Happier Nursery Rhymes?

I’m thinking of this in terms of three fictional 4 years olds – shall we call them;  Angus, Kirsten and Ewa? 

“Half a pound of tuppenny rice

Half a pound of treacle

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel”

Got any clues on what that means? Short of a psychedelic episode on seriously mind transforming drugs I’m not sure that you could. 

What legacy are we creating? Is” weasel popping” a thing? Is it an offence notifiable to the SSPCA? 

I have visions 20 years hence of a deranged, half shaved Angus with a 1000 yard stare peering over the barrier of the dock as the expert witness psychiatrist explains to the court; 

“….. as a youth he had an unhealthy fascination with weasel popping . This moved on to domestic animals and in my professional judgement there is a direct link to the 17 axe murders. I recommend treatment in Carstairs at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. “

Meanwhile Angus turns his  stare to a  young juror and gives his best Hannibal Lekter smile partly baring his filed teeth causing the trial to be halted as the juror is taken away in a dead faint .

And it gets worse – anyone heard the second verse?

“Every night when I go out,

The monkey’s on the table,

Take a stick and knock it off,

Pop! goes the weasel”

Weasels and monkeys ? The boy is progressing. 

The hint is in the last verse 

“Up and down the City road,

In and out the Eagle,

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop goes the weasel”

The  “Eagle” was a popular  pub on London’s City road and it was from there it is suggested  that a dance called “ Pop goes the Weasel “ emerged in the 18th Century. By 1852 it was referred to as one of  the most “ mirth inducing tunes imaginable” and was taken to the Queens Court where it gained prominence .Transferring to barrel-organs the music then became more popular . But I’m not the first person to think the words were nuts . By the late 1852 this had gone transatlantic , recycled in Boston it made its way around the USA but taking on new words :- 

“All around the cobbler’s bench,

The monkey chased the weasel.

The preacher kissed the cobbler’s wife—

Pop! goes the weasel!”

Which takes us into an entirely new space of post watershed euphemisms! 

But back to the wild eyed and rapidly deteriorating Angus and his two little friends. 

“Sing a song of sixpence

A pocketful of rye

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie .”

Putting aside for the moment childish curiosity about what they might be doing with a pocket full of rye, what is “Sing a song of sixpence”  doing for our little friends ? ( Other than they have no clue what sixpence is .) 

Even the explanations are things of nightmares. Apparently there are Italian recipes from history where birds are put in a pie live,  the pie is cooked  and then when it is cracked open the birds fly out. To Alfred Hitchcock’s joy I assume?  Not sure Chris Packham would approve . 

But the verses get worse. Blackbirds, quite reasonably infuriated at being cooked alive,  fly out and bite off a maid’s nose where it is picked up by a wren and sewn on again in miracle of  cosmetic surgery. 

If young Kirsten isn’t in floods of tears by now and suffering from a life long case of ornithophobia, one assumes that the rhyme has done nothing for her vegan credentials . 

“ But Kirsten dear it is just made with quorn mince  “ her mum says as her daughter minutely dissects the pie she has been given looking for bits of;  wing,  beak  and black bits . Can you blame her ? 

And then of course the most current and poignant nightmare to leave in a child’s head in their formative years :- 


A pocket full of posies

A-tishoo A-tishoo

We all fall down”

Many explanations of that one and it features in a number of European tales too. Here,  the one most mentioned, relates to the Great Plague of 1665…..the “rosies” are the circular buboe rashes that indicate infection . Falling down explains itself. “We” is a remarkably inclusive and terror inducing pronoun in that context . I am no child psychologist but might I suggest that reminiscing  about the sacrifices of plague villages could be a little early in the developmental pathway for our trio ? 

Check it out :- Terrified that all around them are about to turn spotty with black blotches and drop dead, the three rush off to their respective granny to check her skin. Asking  her  if she is going to die the truthful soul, lacking context, doesn’t give them the reply they were looking for. All three grab the doctor kits they got for Christmas and two begin frantically vaccinating their Teddy Bears. 

Angus is holding a syringe and  giving a strange look to the family cat . 

Some lunatic who probably has 4 doctorates actually suggested that kids  should use “Ring-a-ring-a-rosies” to sing along to as they washed their hands during the COVID epidemic so the symbolism was clear to them . 

We aren’t alone. There is a Japanese version. It  relates to;  Geraniums Uranium and Hiroshima and it is too revolting to replicate in its entirety. That came out in 1949, I think as a parody by some sick person but knowing how perverse adults are,  you never know .

Talking of other cultures that brings me back  to  little Ewa. Her parents are Polish, she doesn’t just have our nursery rhymes to cope with she has theirs too!!! Poor scrap!

It doesn’t necessarily get better with age . Watership Down? Spoiler  alert, the Bunny dies. And films? Marley and me ? The dog is euthanized. Even my wife cried at that one , she was sixty one at the time!

I’m currently reading the Hobbit to my nine year old grandaughter, I have just realised that only ten of the thirteen dwarves survive the Battle of the Five Armies ….eek!

So what is my point ? 

Well bless him Angus is probably past help but we need some happy stories for our kids. 

Especially now 

Illustrations from the novel A Book of Nursery Rhymes. 1901. Clara E. Atwood

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  1. Here’s one I used to sing with my niece – it makes no sense at all, but it’s fun………

    Each Peach Pear Plum
    I spy Tom Thumb

    Tom Thumb in the cupboard
    I spy Mother Hubbard

    Mother Hubbard in the cellar
    I spy Cinderella

    Cinderella on the stairs
    I spy the Three Bears

    Three Bears out hunting
    I spy Baby Bunting

    Baby Bunting fast asleep
    I spy Bo-peep

    Bo-peep on the hill
    I spy Jack and Jill

    Jack and Jill in the ditch
    I spy the Wicked Witch

    Wicked Witch in the wood
    I spy Robin Hood

    Robin Hood in the den
    I spy three bears again

    Three bears still hunting
    They spy Baby Bunting

    Baby Bunting safe and dry
    I spy Plum Pie

    Plum pie in the sun,
    I spy everyone!

    We used to do actions to go with it too – Cinderella climbing the stairs, bears hunting – creeping along, Baby Bunting fast asleep etc. And at the end,we’d go EVERYONE!!!! and throw our arms out for …everyone!

    Happier stories? ‘ Mary Poppins’ ‘The Borrowers’ and….there’s always…Pooh Bear.

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