High-spirited and irreverent probe into the political, sexual and religious meanings behind nursery rhymes and childhood chants.
Roberts, a British librarian and walking-tour guide who discovered that tourists relished his offbeat background tales, self-published a version of this book in 2003 in England. Then Granta published the expanded edition that—with a new preface and glossary—is the one at hand. Of the more than three dozen rhymes, only a half dozen or so—“Taffy Was a Welshman,” say, or “Elsie Marley Is Grown So Fine”—will be unfamiliar to American ears, and, while Roberts’s glossary does clarify British cultural references (rhyming slang, television shows, media personalities), he still assumes a general familiarity with British history. When rhymes have more than one story behind them, as many do, he attempts to sort out the various theories, keeping those with the most historical support. Thus, he reports that “Georgy Porgy” was more plausibly a satire on a gay prince regent of the 19th century than on a marquis in the 17th, and that the earliest written version of the rhyme had no George at all, but warned about the dangers of being too fat, beginning with the line “Rowley Powley, pudding and pie.” Roberts also reveals the true identities and stories behind “Little Jack Horner,” “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” and “Little Boy Blue,” whjile “Ding Dong Bell” leads him to a discussion of cat symbolism and superstitions; in his take on “Ladybird, Ladybird,” he introduces other folk beliefs about insects; and in “Goosie, Goosie, Gander”—he advises the reader that it’s about prostitution (“goose” was a common term for a prostitute)—he takes the opportunity to talk about London brothels. More intent on entertainment than scholarship, Roberts has nevertheless packed into his little essays a large amount of choice information and fascinating trivia about British folklore, royal misbehavior and political skullduggery. Nearly half of every chapter’s opening pages are decorated with sprightly silhouettes illustrating scenes from the rhymes.
Great fun—for adults.