Rhymes and reasons behind the lore of the playground

Ian McMillan wallows in nostalgia for his playground days.

HERE are a couple of distant memories, fading even as I attempt to bring them to mind: in the first one, I'm six or seven years old and I'm sitting on the settee in the front room of my Uncle Charlie's dark house.

Uncle Charlie leans over, his glasses glinting in the half-light of a long childhood afternoon and he tells me a story that begins "One fine day in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight…" and, sadly, I've forgotten the rest. In the second memory, I'm about the same age and I'm playing in the garden with my mates Robert and Stuart and Sheryl and we're trying to decide who should be "on" at the precarious game of Off Ground Tig.

We sit in a circle and Sheryl recites a rhyme that the rest of us seem to have known forever, pointing to us as she goes. "Ink pink, pen and ink, who made that dirty stink ? I. Think. It. Was... You." Her voice slows down towards the end as she emphasis the drama of the decision. And I've forgotten who, in the end, was on.

These playground rhymes and folk stories are buried deep in our psyche and, like many people, I thought they'd died out or been completely forgotten or usurped by the online age, but a new book by Steve Roud, The Lore of the Playground, shows that they're alive and well and somehow flourishing in the Facebook playground.

The book is, in many ways, an update of Iona and Peter Opie's famous epic rendition of the hidden literature of those in short trousers and pigtails, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. I first read it in my teens and was jolted by the shock of recognition as it talked about Mischief Night and Racing Car Number 9, and the idea that if you somehow collected a million bus tickets you'd get a prize from somewhere although nobody knew quite where.

The book teems with examples, from running games to nonsense rhymes, many of which a middle-aged man like me can recognise, and some of which are familiar to my kids and my grandson. Take clapping games for example; I remember one that I used to hear in the 1980s when I first started visiting schools round Yorkshire as a poet, that went "I went to a Chinese restaurant/to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread/ they wrapped it up in a five pound note/and this is what they said, said, said/What is your name?/My name is Elvis Presley, girlfriend Lesley..." But Roud has collected a number of variations, that usually begin in that same Chinese restaurant but then branch out into all kinds of places; "My name is Elly Elly/Shickely Shickely/Pom Pom Poodle/Willy Willy Whiskers/Chinese Chopsticks/Indian Chief says 'How'," which is linguistically quite adventurous, and the more sophisticated one "My name is Lucy Locket/I'm a superstar/I wear my curly whirly knickers/and my super bra..." the last of which was collected in Yorkshire in 2002.

Roud is very good at describing and examining the evolution of the games and stories and rhymes, as well as speculating where they may have come from. He writes that "many of the rhymes that made up the basic clapping repertoire from the 1960s to the 1980s came originally from America... the Transatlantic influence was nevertheless relatively muted then, certainly when compared to nowadays..." The internet has subverted the old channels of repetition and family and school tradition; as Roud says "The latest rhymes can now be imported wholesale from anywhere in the world at the click of a button" but he argues that this could lead to more diversity,as children post their own rhymes on the internet.

At once familiar and unfamiliar examples crowd the pages; in Barnsley in the '60s we would say "Made you look, you dirty duck!" but in Birmingham in the '70s they said "Made you look, made you stare, made the barber cut your hair" and in Inverness in 2008 the rhyme had taken on a surreal dimension: "Made you look, made you look, turned you into turtle soup". I remember, in the school playground at Christmas, the shepherds would wash their socks by night, but in south London in the '50s the shepherds would was their socks by night "all seated round the tub, the Angel of the Lord came down and taught them how to scrub" and in Newcastle in 1967 while the shepherds were washing those filthy socks "in Omo bright and blue, The Angel of the Lord came down and said 'Use Daz, it's new!'"

And there, on page 352, is my childhood encapsulated in a few lines, "Ink pink pen and ink, who made that dirty stink" collected in Yorkshire in 1975; it's alongside "Ickle ockle chocolate bockle, ickle ockle out" from Northamptonshire in the 50s and "Ip dip doo, the boys love you/put you in the corner and undress you" from London in the '80s. And on page 417, Uncle Charlie's glasses are glinting again in a rhyme collected in Yorkshire in 1980, long after Charlie had passed away: "One fine day in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight; they drew their swords to shoot each other and drew their guns to stab each other..."

The Lore of the Playground by Steve Roud, published by Random House, 20. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. P&P is 2.75.