Who were Mary Quite Contrary and Georgie Porgie? How could Hey Diddle Diddle offer an essential astronomy lesson? And if Ring a Ring a Roses isn’t about catching the plague, then, what is it really about?
The ingenious book delves into the hidden meanings of the nursery rhymes and songs we all know so well and discovers all kinds of strange tales ranging from Viking raids to firewalking and from political rebellion to slaves being smuggled to freedom.
Children have always played at being grown up and all kinds of episodes in our history are still being re-enacted today in a series of dark games (Oranges and Lemons traces a condemned man’s journey across London to his execution, Goosie Gander is about dragging a hidden Catholic priest to prison) And there are many many more...
Full of vivid illustrations and with each verse reproduced, here are a multitude of surprising stories you won’t be able to resist passing on to everyone you know. Your childhood songs and rhymes will never sound the same again.
What was your inspiration to research the history of children’s nursery rhymes?
I have wondered about the origins of Nursery Rhymes for many years now and have always been curious to know if there was any particular event, or period in history, that might have inspired any of them. After all, we all thought Ring a Ring a Roses had something to do with the plague but after that I just assumed most of them simply evolved over time. For example I imagined there was once a little fat boy called humpty, or dumpty, who once fell off a wall and was sung about in playgrounds, that eventually became a rhyme and that didn't interest me. But then, about 5 years ago, I read in a history book about a former steward of Glastonbury Abbey who inspired the rhyme Little Jack Horner and that really was interesting, so I started looking for the origins for others about then.
What were the highlights of your hunt for the true meaning of the nursery rhyme?
Well, discovering Humpty Dumpty was the name of a cannon located on the inner wall of Colchester Castle during the English Civil War and that the Three Blind Mice were religious leaders all burned at the stake for their beliefs were highlights. In fact most nursery rhymes have some sort of historic meaning and they are all interesting.
Could you tell us what your favourite nursery rhyme is and give a reason why?
I couldn't pick one but I think all of those that have a dark and hidden meaning are all my favourites. Simply because most of us recite them to children completely innocently without realising some are written about death, disease or war. For example Remember Remember the fifth of November is written about a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And we still celebrate that event every year. Imagine America celebrating the events of September 11th every year? Obviously the difference is that November 5th failed but it was still an attempt at terrorism on an unimaginable scale, yet we sing about it to the kids.
Did your opinion of any nursery rhyme change after you discovered what it really meant?
Yes, many of them. I had no idea Baa Baa Black Sheep was really about taxation or that Little Bo Peep related to pirates and smugglers. London Bridge did actually fall down once or that the Mulberry Bush we all pretended to dance round is actually located in a former woman's prison in Wakefield. In fact my opinions changed about many more nursery rhymes too.
Did you uncover anything new and exciting through your research?
All of it was new and interesting. I don't think this subject has been covered before in much detail. I certainly couldn't find much dedicated to nursery rhymes and historic songs. For example, did you know the American National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, started life as an east end of London drinking song? No - neither did I until now.
Its obvious from the topic of your new book and of your previous books ('Shaggy dogs and black sheep' and 'Red herrings and white elephants') that you have a keen interest for the roots of common British expressions, what do you think inspired your love affair with the history of the English language?
Well Red Herrings did I suppose. I have always been interested in history, obviously. And as you study history there is always the odd story to pop up that provides the origin of something. Such as why we drink this or that, or call certain food what we do, or say certain things that seem quirky to foreigners but are perfectly normal to us. Go say something to one of your friends or somebody new living in your town who is learning English. Ask them Turn a Blind Eye or for a Hair of the Dog and it is unlikely they will know what you are talking about. But anybody who grew up speaking English will understand perfectly and that is why I found the subjects of historic origins so fascinating. Luckily for me so do many other people too. And it gives everybody the chance to appear just that little bit cleverer over morning coffee or down the pub.
Who inspires you?
Anybody who cares about what they do.