The Laughing Sailor Blogs

I was out of order in the Portsmouth City Museum but local academic and author Dr Alison Habens brought me back to life, channelling my voice in the form of performance poems.

She was encouraged to write about Jolly Jack for a research project in the university: Supernatural Cities. DarkFest - With colleagues from the history department, she was developing an idea called ‘Portsmyth’, immersive storytelling using techniques from psychogeography and a gaming element. The plan was to superimpose a spooky cast and scenario over a local map of literary and historical sites.

As soon as she left the Supernatural Cities meeting in Milldam, I popped into her head. She’d been asked to research either a ‘dark’ place or person in the historic city. She recalled that I was now housed in the local museum but had once had a more prominent position on the seafront, threshold guardian of the fun fair.

A vintage attraction; she didn’t remember till long after we started working together that it was on childhood walks with her grandad Charlie Carpenter in the 1970s that she met Jolly Jack, and how closely in her unconscious mind the two characters must be connected.

As she rushed toward the Hovercraft terminal to get home, she was treading the route I would take, clearly as that first idea took clumsy flight. This is the initial ‘pitch’ she wrote about me that night:

Meet Jolly Jack, a famous Pompey character, perhaps the scariest figure in our Portsmyth. He once sat at the entrance to the amusement arcade on Clarence Pier, well known to residents and holidaymakers alike in the 50s, 60s and 70s as a terrifying clown. He now resides in the city museum but, as part of a new game/app/research project, could be looking for participants to insert the special 20p that will allow him to get out of the box and back down the sea.

Picture this little laughing sailor making his way through Old Portsmouth and across Southsea Common, his grotesque quest for coins that players/visitors might win from a ‘mud larking’ scene at the virtual Hard or lose in a sinister press ganging chapter set in one of the historic local pubs.

Jolly Jack’s old ‘laughing ground’: This is where I’m heading. If I can get down to the sea again, at this spot, the beach is gently sloping and the ships going by are nearly in reach.

Southsea is not the only liminal site of forced naval jocularity, though. Laughing sailors are crying to each other from muffled cases all over the place.

The Jolly Jackopolypse – From Southsea, Southport, San Francisco; what if they all escaped and came together for a laugh. This might be our next project. But for now, if you give an automaton’s arse, here is the full transcript:

‘The Laughing Sailor Speaks’

