THIS MORNING I WOKE UP with this rhyme going through my head.
Oranges and Lemons
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I do not know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chip-chop chip-chop chip-chop-chop!
Brings me right back to my childhood. The place-names form a musical tour of old London. The tune to which it is sung does recall churchbells very vividly. I remember this being "performed" at kiddies' parties, the children pairing off, holding hands in a row. Then one child walks through as the arms are brought down as the choppers.
Do children still sing these songs, I wonder? And are they sung anywhere abroad? I've never heard of American kids singing Oranges and Lemons.
The origins of these rhymes are often sinister and grotesque: Oranges and Lemons is no exception. It dates back to the reign of Henry VIII, the "happy headchopper" ... need I say more?
The other one that was very popular with future stoners (how many times have I heard drug-abusers recall how they "used to spin round and round till they fell over" in childhood:
Ring-a-ring of roses
A pocket full of posies.
We all fall down.
This one is chanted, not sung. The children hold hands in a circle and skip round faster and faster until they dizzily fall on the floor in a heap. Always a popular move with the under-sevens.
This one dates back to the times when bubonic plague was terrorizing the heart of England. The "ring of roses," supposedly refers to the rosy spots that were often the first symptom of the deadly illness. Nice smells and posies were said to afford protection from the "bad air" that brought with it plague. Sneezing was often taken as a first sign of infection. "We all fall down." - yes - dead.
And last but not least:
Mary Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells
And cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
The Contrary Mary was Bloody Mary, "silver bells and cockle shells" refer to instruments of torture (click the link to find out); the "maids all in a row" were "maidens" - an early form of the guillotine!
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