No more Mary and her Little Lamb

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

No more Mary and her Little Lamb

Sorry Little Bow Peep: Unfortunately the Peppa Pig generation are just not into nursery rhymes

ACROSS the water, in the land of the old enemy, there’s a rather disturbing Cultural Revolution taking place. I wouldn’t bother mentioning it if it weren’t for the deeply depressing fact that everything they do over there, we have to follow suit sooner or later. So it’s only a matter of time then before we stop teaching nursery rhymes and reading traditional fairy tales to our toddlers.

Of course, we’ve driven our own fairies underground long ago. Ever since we abandoned our peasant roots and transplanted them to tarmac driveways, we’ve wanted no truck whatsoever with the fairies. If this helped to stymie our collective imagination and make the most interesting part of our history more or less inaccessible forever, then so what? We always have our politics if we ever find ourselves getting gullible again.

Anyhow, I don’t like to see the demise of the nursery rhymes. They were the only kind of verse I ever managed to learn off by heart and retain in my memory. I learned to read with the help of Mary and her Little Lamb; Humpty Dumpty taught me to empathise and I identified strongly with Jack and Jill because, if there was one thing we were always doing back then, it was fetching pails of water.

Now, a whole generation - I call them the Peppa Pig kids - are growing up without ever having heard a nursery rhyme, and I think it’s a great shame. I have three grand-children myself and I have to admit that Peppa Pig is a very useful diversion when I’m at my wits end at times trying to entertain them. I much prefer, however, to introduce them to Goosey, Goosey, Gander and Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary and other medieval monsters in polite disguise, or maybe give them a forbidden lollipop if all else fails. To be honest, Peppa is far too subversive, even for me.

I don’t know why nursery rhymes are going out of fashion in England. I suspect that parents no longer have time to bond with their offspring through verse or fairytale. Maybe they don’t want their children to grow up as gullible as we were and the sooner they get them to cop on, the better. Some parents, having discovered the nightmarish origins of some of the rhymes they learned as children, fear that dark forces might subconsciously influence the minds of their own youngsters, while others simply regard nursery rhymes as too babyish for their own sophisticated toddlers. They like to think that they’re raising little Einsteins, who are too advanced at the age of three for fairy stories and silly nursery rhymes.

But when Einstein himself was once asked by a couple what they should do to make their children more intelligent, he replied: “read them fairy tales . . . . . and if you want them to be even more intelligent, then read them more fairy tales.” Einstein, I suspect, was a prime boy – as they say in this neck of the woods.

There is, of course, a much greater challenge facing people like me who want to see nursery rhymes and fairytales preserved as part of childhood, and that is the incredible advance of babyhood TV. They have whole channels devoted to their own infant fantasies now and I have to hide the remote control every time my grandchildren come to visit me. How on earth can Little Red Riding Hood, however dark her origins may be, compete with the likes of PJ Masks and Paw Patrol for sheer nerve-shattering excitement? It’s not easy to identify with Red Riding Hood anymore either because who is ever allowed out on her own in a wood anymore and what little girl would even dream of donning such an uncool outfit in the first place?

But maybe we shouldn’t be too dismissive of what once gave us all a sense of universality as well as awe and wonder. Already, educationalists in England are becoming very concerned at the latest developments. Four and five year olds, who never heard of Jack and Jill and who are completely unaware that London Bridge is falling down, are turning up for their first day at school without the linguistic or listening skills displayed by the generations before them, who were reared on your commoner nursery rhymes. They are convinced that traditional rhymes like Baa Baa Black Sheep, because of its simple rhythm and mathematical connotations, help a child’s mental development and spatial awareness. It also creates an emotional connection between the reader and the child, thus helping to cultivate the child’s language skills in a way that kid’s TV never could.

Basically, however, I’m no child psychologist. I’ve had to play it by ear like most other parents and grand-parents. I didn’t know that Baa Baa Black Sheep was all about a wool tax imposed in the 13th century or that Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary was ‘Bloody Mary’ the daughter of Henry the Eighth who imposed her own anti Reformation reign of terror. But I didn’t need to know that to appreciate the delightfully mysterious verse. Basically, I’m just a sentimental old fool, who will always associate childhood with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and who will always treasure the memory of the people who, by introducing them to me, opened up a whole world of infinite possibilities for my childish delectation.