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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Ghosts, ghoulies and...ladybirds?

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children all gone..

I wonder how many children sang this as a child, unaware of the implication of the words? It seems 1950s children enjoyed stories such as Red riding Hood (beware of the wolf) and Babes in the Wood (don't get lost in the dark)  supposedly without feeling scared.

Back in 1944, when a ladybird caught her eye, the unknown Iona Opie, began to wonder why such traditional rhymes were so scary, and then spent the rest of her life finding out. She began by borrowing James Halliwell-Phillipps' 1842 edition of Nursery Rhymes of England, from the library and soon  her husband, Peter, got hooked on the idea, too.

The couple began buying copious children's books to answer  the question 'what is a nursery rhyme?'  Their first purchase, The Cheerful Warbler, was a tiny book of rhymes from 1818 that cost exactly five shillings. They soon began creating a dictionary of more than 500 rhymes, songs, jingles and lullabies which, seven years later, became The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. In it they explored the history of children's play, especially in the schoolyard. This was followed by the Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes in 1963.

Some of their early observations were labelled 'timid' but years later Iona was quoted as saying: In 1959 you didn't publish anything worse than the word 'Knickers.' She made up for that with the People in the Playground (1993) which detailed the sexual language games and jokes enjoyed by children at primary school.

 Born in 1923, Iona was the daughter of Sir Robert Archibald, director of the Wellcome research laboratory in Khartoum, Sudan. She was brought up by her mother, Olive, and regularly looked after by maids. 'It didn't occur to me that I was suppose to speak,' she once said. 'My whole attention was given to noticing and taking things in.'

In 1951 the couple's appeal for information about playground games was published in the Sunday Times and lead to an overwhelming response from teachers across the country. The result was The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) which aimed to prove that the mass media was not ruining childhood traditions.

Reading  Iona Opie's obituary in this week's Times, from which these quotes are taken, it seems that the couple lived a frugal life, without car or television, that 'involved the us of old newspapers for lavatory paper.'
They had three children: James, who became an authority on toy soldiers, Robert,who founded the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, and Letitia who 
worked in adult education.

Iona Opie's obituary in TheTimes

Despite the demands of her work, Iona was devoted to her children, loved cooking, and made endless birthday cakes, puddings and pies when she wasn't amassing her collection of 2,000 books. By 1998 she had sold them to the Bodleian for £500,000.

And what of the original ladybird? 'I believe now the ladybird has something to do with witchcraft,' she concluded.  A pretty apt quote for Halloween.

Iona Opie, CBE, author, anthropologist and folklorist, was born on October 13, 1923 and died on October 23, 2017, aged 94.

Monday, 9 October 2017

'Fate' accompli?

When my second daughter was sixteen, a gypsy told her she was going to marry a Yorkshireman. I laughed. Not because I had anything against Yorkshire, (or its men) but  she was still so young and, anyway, who could  predict such a thing?  What's more she would work in a big factory surrounded by lots of people - including her future husband.

That was more than twenty years ago, yet the gypsy's words were as clear as ever as her father and I embarked on our latest trip to York. This beautiful city is famous the world over but I wonder how many of its people appreciate how lucky they are to live there?  Or believe that my gypsy friend really knew what she was talking about? (Daughter Two,  a happily married mum,  is now a microbiologist in the city.)

Yes, the predictions came true. Yet I've always believed in the 'Sliding Doors' theory that we can, if we really want to, influence our own destiny. Otherwise, why are we here?  As a writer it is easy to be self-critical, to compare yourself unfavourably to those who are more prolific than you, or more successful, especially in these days of non-stop social media. So I've tried to live by the mantra: if you think you can, you can, and if you think you can't, you probably can't.

One of the things I promised myself earlier this year was to concentrate on what I really want to do (write novels) and spend less time interacting with those I believe make my goal achievable (everyone else.) So, after writing this  blog almost every week for the last seven years, I have decided to cut it down to once a month.  I have taken a break from my facebook account, leaving only my author page active. I still log on to twitter, but just for a few minutes each day, so that I can keep in touch with what's gong on around me.

Do I feel happier?  No, I feel quite bereft. I've taken away the crutches, hobbled out of my comfort zone and started to rely on myself again. But isn't that how it all started?

From cub reporter to freelance journalist, from mother to grandmother to novelist, I've tried to make things happen.  That's my story, anyway.  You don't have to believe it. Novelists, so I've heard, are good at making things up.

York Minster - the world at its feet?