Sunday 17 July 2011

Rhymes, Damned Rhymes and Nursery Rhymes

Anyone who has read any of my books on the origins of place names will know I like to include pub name definitions. On the face of it the Duke of York is an unremarkable pub name and yet it very soon became apparent his life story had little in common with the rhyme.

The Duke of York is the title held by the second son of the reigning monarch. Created in 1385, the gentleman in question was Frederick Augustus, son of George III. Being a leading Georgian he could doubtless be referred to as 'Grand' but he was by no means 'Old' as the rhyme suggests. This refers to the English action in Flanders at the end of the eighteenth century. At the time the man leading the English forces was just 31 years of age, by no means old. All the marching up and down hill is also quite fictional, for there are no hills in this part of the world. Finally we hear of his 10,000 men, when Frederick Augustus was in charge of at least three times that number.

I wondered how many other rhymes were based on false information. I started on fairly safe ground for everyone knows Ring a Ring a Roses is about the plague, but found no suggestion of such is seen before 1951, the symptoms would never be recognised as those of someone with the plague, and the falling down seems to have been more of a curtsey or bow. Few facts in those lines either.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary is given as referring to either Mary I (Bloody Mary) or Mary, Queen of Scots, with supposed confirmation in the shape of the 'silver bells and cockleshells' said to be representative of Catholicism. Yet again there is a problem with the dates. Both Marys are sixteenth century figures while the rhyme is unknown before the eighteenth.

Cock Robin has no connection with any birds - certainly not a robin nor a sparrow. Some point to this being the pagan god Balder in Norse mythology. Others suggest William Rufus, the second Norman king of England who was named for his red hair and was indeed killed by an arrow in the New Forest. It was inevitable a connection would be made to Robin Hood, however with little evidence to show the outlaw existed this seems as unlikely as the fall of the government of Robert Walpole, the only evidence that Robin is a diminutive of Robert. Again, with the exception of Walpole, these explanations are far too early to be taken seriously.

Doctor Foster refers to Edward I? Unlikely when the rhyme is unrecorded before 1844, Edward I died in 1307. Goosey Goosey Gander is a comment on Henry VIII's break from Rome? Not really as some 250 years separate the beginnings of the Church of England and the first appearance in print. How about Humpty Dumpty being acannon used in the English Civil War? No, this story can be dated to 1956.

Jack and Jill are Louis VXI of France and Marie Antoinette. Yes? No, this verse predates the French Revolution. Rock-a-Bye Baby has been said to represent many things include the Egyptian god Horus and childcare the Native American way! London Bridge is Falling Down reminds us of children buried under the foundations? Maybe this is the gruesome truth, yet the rhyme is common to any cultures and periods. Little Boy Blue being based on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is, at best, speculative. Little Jack Horner has been linked to Thomas Horner who made significant financial gains through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, however the story and rhyme certainly predate this period of English history.

It comes as no surprise to find many generations have misled their progeny. Whilst we may be blissfully unaware of the falsehoods in rhyme, none can deny the annual deception of the tale of the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas.

Sunday 10 July 2011

I Can't Whistle

Never could whistle. Not to attract attention, not to accompany the hit of the day, nor to ensure Mary was aware I appreciated her latest choice in miniskirt. I don't think I've missed much because of this minor failure and certainly don't regret being missed by Mary, who probably ended up with a brood equally devoid of a personality.

Listening to an old radio drama recently I realised how the approaching whistle of an unidentifiable tune dated the production. Once the cheery (or irritating depending on one's viewpoint) whistle announced the imminent arrival of a tradesman - milkman, baker, postman, etc., as much as the clink of the milkbottle, whine of the electric delivery van, flick of the letterbox, or the sound of the front gate. The remainder of the broadcast was missed, interrupted as my thoughts wandered and I mused on whatever happened to the whistle.

No user of the ubiquitous ipod ever reveals their musical choice to the rest of the bus queue through pursed lips. Not that I recommend anyone do so, nor would anyone who can recall the release of the 'Walkman', which Sony failed to warn would render the user incapable of carrying even the most monotonous melody while decreasing the perception of their own volume.

And it's not only Homo sapiens whistle which has disappeared. The train whistle evokes a image of an engine belching smoke and steam which no two-tone hoot from the modern diesel or electric locomotive ever could. Watch PC George Dixon in the film The Blue Lamp, he and his colleagues alert one another with use of the police whistle - one long blast of which carried as much meaning as the veritable oratory now required over the two-way radio. The local bobby has returned to the bicycle in the twenty-first century so why not the whistle? Referees manage to communicate a surprising amount of information via the Acme branded whistle - yes it really is called the Acme. Two versions were produced by the Birmingham company Joseph Hudson, a higher pitch preferred by referees from the south and somewhat lower for those from up north.

And what about the dog whistle? Never hear of that in twenty-first century. But then humans never could.

Sunday 3 July 2011

The Lapal Canal

No I hadn't heard of it either, not until a recent walk took me south of Halesowen. The final leg saw me cross back across the busy A456 and follow the public footpath towards Leasowes Park. The Leasowes was landscaped in the middle of the eighteenth century by William Shenstone when most gardens were laid out in formal regular lines and shapes. Shenstone's clever work highlighted the surrounding countryside by affording excellent views.

Within a quarter of a mile this forms the tow path of the Lapal Canal, although it is another quarter of a mile before more than a drop of water is seen. There is no doubting the cutting still exists, the unbroken swathe of the broad leaves of water iris also shows it does not dry out. Built some two hundred years ago it connected Halesowen to the extensive network centred on Birmingham and required the construction of a sixty feet high earth embankment, at the time the highest in the world, which today affords excellent views over the pool as the walker will soon see.

Mucklows Hill was an obstacle to the canal builders and, in the true spirit of the time, they tunnelled right through it to emerge at Selly Oak. This was a distance of over two miles, making it the fourth longest canal tunnel in the land. Protests at this proposed tunnel were quite amazing for the time when an impressive thirteen thousand individuals wrote opposing it. Disused and in need of repair the tunnel collapsed in 1917 and in 1960 an accident caused the waters to burst through the banks and flood factories below Mucklows Hill. Today it is still closed and, while there are moves to reopen the canal and take advantage of the major growth leisure industry in the country, the tunnel seems destined to remain closed forever with plans to take the canal up to the level of Woodgate Valley.