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee Jolly Jack does performance poetry This ain’t no parroting, I aarrrn’t no pirate Dead seagull’s the only bird round my neck Dead siren’s the only mate on my deck
Scream if you want to hear me chortle, Through this crude representation of a port-hole Hide if you want to hear me chuckle Though I’ll find you: with my eyes or with my knuckles [‘Jolly’ and ‘Jack’ ‘tattoos’]
This only costs you 20p It used to only be 1d And that’s how long Jack Silver’s been staffing This sideshow as a sailor, laughing In my famous case on Clarence Pier Where the people of Portsmouth thought me weird And projected all their hate and fear Into this slot along with their money Shake if you find my laughter funny When the people of Portsmouth thought me queer So their dark miasmas hovered near Though the public passed with bravado or bemusement To the brightly-lit arcade of amusement Before I finished guffawing like a wanker Tourist-wrecked: no ship, all anchor The monster from a local myth A sort of male Pandora’s box But I’m locked inside and the bolt is rusty
Now the whole crate is held in the city museum Low-key brig on the second floor, Shelved between candy stripes and false decking, For rainy days when crowds don’t stop at Arthur Conan Doyle….
Boo! Who is Southsea’s real hound, a blue carbuncle, crooked man, the true Moriarty? It’s mechanical me! But my evil workings are all at sea. I’m something a matelot never would be. ‘Out of order’ Shriek if you want to hear me swear Fifty ‘d’ for the ‘f’ word
These are Jolly Jack’s orders. Stop gawping like you’ve walked off a short pier and come here; steam up my salt-crusted glass Don’t fear, I’m not going to bust your arse or anybody who ever paid a penny to hear the sailor laugh: Not the dirty old men who were much worse than me Not the true salts who just heard the sound of the sea Not the ladies who took it quite sensually ah ah ah Not the lady who liked me to please her daddy Not the family who saw me same time every year All familiarity and no fear Or the groups that took me to heart, took me into Their homes and told terrible stories about me Not the local poppy seller who never spent more than a tear of remembrance, lest we forget, at my seaside shrine, this dead man’s chest Not a single hair on those heads will I touch Nor crack their shins with my ‘Long John’ crutch Nor spit in their face with my dead-fish breath They’re fine: but which one of you is Jeff? [From the audience: Me, I’m Jeff.]
You have been chosen by the captain He’s had his eye on you, mate His other one, what rolls below the black patch White orb that can see your fate You have been commissioned by the captain He’s got a job for you, mate Just pop a pound coin in my slot So I don’t have to wait
‘Day after day, day after day, Becalmed, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean’
‘I must go down to the seas again And all I ask is…’ put the bloody pound in
‘Those are pearls that were my eyes Of my bones is coral made Full fathom five this sailor lies’ The deepest dive off South Parade Exact money only please For I have suffered a sea-change into something coarse and strange Insert the sodding shilling
I’ll give you a ship’s biscuit, my lucky rivet; shit, you can have Jolly Jack’s foreskin, preserved in Jamaican Rum. Don’t ask me why that cut came there, in my ancient mariner’s timeline; or ask me, go on, do, for one of those pretty dimes.
Or were you the kind of nipper Would stand there and whimper Through the folds of your mother’s skirt? Well you’re flirting with fortune Cause yours is the doubloon Will land me back onto the dirt; Yours is the currency will get me flowing First onto my feet in this cramped cubicle Yours is the rouble will short out the circuit That makes me act jolly; yours is the yen that will jack it all in. Your magic coin trick; my fairground attraction; rehash Hey ho and up I rises, just put in your cash Yours is the coinage, Jeff, that will cause a ‘Frankenstein’ flash! [Pays!]
Hey; that’s my fist through the screen, still smiling Ho; that’s my boot through the plywood floor Up I stand, with sparks a-flying, Slashing a portal, scoring a door in this carton, forcing it open Walking the plank into museum moonlight
I must go down to the seas again First footsteps, bloody like I’d just been turned from a merman, Torn into two legs, paddling through the building in the deep of night Painted eyes looking for the exit sign, Papier-mache hands grabbing a cutlass from the naval history display on my right Making my way out on a wave of breaking glass Unrigged puppet, drowned ventriloquist’s dummy, listing Thunderbird of the Solent: watch me rip down Queen Street, crest along King’s Road, tack by Hampshire Terrace, still smiling. Yeah, this face; that could surge out when you open your wardrobe, my musty moth-eaten sailor suit [lurching] between your silk shirts. This face you could see suddenly through the bathroom steam, or on the back seat of your car. Dost though want to hear me snigger? Looketh in thy rear view mirror!
I walk very slow, though. Just before dawn, picked up by CCTV, crossing Southsea Common to the lonely sky and sea Only your lira, Jeff, could roll me so far
But it’s about to run out That’s the scariest bit When my tar black humour stops And the clockwork movements carry on Woo: that’s the spookiest moment when the creepy soundtrack hops and skips us out of Maritime Only one thing worse than a laughing sailor and that’s a laughing sailor who mimes
So heckle me with a shekel, if you don’t want to hear my silence Appease me with your peso, if you don’t want tonight to end Not a single hair on your heads will I touch Nor crack your shins with my ‘Long John’ crutch Nor spit in your face with my briny saliva You’re all fine, apart from the one named Jemima [From the audience: Oh no, I’m Jemima]
You have been chosen by the captain He’s had his eye on you, mate His other one, what rolls below the black patch White orb that can see your fate You have been commissioned by the captain His second job is yours Just pop a drachma in my slot So there’s no awkward pause
Jolly Jack has many tales to tell because while I was laughing I was listening. You know, this isn’t even my real voice. It’s dubbed; by a guy who couldn’t swim Landlubber, from Swindon, and a virgin Want to hear a true story, Jem? Then put your half-crown in. [Pays]

