What's a mum to do when dealing with a crying wee one? Are nursery rhymes the answer? Well, maybe not...
English songs and rhymes for children, eh: a trip down a hazy memory lane, where in singing/reciting them I connect with my son and, in doing so, connect with my own mother and grandmother before me.
They are often set to sweet and catchy musical notes (many actually being some slight rip-off of Mozart's 'Twinkle Twinkle') and they can excite and unite children in one playful chorus, or be used to lull a little one into gentle sleep. They are magical.
Or, er, not.
So it goes like this. Recently I'm surprising myself by remembering so many of these childhood rhymes by heart (from some untapped part of my brain) in the company of my mum. For this reason, Mum sends me for Christmas a collection of the old Ladybird Nursery Rhymes from 1965-66, illustrated in glowing colour by Frank Hampson (of Dan Dare fame, no less).
Battered and faded as these Ebay finds are, I delight in flicking through them, having all the rhymes throb at me from the pages in their large, unmistakeable, Ladybird font. A nostalgic fuzz comes over me upon revisiting all the old pictures.
Their endless blue skies!
Their chocolate-box-village scenes!
Only, hang on, I then think. Illustrations aside, some of these rhymes are a bit bloody odd, to say the least. For now, we'll pretend to be adult and accept that word meanings have no doubt changed since the Olden Days, so titles like 'Wee Willie Winkie' and 'I love little pussy' might once have attained an innocence that they wouldn't now.
But then take 'Rock-a-Bye Baby'. This is an innocuous title, surely. To soothe my own newborn son, I remember humming the gentle, waltzing melody to him, then dipping into the words. 'Ahh, a baby in a treetop, how fanciful,' I mused while singing them and sniffing my son's sweet, sweaty little head.
And then I found myself at the bit where the bough breaks and the cradle falls and I didn't feel like quite such a soother. That is, unless a bonsai were the tree in question, I'm assuming that any tree strong enough to hold a cradle would be of deadly height should the occupant fall from its top. This un-soothed me a great deal, if not my infant audience.
It's no wonder that this was the tune of choice old Momma Fratelli sang to her own deformed offspring, Sloth, in The Goonies. Remember why he was deformed? She'd taken the lyrics to this lullaby quite literally, though 'I only dropped you once' she tries to reassure him.
Yet these cases could at least be foolish accidents, I think. Tragedies born of poor risk assessment and nothing sinister, even for Momma Fratelli on this occasion. Here also springs to mind the tale of poor Jack and Jill, children whose honest task of fetching water is thwarted by their own accident prone-ness and results in severe head injuries which, forgive the cynic in me, seem unlikely fixed by the materials on offer. Nonetheless, no malice is at play here.
But less innocent than any of these cases is 'There was an old woman who lived in a shoe', who, we are told, 'had so many children she didn't know what to do'. Now I have myself just one child and another imminent. I can sympathise with the old girl, to say the least. Worse, in her case there is actually a multitude of dependants all cramped together with her in a very, very bizarre living space. Stressful times must abound. Indeed, feeding them all must be a nightmare, so sure enough she gives them 'some broth without any bread'. Possibly, I ponder, she could also be trying to curb their gluten intake, or perhaps some of the poor souls have some allergies I don't know about. However, right after this we are told she then 'whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed'. While I can understand wanting to unleash such mediaeval whoop-ass on a child at times, I can't help but think she's taking this all a bit far. Poor social services and government housing may be partly to blame, but the malice in her conduct is pretty brutal nonetheless.
And it's not as if the illustrator, born in more modern times, hasn't picked up on all this. In his jolly images, poor old Frank Hampson in the 1960s does his best to soften the blow; in 'Rock- a- Bye Baby' we see two little girls - presumably the baby's underaged carers - standing beneath the tree holding up a sheet between them to catch the wee plummeteer. With the old woman, the children lining up for a whipping are actually meeting a more depersonalised sanction since it is an ingenious wooden whipping machine, and not their ancient carer herself, that is about to unleash the fury. What's more, they are wearing cushions on their behinds to absorb the wallop. Genius! I think. Nobody gets hurt! The baby is caught and the line of waiting whippees will feel but a light whump.
