December 06, 2012
POETS IN THE PLAYGROUND
© David Astle
“Girls are weak, chuck ’em in the creek,” sings Josh, aged 7, ruling the slippery dip at Melbourne’s Kew East Primary School. Three girls his age stand at the ladder, telling the troubadour to hurry up and slide. But Josh has an encore. “Boys are strong, like King Kong.”
One girl, crowned in sunhat, can’t resist. “Boys are strong,” she agrees, “And poo they pong.” Her two mates giggle. On a roll she adds, “Girls are stronger, they live longer.”
By the fence, Tess and Sylvie sing: “Apple on a stick, makes me sick, makes my heart beat two-forty-six”¦” Every syllable entails a tweak of the hand, sneaky as a Shane Warne spell, clapping left, right, palm, knuckles. To finish, both close their eyes and enter a blur of slaps and pivots, a tactile jive ending on: “You didn’t muck it up so you’re my best friend.”
Grade-2 boys prepare for tiggy – or tag. They crouch in a circle as Matthew, a Chinese-Aussie sings, “A soldier’s on the grass with a bullet in his arse.” He taps on toecaps, a word per shoe. “What colour is his blood?”
“Purple,” says Alex, and Matthew spells P-E-R-P-L-E. One by one, as shoes are touched, the boys are freed, the ring shrinking to six, to five, as the soldier ditty does fresh rounds. Eventually, after R-E-D and T-E-R-K-O-Y-S, a boy called Scott is decreed as It. And his mates vanish.
Elsewhere, other songs bloom. And this is just one patch of the Great Australian Playground. Travel the bitumen and you’ll find every school teems with rhymes, skipping riffs, tongue-twisters, clapping games, mangled jingles.
Think back to your own lunchbox days and you’ll revive strange ditties about Miss Pink, Fatty and Skinny, bamboo trees, Fuzzy-Wuzzy and Cinderella dressed in Yella.
Regardless the era, rhymes remain a durable part of childhood – in league with their own blithe games. In the Tomb of Akhor (an Egyptian crypt dating back to 1600BC) you’ll find an engraving of two girls playing a clapping game. Rhyme and time go hand-in-hand.
Children Playing, the busy canvas of Dutch master Pieter Bruegel, painted in 1560, shows some 100 kids lost in leapfrog, singsong and tiggy. Four centuries later, lyrics may have morphed, but songs and games seem unshakeable.
Let’s draw a line between playground rhymes and formal verse. Ignoring Miss Muffet, or hiphop’s Missy Elliott, let’s focus on folklore, what kids inherit from other kids. If the rules or lyrics are committed to paper, they’re disqualified. This is the realm of oral tradition, the playground its breeding ground.
“Concentration,” sings a circle of girls at Fitzroy Primary, clapping as they go. “No repeats or hesitation. Topic is”¦names.” And here the girls yap their names in time to the beat – Faiza, Mygana, Gaza, Yasmin, Desalle – as the rhythm ripples clockwise, only pausing should one girl stumble, or a name recur.
Fringed by council towers, Fitzroy is a remarkable school. Almost a third of its 300 population hail from Africa, and every day the playground peals with rhyme. Tempo and touch are clearly universal tonics.
The idea is backed by a Queensland study from the early 1980s, where two PE teachers, Peter Lindsay and Denise Palmer, spent a year skulking Brisbane schools in search of games outside the classroom.
What they found was a celebration of touch – from clapping to tiggy – as well as an active freedom to experiment within each game, since the rules were neither written nor refereed.
“Rhymes are deeply involved and kids can change them,” says Sydney psychotherapist Dr Jacinta Frawley. “They’re poetic, creative. Whereas in a normal PE class a child receives something and they can’t influence how things happen for the next PE class.”
Folklore expert, Dr June Factor also adds the human appetite for taboo. “Rhymes exist for the pleasure of themselves,” says Factor, a Senior Fellow at Melbourne University. “But they’re also a way of making sense of the world. Children are sharp-eyed. They’re living, breathing, curious creatures, attracted to taboos like magnets. Anything that’s secret they have to know about.”
Kissing. Sex. Willies. Pooh. Sigmund Freud would have a field day analyzing our kids’ ditties, admits Factor. “There’s a lot of symbolic stuff, but it’s incorrect to assume the children hold the knowledge.”
God made little girls, goes one rhyme, he made them out of lace. He didn’t have enough, so he left a little space. And squaring the ledger: God made boys, he made them out of string. He had too much so he left a little thing.
Rhymes also toy with fears. Older readers will recall the tune: My mother said, I never should, play with gypsies in the wood. “These are cultural fears,” says Frawley, who remembers herself clapping to a tune regarding a dim-witted Chinaman. “There’s an anxiety – and attractiveness – about the other.” The very Petri dish of boy- and girl-germs.
Of course the playground classic, eeny-meeny-miny-mo, once described an Afro-American getting caught by his toe. Nowadays the tune’s captive is a tigger. Political correctness? Dr Factor isn’t sold. “It’s not that children are censoring themselves – it’s just how the rhyme goes. A tigger makes more sense. And if it makes more sense, it wins.”
