by Taffy Thomas, MBE
In the English song tradition there have always been those, like Harry Cox, who could declaim the big ballads. However, in the social situation that is the natural home of such singing, these treasures are often outnumbered by those who have a song to sing and a tale to tell in company, just to add to the fun of the session. Percy Ling was such a man. This article is written by storyteller Taffy Thomas, who lived near Percy in the 1970s, and spent many congenial evenings in his company, both in Suffolk and on outings around the country.
Percy was born at Old Farm, Tunstall, in 1906, and worked on the land until 1934, when he started work at Snape Maltings. Here he met Bob Hart, much admired by Percy and just about everyone else who met him, both for his repertoire and the purity of his voice. Percy himself was no mean singer, winning a copper kettle in a singing competition at Snape Fair for his renditions of A Group of Young Squaddies, and Little Sweetheart in the Spring.
When Percy stood up to sing, he cut a dash, somewhere between a dissolute country squire and Max Wall. Artlessly demanding “Good Order!” by his demeanour and piercing eyes, you knew you were in for a treat. In every pub, everybody knew him and he knew everybody. In the 1970s he became a mascot to the Butley Guisers, participating in their Halloween perambulations of East Suffolk pubs, “capping round” and setting up a round of free drinks for the end of each performance. Great – until, fuelled by complimentary barley wine, he vanished into the mists of Saxmundham. The fact that he was so well known and distinctive in appearance, coupled with the size and number of pubs in “Sax” meant he was easily retrieved and loaded back into the van for a safe return to Snape.
With a repertoire of songs from his family, (his father, grandfather and brother-in-law) Percy also added several from his neighbour, Bob Hart, to his collection after Bob’s death. He loved to “sing out”. He allowed me to escort him and Oscar Woods to Tufty Swift’s English Country Music Weekend in the Derbyshire dales, commenting on the steep roads, “There’d be plenty of work for a JCB driver to level it!” He attended the following year’s ECMW a bit closer to home, in Snape in 1981. As the crowd gathered he opened his account with The Man All Tattered and Torn:
“Where do you come from?” St Peter did say.
When I said, “From Snape”, St Peter did stare –
He said “Step right inside, you’re the first bugger from there!”
With my fond memories of the good old boys, and storyteller’s imagination, I hoped this not to be the case. In my mind’s eye I see a few of them sitting on malted barley sacks in white clouds – probably tobacco smoke!
Those who struggle to understand the link between English traditional song and music hall / variety weren’t lucky enough to have enjoyed the company of Percy Ling.
Photograph: Percy at Snape English Country Music Weekend, 1981, by John Howson