West Country Stereotypes #1: Chewing Grass

A woodcut of a rural type.
By William Nicholson, 1898.

An outstretched hand brushing the stalks until, yes, this one, and then a soft snap. Tidy it up first, nipping it off with a thumbnail at the thick part above the knee; then stripping away the sheath to reveal the brighter green inside; and, finally, trimming straggling lower seed spikes to leave a neat arrowhead. It is ready.

When Jarge Balsh, the comic hero of William Jones’s once popular Somerset bumpkin stories, first appeared in 1925 it was with grass in his mouth:

One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realise that he was connected with the agricultural industry. His boots and leggings were generously plastered with samples of the usual contents of the farm-yard, whilst to his slouch hat and old bottle-green morning coat there still adhered strands of hay…. Halting before me, and spreading his legs, he thrust his hands deeper into the cross pockets of his corduroy breeches, and changed the straw he was sucking to the other side of his mouth…. “Be you the young gent as is gwain ta bide wee widder Toop? ‘Cos if ye be, I be come vor ‘ee.”

The depiction of Balsh on the title page of the book cemented the image:

Jarge Balsh, 1926.

The prepared rapier of grass lightly bridges the lower teeth and lip, its feather-duster-head in the distance bouncing with each step, shaking its hair. Chewing the stalk destroys it quickly so instead it is held gently in place by the jaws and worked by the tongue like a rudder, pulling it in to make the seedhead swing out, and pushing it out to bring the brush swishing back to the centre. Relax the jaws and it droops; thrust the lower jaw out and the grass comes up to eye level. Up, down, left, right, swish, swirl – simple but absorbing.

Along with tractors, cider and smocks, the chewing of grass crops up over and over in lists of West Country stereotypes, often in the defensive form “There’s more to Devon/Somerset than…” There’s some embarrassment perhaps in the idea of being seen to ruminate dumbly, further evidence of the supposed animal stupidity of the bumpkin.

And yet it doesn’t take much to work out that chewing grass is a habit claimed, or disclaimed, by rural communities all over the country, and indeed around the world. Grass is not, after all, a scarce commodity, and the urge to nibble on it, I would say, is very nearly instinctive.

Eventually the bruised stalk begins to release its sap in the mouth – a bitter, raw taste that has a strange effect on the other senses. With a length of grass in the mouth birdsong seems louder, while traffic sounds diminish. The aroma of wildflowers intensifies. This is the easiest, cheapest, most innocent of psychedelic experiences.

I don’t believe chewing grass is something we, or anyone, should feel defensive over, or self-conscious about, whether alone on a quiet lane, or among the faux-rurality of the unkempt meadow-land in Hyde Park, sick for home.

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney By Barry Lategan, 1969, via Paige Sterling.

There is no more sap, no more structure – the grass has become tasteless and is nearing collapse. Take it out, throw it away — it doesn’t matter, grass is free — then stretch out the hand, brush the stalks, until, yes….