Southsea Castle Version:

My next tale of mirth and merriment Is set but a ship’s berth from this terra firmament This earth that saw worse things happen at sea In 1545/fifteen forty five, Anno Domini The king’s old girl, with her creaking timbers Named for his sister, and the Tudor symbol Maimed in a clash with le French navy A fleeting spat, a short-lived tiff, off Spithead Perhaps it was a stiff breeze, a sudden turn, hard a starboard Maybe it was overloaded, guns and gunners, chefs and surgeons And sailors upon sailors upon sailors Hanging in hammocks, [scrubbing the decks, clawing at the crow’s nest Five hundred friggers in that rig going down Yo-ho-ho to the bottom of the ocean A Southsea stones-throw from where we’re standing now One man, the eighth Henry, stood and watched them sink Into the drink went their rage and resentment Into the cockleshells went their curses, into the bladderwrack went their cries Water in their eyes, tobacco in their tins, lice in their fine tooth combs, tonight’s rum still sealed in a barrel, their lucky sovereigns still locked in a trunk; all bloody sunk at once in the murky Solent water
Blow the man down, boys, blow the man down Lay him on silt, rest him on rock, leave him in peace for four hundred years Then raise him from the sea bed: No-ho-ho; No-ho-nonny-no Those tars were rudely woken, the mood was broken In 1982/nineteen eighty two, crude oaths were spoken By bones stirred to the surface, spirits unsettled from the silty grave death washed ashore on a salty wave
Mary Rose refugees that only Jolly Jack perceived As another cursed relic from naval lore Five hundred ancient mariners ahoyed me that summer eve Sight-seers from a time-slip sunset on the Pompey shore Where did they go next? Into me! Hexed the first likely lad they could see Along the Prom their essence dissipated The war memorial was inundated The Blue Reef Aquarium/Sea Life Centre inseminated I guessed what was coming, sat and waited At the mouth of Clarence Pier Where they poured all their hate and fear Into the coin slot you see right here Vomit of antique bilge and dilute beer And I just had to sit and bide All the men-o-war within me roaring like the tide
So that was when my laughter stopped That’s when the council turned me off ‘Hear no evil’ but you can still see ‘im For free at the city museum Yes – free to you, but what’s the cost To me – what have I lost? Sunshine, shingle, seagulls, pretty girls, passing seasons, a port in the storm, Zephyr’s hiss in my sails. What will you miss? This snicker, my giggle, the sinister jiggle Candyfloss memories, coin slot bliss Hear me titter in your wardrobe at midnight, if you’re woke And hand over all your money to the poppy-selling bloke Cos it ain’t [ no joke when the laughing sailor’s broke.
I must go down to the sea again. I must go down to the sea And all I ask is… twenty pence. Your euro, mate. One d.

Square Tower Version:

