SMOKE: Evil Nursery Rhymes

Originally published: 3 March 2004

As a kid my mother read me nursery rhymes by the bucketload, along with all the other children's literature, and I'm convinced that the tales I heard and read as a child had a major influence on my development.

My mother would read all stories with an innate understanding of the humour beneath them, and this she carried through into her reading of the stories and rhymes. I use the term "reading" with tongue pressed firmly into cheek, because they were more like dramatic performances.

"UP jumped the troll!!! I want to eat you UP!!" (courtesy of the Billy Goats Gruff). My mother would don a tiger-stripe jersey when reading stories of tigers and when she got to particularly dramatic moments in stories - usually the most gruesome and awe-inspiring parts - her voice would hush to a low, conspiratorial whisper, followed by a shriek or scream as some poor unfortunate was surprised by a wolf or a Hobby-Hah or some other nightmarish creature.

Scared out of my wits as I was I loved every moment of it, although one negative lasting effect was that I've never been able to enjoy horror movies without laughing - they pale in comparison to my Mom's storytelling.

But I was reading a Reuters piece yesterday about some book that has been released called "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown", which takes a look at the origins of some of Britain's favourite nursery rhymes, and the conclusion by the author (Chris Roberts) is that "religion, sex, money and social issues are all common themes".

Many of the popular nursery rhymes we know today came from Tudor and Victorian England and were composed by folks who had no way of communicating to their children other than through verse (you couldn't sit your kid down and ask him about his feelings - you'd be burned at the stake).

Therefore a lot of the rhymes are actually bigger social messages, cunningly disguised as rhyming ditties for children.

Others are simply a commentary of the times, eg. Ring o' rosies, which was penned during the Bubonic Plague that swept through Europe, or "Georgy Porgy pudding and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry", which was about some gay courtier to the Duke of Buckingham in the early 1600s.

But some of them are seriously twisted tales and messages, like "Goosie, goosie gander/Where do you wander?/Upstairs and downstairs/and in my lady's chamber", which is about the spread of venereal disease (called goose bumps because of the swelling).

One of the more hectic ones is Jack and Jill, which Roberts claims is a tale of two young people who lose their virginity, with Jill possibly falling pregnant and regretting what she's done.

Jack scarpers off down the hill to tell his mates, but cops it in the end when his "head" (or helmet, or glans, or whatever) is covered in vinegar and brown paper.

Jack's note to self: "Do not go knocking Jill up and bragging about it, or your penis will be swathed in vinegar. And that hurts like buggery."

I had all the traditional nursery rhymes read to me, from the Brothers Grimm to Mother Goose and so on, but the most memorable book of rhymes was a little-known tome of German extraction, called Struwwelpeter (you can read it and see the original pictures online - give it a try, and I promise you won't be disappointed).

It was the darkest book that was ever read to me, and this was at a very young age. I'm sure it is responsible for my curiosity and interest in the bizarre, cruel and unusual, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The rhymes in it were all filled with abominable violence, from a boy who got his thumbs cut off by the great, long, red-legged scissorman, to the kid who starved to death because he wouldn't eat his broth.

I quote:

Mamma had scarcely turn'd her back,
The thumb was in, alack! alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissorman.
Oh! children, see! the tailor's come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.

Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out - Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;-
"Ah!" said Mamma "I knew he'd come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb."

So not only is your mother not going to stand by you if some bloke comes to hack your thumbs off for sucking them, but she's going to be somewhat gloating and triumphant as well.

Guess who never sucked his thumb.

Or what about the story of the boys who were punished for making fun of a black man, by being dipped in an ink well so that they too became black.

It's hysterical, actually - although the rhyme is preaching to you not to tease black people, your "punishment" for doing so is to be made black like them.

As he had often done before,
The woolly-headed black-a-moor
One nice fine summer's day went out
To see the shops and walk about;
And as he found it hot, poor fellow,
He took with him his green umbrella
Then Edward, little noisy wag,
Ran out and laugh'd, and waved his flag,
And William came in jacket trim,
And brought his woollen hoop with him;
And Caspar, too, snatch'd up his toys
And joined the other naughty boys;
So one and all set up a roar,
And laughed and hooted more and more,
And kept on singing, - only think! -
Oh Blacky, you're as black as ink

This sort of rhyme will never be seen again - it was acceptable in the 70s, but these days is akin to hate speech, I would guess. Guaranteed to seriously freak out a modern, 30-something Observatory teacher.

And finally - Cruel Frederick:

This Frederick! this Frederick!
A naughty, wicked boy was he;
He caught the flies, poor little things,
And then tore off their tiny wings;
He kill'd the birds, and broke the chairs,
And throw the kitten down the stairs;
And oh! far worse and worse,
He whipp'd his good and gentle nurse!

The trough was full, and faithful Tray
Came out to drink one sultry day;
He wagg'd his tail, and wet his lip,
When cruel Fred snatch'd up a whip,
And whipp'd poor Tray till he was sore,
And kick'd and whipp'd him more and more;

At this, good Tray grew very red,
And growl'd and bit him till he bled;
Then you should only have been by,
To see how Fred did scream and cry!

It's hardly the most frightening of tales, but to a six-year old kid it's pretty spooky. And twisted. Laced with evil, with a generous helping of scandalous thrills. Which is exactly how I like my stories.

Couldn't recommend it more.

The fact that I remember so vividly all these stories told to me shows just how much of an impression they made on me, and from the way I turned out you would have to conclude that they also steered me in certain alternative directions from an early age.

I reckon Struwwelpeter should be made compulsory reading to all kids of six - enough of this JK Rowling nonsense.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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