nursery rhymes1

I recently made a brief mention of Nursery Rhyme characters  in relation to the naming of play parks for children. Given the hullabaloo over a park being given the nomenclature of a republican hunger striker ,  I made comparisons  to the fact that many  divisive “heroes” have been eulogised in a variety of ways , in the past. Streets have  been named after  famous British battles. Pubs have long-carried the names of  British kings, queens , admirals and lords. In fact, one such- named , local  public  house  was targetted in a bomb -run some forty- plus  years ago; the building  having survived intact , as a coaching -house, since the times  of Jonathan Swift, was eradicated in a moment .  I always felt that the particular second was something of a demarcation line between the old and the new and not in a completely good way either. .At that  unheralded, unconscious moment a place of refreshment and a meeting-place of the two mixed teenage  tribes was eradicated.It was a place where two unspoken  schools of thought had  mixed easily, prior to that explosion. Things would never be the same again for an entire generation.We’d somehow forgotten , for a short while , that there were  things that divided us.  That is not even to mention the barbarism of destroying the things that actually joined us together; those hundreds of years of local , human ,social history , eradicated and  the re-birthing of  the world at some unholy Year Zero. Public houses became “us and them ” zones essentially, thereafter.A generation grew up in social separation.

Statues have been erected in public places in memory  of politicians. Instead I suggested naming such   childrens’ parks after Nursery Rhyme characters. They would be wholly unaware of the fetid histories involved in  the adult world , after all.

I wonder , though…

When you actually dig into the origin stories of these ancient rhymes,  there is much horror and history to unearth too. The childish singsongs of yore have mostly their basis in real -life cruelty, savagery and  political power plays. We have a tendency to forget what a ruthless creature we really are and what extremes of cruelty we can touch in the pursuit of our desires. In the lives of historical kings and queens , fear of their cruelties kept them in a job.Many of the older rhymes have been essentially censored or made politically correct for modern sensibilities, but their origins are mired in religion and politics.

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,

Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber

There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,

I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

Take the old rhyme “GOOSEY GOOSEY GANDER”. As far as I can understand it has a provenance stretching back to the 1780’s . it was inspired by the religious persecution of Catholic priests , when Latin prayers were frowned upon and positively banned in public  or in private. In the original there is a line about an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,….” so I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.” There’s nothing like banning a religious practice  to turn it into a  clandestine secrecy. You had better not get caught at it though.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after.

Up got Jack, and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

He went to bed and bound his head

With vinegar and brown paper.

Even the seemingly innocuous “JACK AND JILL” may not be too clean- cut and many puerile schoolboys and schoolgirls have already bowlerdised the lines to their own  mucky , rhyming delight in much the way “Popeye the Sailor Man “was lewdly customised..Strangely enough it seems that the little verses were  originally about King Charles I’s  foiled attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. The  Parliament  of the day rejected his suggestion, but the volume was  eventually reduced on half- and quarter-pints. It was all about taxes and money . These half and quarter measures  were  known  in their day as “jacks and gills” . The names  are no longer really used or even heard of,  but i can still remember reference to “gills” in my early schooldays.

Mary Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.

Then there’s “MARY, MARY QUITE CONTRARY”.It wasn’t really about gardening at all apparently. Nobody cared how her garden grew at all .The Mary in question apparently alludes to Queen Mary the First of England. She was known as “Bloody Mary” and she was a staunch adherent to  Catholicism. She reigned between 1553 to 1558 and her tenure was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants who didn’t share her views.. Apparently , far from being a reference to gardening at all , the “silver bells and cockle shells” were not in any way  gardening decorations, but were in fact, devices used in torture-play.They really liked a bit of torture in the good old days as a necessary amuse bouche for the main event…the execution.

Three blind mice, three blind mice,

See how they run, see how they run,

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a thing in your life,

As three blind mice?

Everyone knows THREE BLIND MICE ,or do they? Mary is supposedly involved in this one too and the “mice” that children are chanting about were supposedly three Protestant bishops who fell foul of Mary’s theological ire.They were Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—who attemped to overthrow their queen . They didn’t have much luck though and were burned at the stake for their heresies. It has been suggested that the “blindness”  was a theological one but it’s as likely that their eyes had also been put out before death. They really enjoyed employing  that old hot-poker back then.

Ring around the rosy

A pocketful of posies

“Atishoo! Atishoo!”

We all fall down

We used to sing RING AROUND THE ROSIES  and we’d end it with “Atishoo…atishoo …we all fall down ” The reality was very different .The original words go right back to London’s Great Plague of 1665 in which about fifteen per cent of the population perished. The original ending was “Ashes…ashes, we all fall down “  and of course referred to death by burning. The “rosie” was a very  direct reference  to the pox and  facial roseation of the afflicted plague carriers skin  …and the “pocket full of posies” was the floral bouquet  carried in the pockets like a pomander , in an attempt  to disguise the horrible stench of decay . This was used in much the same way as incense is still  ceremonially shaken at funerals .It was originally used to disguise the stink of rotting flesh.

I suppose the “Broad Black Brimmer” , the “Fields of Athenry” or “The Sash My Father Wore” will make about as much sense to children in another five hundred years time . I hope  that is the case . These  may well  be the Nursery Rhymes  of the twenty- fifth  century . Children will not care what they are about or  if they make sense or not, anyway, I’d imagine.


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