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It is understandable that the Opies perhaps had neither the time nor the space to note these variations in the published outcomes of their research. However, the recordings remind us how easy it is for these songs and rhymes to become standardised and indicate that further research into variation and the complex inventiveness of this culture is required. Bishop demonstrates how such complexity might be traced and analysed in Chapter 3 of this volume.
One response to variation can be to treat it as evidence of children’s creativity, (eg Bishop and Curtis, 2001). However, creativity can be an unhelpful and confusing idea; and it is certainly much contested in relation to children’s culture, art and education (Banaji & Burn, 2006). The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed a specific model of creativity in childhood and adolescence (1931/1988). In his model, creativity is closely linked to play: it involves imaginative transformation of cultural resources, and a traffic between external play with such transformations (through language, toys, objects and social interaction) and the internal processes of the imagination. To this extent, the kinds of transformation the Opies collected can be seen as examples of creativity. However, Vygotsky argued that true creativity also involved conscious, rational control. In this respect, it may be that the imaginative processes of game and song change are best kept within conceptions of play, rather than celebrated as creativity. Vygotsky’s model certainly allows us to think of such play as a necessary foundation for creativity, just as specialists in different disciplines have seen playground games as foundations for literacy, music-making, and other domains of creative activity which later become formalised as curriculum subjects and disciplines.
However, while we may in this way circumscribe the forms of invention and innovation described in this chapter, we should note that other forms of play may involve much more conscious control and awareness of structure: girls constructing dance routines; children inventing rules and systems for chasing games; children controlling elaborate socio-dramatic play. We found examples of all of these in the ethnographic studies of contemporary play in our project, and they are discussed in other chapters of this volume. What all have in common, though, is an immersion in the affective flow of the moment, in the aesthetic pleasure of the game, in the dynamic social bond of collaborative play – a set of improvisatory impulses which resist distanced reflection, interest in provenance, and design abstracted from performance.
Rude Rhymes in the Record A brief glance through The Singing Game would suggest that the children’s oral tradition of the 1970s was one largely free of scatological or offensive rhymes. There is also some evidence in the recordings that this appears to be a culture that carefully toed the line of what might be considered socially acceptable, from the one girl who is too embarrassed to refer to 'Susie's bra' (lost in her boyfriend’s car), to the giggling children in London who refer to Queen Mary's apparent hairiness. Elsewhere, however, the recordings suggest otherwise, as the examples discussed below demonstrate. A plausible explanation for the omission of such material from The Singing Game is that stringent publishing policies may have even prevented the Opies from publishing such material. As Iona Opie remarks: ‘[…] it was editorial policy amongst publishers in the 1950s, not to include dubious material, and that prevented us including anything that was unacceptable to OUP: ‘knickers’ was the limit’.5 Of course, by the 1980s we might assume that such censorship had softened, but even so, this disclosure highlights the regulatory regimes by which the Opies had to abide.
Considering these factors, it is therefore significant that Iona Opie is vigilant in recording those instances in which the children test the boundaries of social acceptability, performing songs that range from the mischievous to the scatological. One particular example comes from a school playground in Poole (C898/80). While performing singing games, one young girl begins to sing: ‘One plus one, we’re in the bedroom, cha-nah-nah-nah-nah.’ The song progresses and she sings: ‘three plus three, we’re jumping all around in the bedroom’ before briefly noting to the interviewer, with a giggle, that this song is 'rude'. Nonetheless, she continues to sing: 'four plus four, he caught me on the floor in the bedroom, cha-nah-nahnah-nah; five plus five, my legs are wide open in the bedroom, cha-nah-nah-nah-nah, six plus six, he’s pulling down my knicks in the bedroom, cha-nah-nah-nah-nah’. The song continues and Opie can be heard laughing as the schoolgirl finishes her song (concluding with the couple ‘breaking up’ in the bedroom). The notes accompanying the recording represent
further contextual information contained in the recording:
to play 'Two Balls' and explains the different actions that accompany this song. She uses terms such as 'tubble eggs' and 'nodsies'. The girl from Pimlico becomes irritated with another girl who tries to explain how this game is played and remarks: 'you don't know how we do it Jennifer with 'One Plus One' 'cos you don't even know it'. In the background a girl can be heard remarking (about the girl from Pimlico) 'she thinks she
Iona Opie cited in Boyes, 1995 The ludic function of the rhyme, then, is also to provide the necessary rhythmic accompaniment to the two-balls routine, while its more general cultural function is the entertaining appeal of its transgressive content Thus although predominantly collecting traditional singing, clapping and skipping games, the fact that Opie recorded this song suggests that she was aware of its significance.
