Past rhyming

Perhaps oral traditions were already dying during my childhood years. My mother, who was born in 1937, has a wealth of stories about people, places and traditions, no-one from my own generation can recall a fraction of what she still remembers.

Perhaps television was the problem. We did not spend evenings in conversation. We spent evenings watching whatever was shown on the two, and then three, channels we could receive on the wooden-cased black and white television set which commanded our living room. Television was too serious a thing to be interrupted by chatter. There being only one television in the house, and one living room in which to sit, there would always be someone who would say, “hush!” if someone talked over the programme.

A lack of conversation has meant there are often stories of which I can only remember fragments. There are tales of people doing certain things where I have no recall of the cause or the consequence of the events. There are memories of being in certain places without any recall if why I was there. And there are lots of rhymes, sometimes whole ones, sometimes just odd lines.

Bedtime ones seem to remain in the memory, perhaps because they were often repeated.

“To bed, to bed,” said Sleepy Head
“Tarry a while,” said Slow.
“Put on the pan,” said greedy Nan,
“We’ll sup before we go.”

I was never sure whose argument prevailed. Did Sleepy Head have to sit in the kitchen while supper was prepared? Did Nan have to go to bed hungry? Was the rhyme about going to bed or staying up?

Another rhyme about going upstairs seemed altogether more threatening to a child.

“I met a man upon the stair
And when I looked, he wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish that man would go away.”

Growing up in a community which seemed to take ghost stories at face value, the idea of a figure that appeared and disappeared was quite credible. The idea of there being a haunting presence on the stairs was quite worrying.

In retrospect, it is odd how many of the playground rhymes were morbid in their content. “Oranges and lemons” would be sung while two children faced each other with their hands joined. They would raise their hands to make a bridge under which the other children would pass, until the hands would be raised and lowered, “Chip, chop. Chip, chop. The last man’s head.” The wallflower song included, “we’re all children, and we shall surely die.” Even the sailing of the big ship through the “Alley, alley, O” ended with its passengers at the bottom of the sea.

Perhaps the advent of television was not such a bad thing.


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