When I was a little boy
I washed my mammy’s dishes;
I put my finger in my eye,
And pulled out golden fishes.
Enjoyably weird that, isn’t it, in the way it combines the homely with the exotic?
Children’s rhymes, said the poet Walter de la Mare, “free the fancy, charm tongue and ear, delight the inward eye”. They can be bonkers, unnerving, sinister, and rich in the nuance and compression of real poetry, though free from any of the pretentiousness that’s suggested by the word “poetic”.
But for how long will they continue to exist in the collective imagination, as part of English-Scots-Irish-Welsh culture, fragments shored against our ruins?
There will probably always be a few fogeys who teach them to their children: one of ours developed a morbid obsession with the German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann’s picture book Struwwelpeter and his sadistic Tall Tailor chopping off thumbs (“Snip! Snip! Snip! The scissors go…”. )
That one about washing mammy’s dishes is “Washing Up”. It’s contained in the most cherished present I’ve ever given a godchild (better even than ready cash) – The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, collected and edited by the genius husband-and-wife team Iona and Peter Opie.
The birth of the Opies’ first child in 1944 prompted the couple to embark on what would become their life’s work: studying and chronicling the “lore and language of schoolchildren” (the title of their 1959 study).
Marina Warner, a writer on folklore, called the Opies “anthropologists of the normal but unexplained everyday” and “psychopathologists of daily life”.
My godson is five years old, American, but of half-British parentage, and his home is the Midwest, though his parents (outstanding musicians playing in a remarkable string quartet in Kansas City) had him baptised at the London Oratory.
He immediately took to the Opies’ nursery rhyme collection and its miniature woodcut illustrations; he was deliciously terrified (reports his father) of the Goose that will throw you down the stairs if you don’t say your prayers; and cackles with glee at “Simple Simon met the pieman”.
But without the Opies’ years of scholarly labour – Iona doing the fieldwork in playgrounds, classrooms and homes up and down the land – a vast oral tradition would surely be lost forever. And they recorded the history not just of rhymes, but also of children’s games, pranks, punishments, beliefs and secret spells.
And the ditties and jingles cover a great range of forms, including what the Opies term “wonders”: “My mill grinds pepper and spice; / Your mill grinds rats and mice”; and tongue twisters: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, / But Moses supposes erroneously; / For nobody’s toeses are posies of roses / As Moses supposes his toeses to be.”
These are fascinating comparative rarities. But even the “greatest hits” – the names and phrases that have passed into the language, long since detached from their source – no longer form part of the universal mental furniture of children in an inner-city British classroom.
Like Georgie Porgie pudding and pie who kissed the girls and made them cry. Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet. Little Jack Horner sitting in the corner.
You’d have to explain what curds and whey are for that last one. Or would you? It doesn’t matter. The mystery of these rhymes is part of their allure.
In their time, they were learnt in the playground, with geographical variants. There were songs for counting cherry stones: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief.” Or numbers: “1, 2 Buckle my shoe; 3,4, Knock at the door; 5, 6, Pick up sticks.”
The imagery and the rhythm stick in the mind. One riddle sees snow as a “white bird featherless”. You can see why Agatha Christie plundered nursery rhymes, along with Shakespeare, for her book titles.
But nothing stays the same. Globalisation has replaced these jingles and poems with new fads that come from the United States and from the East.
A quick quiz of our younger children throws up some playground fads of today. “Try Not to Laugh” videos on YouTube. Pranks are now recorded on mobile phones. There are “memes” and internet jokes: a new one pops up every day at the moment about (often Chinese) people in masks.
Remember multi-coloured elastic “loom bands”, that were everywhere, then vanished? And fidget spinners?
Making “slime” thrilled children, but prompted predictable parental anxiety (the ingredients included food colouring, washing-up liquid, glue, baby oil and contact lense solution).
The (to me) sinister compulsion of the moment is TikTok, a short-form mobile-phone video app in which participants dance and mime to pop songs. Once you start playing you can’t stop. And if you only get one or two “likes” per video…? Then you make lots more videos.
Give me “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” any time.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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