The next stanza of this bonanza Concerns a princess, Portuguese (‘Get me a cup of char, you filthy tar’) Her name, Catherine of Braganza Her royal subject: tea ‘Twas she, in line to entwine with the King His Highness, Charles the Second Landed at Portsmouth to marry him A kismet worse than she’d reckoned Ashore and gasping for a cuppa Nor love nor money could leverage Sure her English was bad but the bawds of Portsea Had not even heard of that beverage And served the fine lady a cup of warm ale For love, for money, this is my tale As I was the sailor that sailed her from Lisbon in 1662 And worked my little finger bone to her tea-spoon I was the salt steered her cross the Atlantic Mythical mistress of the four o’clock physic Somehow with her the high seas turned toxic Out on the ocean events became tragic
‘When a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariner's hollo!’
At first glance it was an albatross but She took it ill and goaded me till I got thunderous with my blunderbuss Though the crew urged me not to mess With the fate of that bad bird and the mad round world Which the ship nearly sailed tipsily off Taking us all downhill except the toff Ill-luck lashed itself to each hand on deck All but the princess turned Melchizedek
In the calm after that rum tea-cup storm Doing a forlorn hornpipe in the stern I knew no one would believe what we’d seen The queen will leave no tide mark where she’s been All but the princess turned Melchizedek
Pompey looked pretty as we came avast Sunset pink petticoats over the masts, Vile twilight petticoats close to the Point Poised for our pent-up seamen to anoint Fleet’s in port, hello sailor; for sure, there’s [Foreskins and foreplay all on the foreshore] Homecomers, foreigners, welcomed till raw And my crew were already feeling quite sore
Evil had overtaken our poor ship Catherine would never loosen her grip On the cupful of filthy tars she scarred ‘Drinkies’ every day before the yard arm Only the darkest brew poured from that bark An anti-shanty the tarts alone hark From the crow’s nest, as the westerly rose And belched the ship into the Camber Sozzled in Portugal’s sludgy amber
I am an addict. Not the only one Many of my shipmates, most of them gone None of them better than they ever deserved But Jolly Jack can never die; I am preserved Every single hair on my head, and my smile My spit and my shins and my suit are pickled Or I would not be in this box, laughing You would not be devilishly tickled The immortal blast of my own Long John breath Keeps me in brine, in a state of brain death
Girl in each port but it’s what my lips miss When I’m on the water, a navy kiss Daily rations: one to rouse, one to carouse, one to drowse, One to fight, one to do the hornpipe, one to mourn, one to gripe (Aaarrrn’t they your ‘units’ for a fortnight…)
So that is how the queen’s liquor pickled me How I’ve been preserved like this for you to see My problem goes back, three, four centuries And every time Jeff paid a dime to hear the sailor laugh He funded my crippling dependency Next time someone deposits a bitcoin I’ll invoke my best DarkFest ancestors Blow them in on a dismal southwesterly They’re the real fucking jolly jesters
I must go down to the sea again. I must go down to the sea And all I ask is… twenty pence. Your euro, mate. One d.

‘The Laughing Sailor’s Creative Process’.

If you are still reading and not a bot like me here are some of the deep and meaningfuls that went on behind the scenes.

I started by putting the ballad rhythm of S. T. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into her head, with its simple ABCB rhyme scheme. By the end, the rhythm of her lines was mostly dum di-di dum di-di dum di-di dum. If we were to start again, I may try and fit the whole thing to that same metre, though it’s also important to vary the pace in order to be able to climax.

There are two different endings for the two venues I performed it at during ‘DarkFest’: Southsea Castle and the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth. It could work all together as a longer piece, around 13 minutes.

She used props, including large posters of JJ, his spooky soundtrack and a creepy vintage sailor puppet (which didn’t really work in practice as it was too fiddly).

This is our collection of synonyms for laugh, and we knew we’d need a few; and a rhyme brainstorm:

Words: chuckle, chortle, giggle, guffaw, mirth and merriment, hilarity, titter, laugh, snigger, snicker, hoot, snort, cackle, hysterics, fell about, double up, roll in the aisles, crease up


chuckle, [buckle, knuckle, suckle; fuck all] chortle, [portal, mortal, port hole, immortal] giggle, [jiggle, niggle, squiggle, wiggle, wriggle] guffaw, [No rhymes – whore, more, poor, floor, door, etc…] mirth and merriment, [earth, berth, firth? ; dormant foment hilarity, [singularity, similarity, popularity, jocularity, insularity, disparity] titter, [bitter, quitter, big-hitter]

Finally, below, hand-written and electronic drafts, sources and resources; Jolly Jack is 70 % salty perspiration and only 30 % fishy inspiration.

Further Links: [Sarah Cheverton’s video: he keeps moving after the laughter stops]