Easy-peasy poetry of the playground

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Make up, make up, never never break up. If you do, I'll flush down the loo, and that will be the end of you!" Yes, as teachers and parents will recognise, this is the poetry of the primary school playground, repeated ad nauseam after squabbles. It's supposed to be fascinating and as an Aberdeenshire quine proud of our Doric tradition, I would never scorn the cultural value of all those skipping and slotting rhymes (mainly about knickers) half-remembered from 1960: "I spied Mrs peerie, sitting on her . . . something chairie, washing out the kitchen floorie on a Monday morning!"

I guess it's just that from a serious, anti-sexist anti-racist perspective (everything seems to rhyme with Japanesy) so many feel depressing. My daughter is obsessed with asking Gypsy Lee whom she's going to marry and whether the wretched boy-child will say yes or no. I also revolt against the adulation of disappearing cultural forms, and against clever Glasgow street poems recently invented by adults.

But let's not be a spoilsport. As parents watch their children slump before computers or videos about chainsaw massacres - or wonder what on earth to do with them for this endless summer break - and as primary teachers and playground supervisors grimly contemplate how to keep their charges entertained next session without murdering each other, let us dip for inspiration into a new publication, Classic Children's Games from Scotland, by Kendric Ross.

Not an encouraging start here for us over-40s who feel geriatric enough already. "If you are demonstrating any of these games to your children, " warns the book darkly, "remember you're not as young as you used to be, and probably not as fit as you think you are. It's especially important to limber up and stretch your muscles before running about daft!" I might manage the Shove Ha'penny, I think. And talking of think - "I think, I think, I smell a stink, coming from YOU!"

Oh no. Dozens of tigs here, just what we need for that quiet picnic under a tree. The profoundly disablist Hospital Tig looks a good one: the person caught must hold onto the part of their body where they were tagged while becoming the chaser. "Needless to say, it can be absolutely hilarious for those watching a chaser struggling with such an impediment." Especially given what my seven-year-old would have in mind. Quick! Past British Bulldogs, Boatman and The Train to the hide-and-seek games. If you hide well enough, spoilsport parents, you might be able to finish the latest Inspector Morse novel.

Good to see some old favourites like Sardines. "Run round the school and count up to 50" is the interesting command allowed the kid who guesses correctly and who has squiggles drawn on their back with the gruff chant: "I draw the snake upon your back, who will put it in he eye?" Has anyone seen some of our huge school buildings? "If it is wrong, he must do the task himself." This seems a useful, healthy punishment in these belt-free days.

The next section is all ball games. Keepie-Uppie has a particular tragic resonance for our national football team. Its decline has been paralleled by the descent of a proud nation. Where is Jimmy Johnstone now? Why is it sentimental to wonder what happened to wingers? Who even dares to let their kids play in the street in these days of mass panic about child-snatchers? We need a national campaign: do it in the back garden, prepare for the European Championships.

I'm taken by "Wounded, Dying, Dead", in which it is "safer to use a relatively soft ball . . . it is a rule that to lose a life you must be hit below the knees only, as older children can hurl the ball with great force." So on to hitting games. Why not? As a parent, I have been bruised for seven years. In these days of expensive toys, it's a relief to know how many games can be played with conkers.

There's a section on skipping, though the authors admit boys are reluctant to take part. What a lot they miss though, as boxers know.

Choose from keep the kettle boiling, cowboy Joe or dusty bluebells. H'm. This would go down a treat in the refined parts of Edinburgh, where I live. "East, West, ma hame's best, Nothing like the smell o'my faither's string vest; Mither's in the kitchen, rollers in her heid, Tryin' to feed a' the weans, wi' jist a slice o'breid." Pu' yer breeks up over yer bum, Comely Bank!"

I really like this next one though. How do these rhymes evolve? "My maw's a millionaire, Blue eyes and curly hair; Sittin' among the Eskimos, Playin' a game of dominoes; Canny get up tae blaw her nose, My maw's a millionaire" . . . definitely an improvement on "Coca cola, coca cola, Boys have got the muscles, teachers got the brains; girls have got sexy legs, and that's OK." It certainly is not.

On to "indoor games for a dreich day". Most days are in this country. There's all the old familiars like arm wrestling and hangman. What a lot of work this is! How seductive these wicked videos now seem.

Quick. Get the aged limbs moving with all varieties of hopscotch, or stroll down memory lane, recalling those riveting names for marbles - dolly, glassie, cat's eye.

The glossary is a gem for nostalgic adults who remember skiting aboot and being drookit - or the days when a bawbee bought anything. "Blooter," it notes, "to strike with great force." "Dunt, to hit or thimp." Wonderful words. Some explanations feel as obscure as the words: "Cleek, a metal hook to propel a gird; Carl, a husbandman".

This book is a rich source of children's play, accessibly presented. It is, however, all suspiciously clean. One wonders how much of the research into our oral traditions was left discreetly on file. There is a slight air of a benevolent Kirk minister in the work. Smut and irreverence and alternative versions, inventively presented, are inescapable, sometimes tedious, often refreshing parts of children's exchanges through play across the centuries. In this book we generally search in vain frustration.

Classic Children's Games from Scotland. By Kendric Ross. Scottish Children's Press Pounds 6.95.

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