Saturday, 5 September 2015

Cautionary Tales

I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to poetry and fairy tales for children. I want them to have their imaginations expanded, I want them to be caught up in storytelling, I want them to feel like they're a part of the story.

I also want to scare the pants off them. I don't want them going into the forest at night. I don't want them talking to strangers and letting people they don't know into their home. I do want them to respect their elders, to learn to listen more than speak, to pay attention to what they see, to figure out that they don't always know everything that's going on...

When I was growing up, the bootleg poetry tapes featured some poems by Hilaire Belloc, including The Yak and The Frog, James, who ran away from his Nurse at the Zoo and was eaten by a Lion, and Matilda, who told Lies and was burned to Death. The poems about James and Matilda were part of a collection called Cautionary Tales For Small Children, poems that depicted the unfortunate things that could happen to children who were unruly and poorly behaved and which years later were ably succeeded by Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts.

That being said, there were other poems in the ether that I loved, even at a young age. I still enjoy scary movies, from time to time - when I was a child, I liked (and still do) scary stories. The fairy tale I loved the most was about Snow White, a version where after a corset is cut off, a hair comb is removed, and a piece of apple knocked loose, Snow White's wicked queen stepmother is forced by the seven dwarfs to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead.

Sure. A little mean. Definitely a bit macabre.

Three of the poems in my Oxford collection follow here (all by Anon, that gifted genius!):
There was a little girl, and she wore a little curl
Right down the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
But what she was bad, she was horrid!

One day she went upstairs, while her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen down below were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head, on her little truckle bed,
And she then began hurraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic,
But when she climbed the stair and saw Jemima there,
She took and she did whip her most emphatic.
The first stanza was a verse I heard plenty around the traps growing up. My sister could be horrid sometimes... but the verse was usually by older people about girls from other families who were hellions. My niece has very curly hair and I'm trying hard to not let this kind of thing pop out of my mouth (or even into my thoughts) when I see her becoming a bit... challenging for her mother.
My mother said I never should
Play with the gipsies in the wood;
If I did, she would say,
Naughty girl to disobey.
Your hair shan't curl
And your shoes shan't shine,
You gipsy girl,
You shan't be mine.
And my father said that if I did
He's rap my head with the tea-pot lid.
The wood was dark; the grass was green;
in came Sally with a tambourine.
I went to the sea - no ship to get across;
I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse;
I up on his back and was off in a crack,
Sally tell my mother I shall never come back.
We had no gypsies in the area when I was growing up but the idea of running away with the gypsies - as opposed to being... spirited away - always had a certain appeal. We used to watch The Famous Five on after-school television and there were always gypsies in the background, living in caravans. Ironic that years later I've become addicted to watching videos on YouTube about the tiny house movement - people choosing to downsize and live in small spaces, small lofted houses frequently built on long-frame trailers.

This was about not getting into cars with strangers, or accepting sweets from people you didn't know. It was about parents being scared that they might lose their children and their injunction against playing "with the gipsies in the wood" was actually a cover for that fear. Thirty-five, forty years ago, seems to me, that kids playing in the wood might be more likely found asleep by the creek under a bush, or in a wooden fort in a park that kids thought adults didn't really know about. Now, it seems to me, the threat is more real. Whether that comes with age and a greater understanding of the things that can go awry, or if the world really has gone that much further down the toilet is anyone's guess. I suspect it's a bit of both.
Don't-care didn't care;
Don't-care was wild.
Don't-care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar's child.

Don't-care was made to care,
Don't-care was hung;
Don't-care was put in the pot
And boiled til he was done.
Wilful disobedience and an unruly nature that refuses to be ruled, defies where it should respect, and breaks all the rules it should keep, can only come to one end.


Okay, so maybe that's going a bit far. Brian Wildsmith's painting of the child in the pot, however, captures the petulant face of a child who won't go to sleep, won't eat his dinner, won't take his bath, won't do as he's told.

I don't know that I was ever explicitly told so but I came to the conclusion readily enough that, sooner or later, there was a level of bullshit that my parents just would not put up with. Eventually, I would be packed in a suitcase or a shipping crate with a tin of Milo and a spoon and a roll of toilet paper, put on an airplane, and shipped off to somewhere in Africa. Or South America. Or Asia. Somewhere else - where I would have no family, no-one who cared, and where, if I didn't do what I was told, I may indeed end up in a pot in someone else's kitchen.

This is what becomes of children who fail to appreciate all the blessings they have.

Well, I never took them for granted, I think. Or at least, not all the time.

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