Number Thirty-eight of the regular HebWeb column from local writer and story-teller, George Murphy.
Murphy’s Lore 38 - Monday 16 September 2019
Ladles and jellyspoons
When I started teaching in ’74, I stocked a couple of classroom shelves with my own books. The children’s favourite was The Lore and language of schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, full of tongue twisters and nonsense verse - ‘Ladles and jellyspoons’ - and the kind of skipping and two ball rhymes my sisters used to sing, such as ‘One two three, O’ Leary’.
“Who was O’Leary, Sir?’”
They particularly liked:
‘Your Bob owes our Bob a bob.
If your Bob doesn’t give our Bob
The Bob that your Bob owes our Bob,
Our Bob will give your Bob,
A Bob in the eye.’
Perhaps that’s because a bob was slang in Halifax for what we’d euphemistically call a number 2.
One day, The Head, Mr Hopkinson (mere teachers weren’t allowed to use his first name), told us the local headteachers’ group was coming to a meeting at the school and directed us to display some children’s ‘best handwriting’ on the display boards in the corridors.
I asked my lot to each copy a poem from a book they liked. Their efforts were neatly displayed, but I should have checked the content more diligently. A visiting Head drew Hoppy’s attention to one carefully copied street rhyme:
‘As I was walking down the road,
I thought I smelt some kippers.
I asked a lady what it was,
She said it was her knickers.’
To which I had added, “Good work.”
I read Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children to my Junior class and they enjoyed the dark, humorous tales, but I wish I’d also had a copy of Heinrich Hoffman’s 1845 classic Shock headed Peter (Der Strewelpetter) to read to them.
Hoffman was the psychiatrist at Frankfurt’s Institute for the Mentally Ill. In his previous post as a GP he’d been amused by the terrible threats parents made to their children, telling them the chimneysweep would come down the chimney if they didn’t behave. He wrote and illustrated the book for his son, including ‘The great, long, red-headed scissor-man’…
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out 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.
The book sold over a million copies and is regarded as a classic in Germany. In Hebden Bridge Arts Festival a few years back, The Tiger Lillies performed songs from their West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Shockheaded Peter and Martin Jacques ended each tale with falsetto finality: “DEAD! DEAD! DEAD! DEAD!”
Two balls in Pencilvania
Pencilvania at The Fox and Goose is hosted by H the Hat woman. Sometimes, other drinkers wander into the room, but they usually scoot when we tell them we’re going to read our poems aloud.
Scouse Freda remembered playing with two balls against the walls in Liverpool. Her rhyme bounced her through childhood into adolescence and on into bawdier two ball pastimes.
Afterwards, we broke off from our readings for a natter about the street games we played as kids.
In my car-free, care free street, in the fifties, when we played Kick the Can, I used to nip into our house for twenty minutes, to watch TV, so I wouldn’t get caught. I remember, at this time of year, when the street lights lit up early and there was a whiff of chimney smoke in the air, our play felt more glamorous and exciting - we were yelling and darting, fleeting and vanishing between light and shade - until we got called in, feeling sated and satisfied.
Sometimes the weather forced us indoors. I owned a box of SHOOT! a table soccer game with tiny goals, miniature goalies on metal sticks and 10 red and 10 blue tiddly wink outfield players. When lads came round to ours, we took the cloth off the dining table, pulled out the extensions and drew the pitch markings with chalk.
One Saturday morning, when me mom was out, one of the older lads offered to paint the pitch more permanently with left over green and white paints his dad had stored in his shed.
The end result was glossily brilliant, you could see your face refected in the painted grass. For a few weeks, on Saturday mornings, whilst me mom was out shopping, we ran a Mini League, with me feeding the bigger kids with rounds of toast.
Nothing was said to me, but next spring I looked out of the window one day and noticed our painted dining table lying in pieces in the back garden. There would be no more games of SHOOT! in our house.
An Indian called Derek fell onto one knee and fired an arrow into me: “SCHWOOSSH!”.
I fell in stages, clutching my wound, “UGH, UGH, URGHHH … ugh.”
We were on the little playing field, wrapped around with ruddy-bricked semis in Newnham Drive and I was wondering how long to stay dead. The trick was to shoot the Indians before they got you (PEE-OW!).
One time, Mrs Daniels came out and told us to play somewhere else, “There’s a park just up the road.” But the park was half a mile away and, at our age, we weren’t allowed out of the street.
All of eight years old, I piped up, “Our play is more important than your peace and quiet.”
Mrs Daniels wasn’t expecting to meet a social anthropologist. As if in a trance, she turned round and trudged inside again.
Thirty years on, I went back to our old street and was playing cricket with my nieces on the little playing field, when a grey haired Mrs Daniels came out to complain. Then she saw me. Perhaps a distant memory (‘PEE-OW!’) hit her, because she shook her jowls, then retreated back to her lair.
Steak and ale pie
At the White Lion just now, the gorgeous Steak and Ale pies are accompanied by the best chips in the valley. This week even PW succumbed to their charms. So it’s a Murphy toast from her and me for the famous White Lion Steak and Ale pie (with chips and gravy). Yum.
Until 1996, you could get a cheaper holiday at September Break and teachers could go away and plan for the real kids - not the fantasy angels they had fondly imagined during the summer.
This shady snap is PW's favourite photograph; Jude and I outside Dylan Thomas's writing hut in Laugharne, above the shifting waters of the estuary, just along from the ruined castle. I remember as a child, a recording of Thomas reading Fern Hill came on the wireless and stopped me in my tracks, in the kitchen.
“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.”
I thought at first it was Harry Secombe. I loved the lilt and lyricism, although I was too young to grasp the import in the closing lines …
“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
Me mom told me Thomas was a poet and I thought, 'That would be a nice job to do’.
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