Hey diddle, diddle, the cats all fiddle

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan talks to Iona Opie, pictured, about her latest collection of rhymes, published this week.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the Goose of the Nile was the mother of the world, because she laid the golden egg that contained the whole of the universe. Her successors - from the archetypal Mother Goose with her pointed hat and wand, to the Mrs Goose of Boston who published children's rhymes in the late 18th century - have created magic out of everyday events and feelings. Iona Opie, the world authority on children's lore, is firmly in the golden egg tradition.

With her husband Peter, who died in 1982, she elevated nursery rhymes to scholarship status, but has never lost sight of what and whom they were composed for. My Very First Mother Goose, her collection for Walker published this week, will teach children as young as two (possibly younger) to love the sounds of words and will also cater to their subversive streak, which the 72-year-old editor shares.

Reluctant to take too much credit for this latest evidence of her lifetime's work, Iona Opie spent an afternoon revelling in Rosemary Wells's illustrations for the collection with their cast of comforting but refreshingly un-twee cats, rabbits and bears. "They're all eccentrics," she says. "This book is an anthology of eccentricity. I'm becoming mildly delinquent in my old age and I take great comfort from these brave, defiant little creatures. I love their wicked, wicked looks and their sheer glee. They're having a go and taking a stand and they won't be put down.

"That's an important message. I grew up in a very sheltered, placid environment and the first time someone was nasty to me I crumpled up in tears. I didn't learn to stand up for myself until I joined the Air Force. You need to be introduced to possible troubles early on from a safe haven, then it's not such a shock later."

She believes that the anti-social edge of many traditional rhymes mirrors children's own early acts of rebellion, and that this becomes as strong an attraction as their rhyme and rhythm. "Two-year-olds certainly understand falling down, or being naughty. They are full of the humour of someone falling down, especially anyone in charge of anyone who's maybe a bit pompous."

Rosemary Wells's "Humpty Dumpty" - "It would be a great pity for a child to grow up not knowing 'Humpty Dumpty'," says Opie - is a boiled egg smashed on the floor by a surreptitious vandal of a bunny. "Mrs Mason Bought a Basin" which ends in an even more brazen breakage ("Mrs Nix, Up to her tricks, Threw the basin on the bricks") is typical of the "vicarious violence" which the Mother Goose audience is riveted by. "It gets rid of their hang-ups and phobias."

The characters, dressed mainly as respectable American Gothic farming folk of the Twenties with the odd Breton housewife thrown in, preach social skills as well as disorder. In "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" the sheep is thanked and rewarded for his three bags full. The awkward customer in "Cobbler, Cobbler, Mend My Shoe" ("half past two is much too late Get it done by half past eight") eventually mutters the magic word.

Clever cross-reference and absorbing details are designed to emerge on repeated (and repeated) readings. In "Cobbler, Cobbler", inside the border of funky footwear, we see that the cranky cat is none other than Lazy Elsie Marley, running late because she wouldn't get up to feed the swine. Another cat, worn out by playing the fiddle for "Hey Diddle Diddle", dozes next to the chiming clock in "Dickory Dickory Dock", while a kamikaze mouse raids his cheese plate. The trees sway when the cow jumps over the moon.

"Children love pointing things out to grown-ups who probably haven't noticed them," says Opie. "And she has introduced a new dimension for some rhymes. Everyone knows "The Brave Old Duke Of York", but what she knows is that the Duke of York is a retired colonel in his pyjamas playing with his toy soldiers, with his dear old fat Labrador watching."

Wells, from upstate New York, has drawn from US folk traditions, especially those of the Appalachian region (there is also an adobe village for "If I Had a Donkey that Wouldn't Go" and a Native American "Blanket Fair"). She has drawn enough pumpkins, squashes and ears of corn for a farmers' market. "Shoo, Fly, Don't Bother Me" (as sung by Burl Ives) features a blueberry pie and an old-fashioned fly-swat. ("That one's very much about identity and belonging and not being put out by life's little mishaps.") The constellations in "Starlight, Starbright" - one of the gentler rhymes for winding down after a day of subversion - have both English and American names. It all helps to widen the pre-schooler's universe.

"Pop Goes the Weasel" is perhaps the most successful at this. Opie has chosen a US and a UK version of the rhyme ("This one's got more versions than any other - I've got a huge archive on it") and Wells has used Royal Mail and US Mail symbols to show a very English Mr T Bear sending an aerogramme from Bear-on-Thames to Great Grizzly in the US. "It's fun but it teaches the value of writing letters and about the pleasure they give, and also that things are different away from home."

Some of the more surprising choices emerged when Wells visited Opie at her home in Hampshire to explore her collection of rhymes. "She had instant reactions to some that I never would have chosen but that she was fired by, such as 'Bat, Bat, Come Under My Hat'."

Such a fruitful collaboration has been especially enjoyable for Opie because she had been working alone since Peter Opie's death, publishing the results of the vast surveys of children's games that the couple undertook in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. She finished Singing Games after he died and is about to complete the final volume, Games With Things, which includes material collected by Peter Opie and will be published under both names.

The rigorous research and writing schedule behind the Opies' work helped her to survive his death, she says. "For the first two years I was in such a state of shock that I sort of went ahead on auto-pilot, and then I became used to being on my own and in a way it's still really working with Peter - Games with Things is his book too."

Now she spends more time with her acre of land and her Mother Goose-style assorted bantams and generally exudes serenity. She is fighting off appeals for an updated survey.

"That means another five years, and my contacts have died away - some literally. I don't work full time now. I do things to enjoy myself." My Very First Mother Goose is one of them.

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