Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor (12 September 1975)
On the day Milton Keynes children went back to school after the summer holidays, a woman came on the radio (I nearly wrote “on the wireless”) and talked for a few minutes about children’s games. Not the sort of organised games they play at school, but the sort they play when they are out on their own. There is a world of difference – or there used to be.
This woman, a “collector “ of children’s games and pastimes, pointed out that some games, like “Nuts in May,” which used to be self-organised, had now been adopted by schools. The result was that they were becoming stereotyped. Localised variations which had endured for generations, were in danger of dying out. She thought this was a pity, and so do I. The whole world is becoming too uniform to be interesting – even the world of children’s games.
There are times when I wish I had been born in North Bucks. I would then have been able to write with more authority on certain little-documented subjects, children’s games being one of them. As it is, there are still nine years to go before I shall have lived here as long as my total time spent in other places.
The Rev F W Bennitt, in his “History of Bletchley,” published in the early 1930’s, has a tantalisingly short chapter on “Village games and customs.” In this he points out that “Nuts in May” is a corruption of “Knots in May,” a reference to the gathering of garlands and dancing round the Maypole during the May Day revels, which themselves go back to pre-Christian times.
He also mentions a number of skipping games with accompanying chants. We in our northern village had versions of all but one of these, including “pepper” bits. The exception is one which Bennitt says goes:
“Lady, lady, touch the ground, Lady, lady, turn right round. Lady, lady, show your foot, Lady, lady, take your hook.”
That is new to me. On the other hand, our girls had one which went:
“Raspberry, gooseberry, strawberry jam, Tell me the name of your young man.
A,B,C.. (and so on until the skipper accidentally stopped or was stopped by the swingers at a letter supposed to denote [the] initial of the young man concerned).
There was also another with several verses, the last of which was: ”And who shall I marry? Tinker Tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief.”
If North Bucks had versions of these, Bennitt does not mention them.
And how many children have you seen playing whip-and-top these past holidays? This used to be a great individual pastime.
For girls and younger boys the metal-tipped wooden tops came in two types, a short, fat one and a longer thinner one. The whip was a short stick to which was attached a leather thong. The thong was wrapped round the top, then pulled to set the top spinning, after which it could be made to spin theoretically for ever by whipping it when is showed signs of running down.
Girls used to decorate their tops with coloured chalks which made pretty patterns as they spun. Older boys had peg-tops. These had longer metal tips. No whip was used. Instead, the thong was longer and was wrapped tightly round the top. A throwing and pulling movement of the thong set the top spinning at full speed (hopefully). Sometimes it bounced as it spun and it was a matter of painful pride to work your open hand under it and then extend your arm to shoulder height with the top still spinning on your palm.
Marbles are pretty well universal among boys. At least, they used to be, though I haven’t seen much of marbles among boys of North Bucks in my time here. In my native village no boy was complete without a bag of marbles stuffed in his pocket. Ring-taw was played, though with a much smaller ring than in the so-called national championship, where it seems to be the only game of marbles played. Like most boys, including those hereabouts, we played a sort of “gutter golf” along the roadside as a more pleasurable way than walking of getting to school. There was also a game involving a board about the size of a cribbage board which had “tunnels” cut into it. You scored points according to which “tunnel” you tawed through – if you managed to get through at all.
By far the most popular game of marbles with us, however, was one we called “stickings,” which I have never seen played here. You made a hole in the ground about the size of your fist and also a hitting mark to toe up to. You then agreed with your opponents on the number of marbles to be “up at stickings,” held that number in your palm, crouched at the bitting(sic) mark – usually two arms-lengths from the hole – and pitched the whole lot together at the hole. If you were satisfied with your pitch – say four in out of six – you “stuck” and your opponents had to equal or beat that number or lose their six marbles each to you. If you did not “stick,” the next boy took his turn, and so on. You could win or lose a pocketful of marbles in double-quick time at that game.
Dear me, I am running out of space without telling a quarter of my tale. So I will go back to the radio woman.
She mentioned how in former days girls – ever the more precocious sex – played a game during which they chanted:
”Lottie Collings has lost her drawers, Will you kindly lend her yours?”
Lotttie, she explained, was the music hall sex symbol of her day, having probably taken over the crown from previous owners.
Recently, however, she had come upon some girls playing the same game and chanting the same chant, except the Lottie Collins had now become Diana Dors!
She thought that, owing to the more perfect rhyme, Diana was in for a good, long reign. In fact, she envisaged learned antiquarians 200 years hence solemnly trying to trace the identity of the mysterious Diana, who [was] still being celebrated in a children’s game!
Personally, I never heard any chants about anybody’s pants. But then, I wasn’t supposed to be listening. Not to “Women’s Hour”