As well as the repeated verbs, the incessant use of single rhymes contributes to this mounting energy, particularly when they come back with slight modification for their fourth outing. Lines like ‘Stomping upon the copper top’, ‘And every time of a different fish’ go beyond what went before to emphasise the almost incomprehensible scale of this woman’s life-force.
Verse by verse, she grows in independence. It’s the difference between ‘what she thought she ought to do’ (suggesting at first, perhaps, a sense of residual social obligation) and ‘whatever she thought she ought to do’ that makes clear how comprehensively the widow will be seizing her new opportunities. Having ‘found that she could please herself’, she takes control of a number of areas. The first change is to her calendar and the spaces she can inhabit, as she relishes the ability to instantly gratify her own desires:
Swim in the sea when she felt hot,
Stay in bed when she did not.
Next, we see the widow deliberately abandoning domestic duties which, it is implied, she used to perform: ‘she would drop the shopping, leave the bed unmade’, breaking out of old routines of propriety. She not only takes on artistic agency, learning to play the violin, but in a short space of time is able to do so more sustainedly than anyone in her immediate social context – like some kind of folkloric fossegrim – and to find the energy to ‘stomp’ to boot.
Finally, her seizing of sexual agency with the local fishermen remains wholly unhampered by the prospect of remarriage: ‘blackbirds do their singing from a different bush each day.’ The ‘massive motorbike’, along with quite suddenly rooting what might have seemed an almost Hogarthian character in a startlingly modern context, is another indication of the widow’s freedom of movement. It allows her to ride easily away from the men who would seek to tame her, and it almost seems as if we have to be persuaded of this near-mythical turn of events: ‘She did, she did, she did.’
And yet — as in so many Thackray songs — an individual’s joie de vivre cannot go unpunished when it comes up against a small-minded provincial community. The depth of detail we are given about the widow presents her as wholly singular; the ‘neighbours’ are never individuated, never given faces, voices or agency. They are instead synecdochically represented by the trappings of their property: ‘many a pair of front-room curtains twitched and shook with rage.’
Though the widow is expressly not ‘in a cage’, the attack on her turns on the violation of her personal space: the neighbours cross the frontier of her home by smashing her windows, spit upon the cycle shed representing her ability to leave at will, and further transgress in entering her bedroom — on a Sunday, no less, marking them out as entirely unChristian in their motivations.
The most immediate visible analogue I can think of for the shaving punishment comes from the aftermath of World War II, where French women accused of having had relationships with Nazis or local collaborators had their heads shaved as a form of ritual humiliation. Jake could have seen this on contemporary newsreels, or (where I became aware of it) in Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour:
But perhaps a more likely frame of reference — and I discovered this only while writing this post! — is Georges Brassens’s 1964 ‘La Tondue’, a song expressing a muted revulsion at these post-war revenge attacks and the false bravery of those who carried them out in the name of anti-fascism. The Widow of Bridlington, of course, bears none of these associations, but in Brassens’s singer’s flatly upbeat account of the degradation he did nothing to prevent (‘J’aurais dû dire un mot pour sauver son chignon’ — ‘I should have said something to save her locks’) — we might hear an echo of the few contrite neighbours who return in a futile attempt to repair relations.
The hair of Brassens’s ‘tondue’ finds a new life, as a rosette in the singer’s buttonhole; for Thackray’s widow it grows again, but she doesn’t even need to wait for that to move on with her life. She applies herself with near-immediate defiance to repairs to her domestic space on her own account — ‘She cleaned the shed, she swept up all the hair’ — takes economic control in selling her house, redefines her own appearance with a wig, and demonstrates her freedom of movement one final time in tearing off south down the Yorkshire coast.
The widow refuses to be cowed by the apparent change in material circumstances: ‘Bugger Brid, I’m still the same!’ Given the rarity of swear-words in Jake’s official output (so not including the unreleased ‘Famous People‘ and the live-only, ‘offensive’ ‘The Bull’), this takes on an even stronger resonance. The final, insistent series of ‘dids’, eventually unmoored from grammatical context, further punctuates this ebullient resistance, the sense of the hair — and the spirit — coming back stronger than ever. ‘Unrepenting,’ undeterred,’ ‘thundered’ — another repeated syllable adds to the gathering force. Poor old bloody Scarborough won’t know what’s hit it.
I haven’t delved fully into hair, or at all into blackbirds, in this post, and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on either of those things as they relate to the song, Thackray’s work, or their cultural significance more broadly. And if you know who wrote the key book on widows in early modern drama whose name I’m struggling to remember today, I’d love to see that in the comments too!