Exhibit B is the trip Dr Factor took to Sunshine, in west Melbourne, back in the early 1980s. one doggerel was doing the rounds, inspired by the Profumo Affair, the UK scandal embroiling PM John Profumo and two models Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Yet notice how the kids wrote the lyrics for Dr Factor: “Half a pound of mandy rice, half a pound of Keilor (a nearby suburb), put them together and what have you got? One very sexy sheila.”
This verse is among hundreds amassed by Factor and her team over 30 years. The project began when June realised her class of aspiring teachers had “images of childhood shot in glorious sunlight, while the reality is less beautiful and pure – and much more interesting.” Rhymes were the key to open the door.
Year after year the field trips gathered “games, rhymes, riddles, jokes, secret languages, insults, taunts and chants.” Many of the verses appear in a beloved series of books (including All Right, Vegemite! and Real Keen, Baked Bean!) that irregularly meet with bans across school libraries. “I’m among the most censored author in Australia,” laughs Dr Factor. “But I didn’t write a word of the books. It all comes from children.”
Like Grace, aged 8, near the Kew East monkey bars. “My boyfriend gave me an apple, my boyfriend gave me a pear. My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips and told me not to swear.”
Dr Frawley smiles. “It’s classic Adam and Eve isn’t it?” she says. “The beginning of sin in the Australian/Christian tradition.” Not that Grace, or any other rhymester will see the link. Clapping and singing, the rhymes are perceived as fun, a lively means to pass a recess. But Frawley notes other patterns emerging.
“Most of the rhymes have a building of tension, and then a release of tension as their finish. This is very important. Just as things are getting more serious, more intense, there’s a reversion to childhood. A reminder it’s just a game.”
A good example arises in the Fitzroy yard, where two Grade-Sixers enter a singsong trance: “Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi. Boys are rotten, made out of cotton. Girls go to Mars to meet pop stars. Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Itsy-bitsy spider, itsy-bitsy blue, boys love you and that’s not true.”
Dr Factor delights in this sample – a new riff for her infinite collection. “A lot of these rhymes are performances,” she adds.
Fellow folklore magpie and oral historian, the late Wendy Lowenstein, described rhymes as “calculated to shock or disgust the listener, and to show”¦that the child concerned is aware of its mysteries and has penetrated the adult veil of secrecy.” Or at least, attempt to show. the hint at deeper knowledge, and thereby declare the rhyming circle as the in-group.
Mockery is the other impetus. “Kids mimic what they hear – and then mock.” Look no further than the litany of TV tunes, pop tracks and carols that have suffered playground treatment. “The Addams Family started when Uncle Fester farted,” my son once sang, aged 6. Testing my reactions, according to Dr Frawley, safe in the impunity of rhyme. Says Dr Factor: “Parody is a type of independence.”
Russian poet and essayist, Korney Chukovsky, writes, “In the beginning of our childhood we are all versifiers. It’s only later that we begin to learn to speak in prose. The very nature of an infant’s jabber predisposes him to versifying.”
Joy is the other key component, Chukovsky adds. “The [rhymes] do not show a trace of a tear, or a whisper of a sigh. They express the child’s happiness with himself and the world which every healthy child experiences so much of the time.”
Manawara, 12, an Indian-Aussie from Kew East, shows equal insight. “Most Grade 6 kids don’t do rhymes because they say it’s about being cool. But we still do, because we like them. You’re only a kid once in your life, and you’ll never be a kid again.”
LUNCH TIME LYRIC SHEET – a sample of kids rhymes
Cinderella dressed in yella
Went upstairs to kiss a fella
By mistake, she kissed a snake
And came downstairs with a tummy-ache.
Teacher, teacher, I declare,
Tarzan’s lost his underwear.
I hate Po
Po hates me
Tinky Winky shot Dipsy
With a great big bang
And a bullet in his head
Don’t tell Laa-Laa Dipsy’s DEAD.
Then she died.
Po committed suicide!
Tinky Winky did the same
Teletubbies are insane!
Ding Dong Dell,
Pussy’s in the well.
If you don’t believe me,
Go have a smell.
When Sally was a baby, a baby, a baby, she used to go like this: wah! Wah! Wah!
When Sally was at kinder”¦she used to go like this: scribble, scribble, dot dot dot.
When Sally was at school”¦.she used to go like this: Miss, Miss, I can’t do this!
When Sally was a teenager”¦she used to go like this: ooh aah, I lost my bra, I left it in my boyfriend’s car!
When Sally was a Mum”¦.she used to go like this: smack! Smack! Smack!
When Sally was a Grandma”¦.she used to go like this: knit, knit, knit, knit, knit.
When Sally was an angel”¦..she used to go like this: I wish I was in heaven”¦.
Mary had a little lamb
Her father shot it dead
Now Mary takes her lamb to school
Between two chunks of bread.
Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg.
Batmobile lost its wheel
And Joker got away [broke his leg].
(Sunday Life, September, 2007)