Attachment parenting it is not, but in Frank's world everyone goes home tickety-boo.
Yet there's still a slightly sour taste in my mouth. This is because, memorable though Hampson's art has become in its own right – and the recent, ironic use of his images in adult greeting cards and Ladybird-parody books is testament to this - it is still the songs and their dodgy lyrics which are remembered most and trotted out in nurseries around the world. And they no doubt jar with many others besides me.
So what is the meaning of all this, then? Why take sweet, catchy little ditties intended for infants and taint them with fatal injury, corporal punishment, hapless attempts to save a smashed skull with glaringly ineffectual materials?
Well, I'm a massive nerd (read: English Lit graduate and now English teacher) so what nerds tend to do at these times is start researching all this stuff, as they want answers.
On one level, as a teacher I'm vaguely aware that many fairy tales, intended for slightly older children, are cautionary and contain moral messages, though to avoid being too rambly I might leave this one for another post. On a less-informed level, from what I can guess at this point nursery rhymes often feature royals and noblefolk ('Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary', 'The Grand Old Duke of York', 'Humpty Dumpty', etc) and the childlikeness of the rhyming/ rhythm (ahem, sorry – metre) /tune combo – if there is a tune - is in fact deceptive. That is, in the times when nursery rhymes came about, not only was speaking out against the authorities considered treason, the rather huge lack of democracy meant that such complaints were actually far more angry and rife than they are now.
So, having your life ruined by an unelected power? Bad. Having your head removed? Perhaps worse.
Thus the solution: bitch about it, but disguise it well; hide the incriminating stuff in the most unlikely place (think Walter White stashing his ill-gotten gains behind the loose panel in the nursery).
This makes sense to a point, since these rhymes do poke fun at some sort of idiocy, at least as far as we can see Humpty's 'great fall' and York's military direction of his soldiers so fumbled as to leave them 'neither up nor down.' Maybe this could even be a cautionary tale of what happens if you let power simply be handed down, to be inherited by idiots.
However, to return to 'Rock a Bye Baby' and 'the old woman' it's a lot less clear what the bloody hell could be going on. There's no obvious reference to a named, famous figure as such. Worse, though: can children in either rhyme really be seen as deserving of the accidents or punishments that befall them? You'll notice it's much harder to jump to the defence of stupid dukes or clumsy eggs.
Now I'm nearly 32 weeks pregnant, so in two months or so I'm going to need an arsenal of strategies to once again calm a crying newborn. What's a mum to do? The solution, you could argue, could be not to worry about the nursery rhymes with no tunes for now, so we needn't even worry about the old woman in the shoe. And 'Rock-a-Bye Baby?' Why not just sing the tune and leave out the words if I find them too much? Well, the thing is I tried that but this felt wronger still: stripped of its lyrics, the quietly hummed melody felt far too reminiscent of a Stephen King film for my liking, not to mention the hummer herself cutting quite a menacing figure, bouncing her tot in the pitch darkness with a desperate rhythm and mad, wide-eyed glare.
I wonder if there is any way this rhyme can be saved.
Well, my work is now cut out for me and I've got plenty of reading to do. Trust me to ruin things for myself in areas where other people would just surrender to the silliness, accept the inexplicable if they even cared about it. One thing's for sure, though; one of my favourite rhymes to this day looks like it might entail a lot less work. In fact, if we want to decode it it already contains both a (potentially important) person's name and some sense of finger-wagging moral message: against the cad and womaniser. I give you:
Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie
What an introduction. I love him already.
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
Lock up your daughters! A heartbreaker is on the loose. He's a git, for sure, but our love of gits like 007 and Don Draper sadly flies in the face of attempts to be feminist or sensible (sigh). Well, it does for me, anyway. I can't help it; I'd often rather invite a git round to dinner as he's the one who'd make a game of Cards Against Humanity more memorable. There, I've said it.
OK, maybe I can content myself with the fact GP could be a huge coward:
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
Or at least only interested in saving his own skin. Whatever.
The fact is I need to go away and research the meaning behind many of these rhymes and it's a self-imposed task. But I confess I'm looking forward to learning about Georgie Porgie the most.
See more from Erica Barlow at http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
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