Indeed, these recordings would be particularly pertinent in testing and validating theories such as those of Sutton-Smith who suggests that play can be utilised by children to transcend the ‘normal limits’ of their society and as a means through which they make sense of the adult world around them (Sutton-Smith, 1997). This view resembles the notion of the ‘tribal child’ which James, Jenks and Prout associate with the Opies: childhood perceived as a different society, operating by different rules and customs, difficult to penetrate and requiring anthropological effort to do so (James, Jenks & Prout, 1998). It also echoes, however, the versions of youth culture found in early British Cultural Studies, which conceived of young people as a kind of social class, oppressed by adult society, and urgently motivated to carve out a cultural space of resistance, albeit pursuing different strategies of resistance according to class background, and in part in terms inheriting features of parental cultures (Hall & Jefferson, 1993).
However, there are other quite different explanations. The above interpretations construct childhood as a rebellious counter-culture, gleefully exotic, shockingly amoral, assertively ribald. By contrast, developmental approaches to childhood play see such explorations of taboo themes like adult sexuality as the child’s predictable interest in future selfhoods, including the sexual identities waiting in adolescence. Our approach in this project has been to argue that these two approaches – the tribal child and the developing child – are compatible, if paradoxical. Children’s play is, to echo the new sociology of childhood, about both being and becoming (eg Uprichard, 2008): about the self-sufficient moment of play and about the aspirational fantasies of adolescence and adulthood which it anticipates.
is the number of children who are willing to perform these scatological pieces beyond the regulatory regimes of the school playground. This is particularly apparent on a recording Opie collected when visiting a housing estate in Chelsea in 1974 (C898/67). From the start of this recording, a particular boy can be heard in the background, continuously shouting rude rhymes, swear-words and insults. The fact he remains in the background suggests that he is careful to exercise some caution, unsure of his peers and most importantly the interviewer's reaction. Initially, he begins by teasing his sister who is being interviewed, mimicking her voice and answers. He then begins to shout insults, such as: ‘Guess what, she [his sister] never combs her hair in the mornings’ and ‘Deborah I think you’ve got a bloody big thicky head’. As no-one has reacted to these insults, he grows in confidence, shouting: ‘Deborah, why don’t you do a stripsys [striptease] show?’ He concludes by announcing that he would like to perform a song and remarks: ‘can I say another one for the old bag [presumably referring to Opie]?'. Neither the other children nor the interviewer, however, react. This defiant performance would have been unlikely on a school playground, then and now: the implications of different regulatory regimes for taboo themes in play is considered further below.
Meanwhile, perhaps encouraged by this particular boy's behaviour, the other children begin to recite transgressive rhymes. One boy sings: ‘ip, dip, dog, shit, who trod in it. Not because you’re dirty, not because you’re clean, my mum said you’re the fairy queen’.
Another then sings: ‘Chocolate biscuits down the drain, if you want some spell your name, if you want them, fucking go away’. When Iona asks the young girl to repeat this, the schoolgirl censors the rhyme and does not swear. This particular group of children also tell an assortment of jokes featuring 'bosoms' and 'willies'.
These areas of the archive raise a number of questions. Firstly, again, they reveal the well-documented preoccupation of younger children with bodily functions ranging from faeces to sex (Roud, 2010). This theme lends itself to a positive interpretation of the kind Sutton-Smith’s work supports, easy to characterize in terms of Bakhtin’s metaphors of carnival (Bakhtin, 1965/1968). The grotesque aesthetic, humorous obsession with appetite and excretion, and carnival laughter which Bakhtin detects in Rabelais are all consonant with the ribald play of these verses and songs. At the same time, however, this kind of positive interpretation needs to be balanced against a recognition of the very varied social functions of these kinds of play. Sometimes, indeed, they represent a legitimate taboo-busting, a pricking of adult primness and pomposity, a challenge to what Stallybrass and White see as the
attempt to construct the bourgeois body through the education of the child:
as far as possible, by the correct posture (‘stand up straight’, ‘don’t squat’, ‘don’t kneel on all fours’ – the postures of servants and savages), and by the censoring of
lower ‘bodily’ references along with bodily wastes. (Stallybrass and White, 1986:
At other times, like all forms of risky play, they can embody less benign functions:
racism, misogyny and social exclusion. Play in its more extreme forms is a two-edged weapon, a vehicle for entering worlds otherwise inaccessible, but also an instrument of insult and inequity and the exercise of power, as Sutton-Smith and Kelly-Byrne argue (SuttonSmith and Kelly-Byrne, 1984; and Richards’ discussion of their essay, this volume, chapter 4).
These aspects of play were also recognized by the Opies:
The dialectal lore flows more quietly but deeper; it is the language of the children’s darker doings: playing truant, giving warning, sneaking, swearing, snivelling, tormenting, and fighting. It belongs to all time, but is limited in locality.’ (Opie &
eighty-five Opie recordings would be untrue. As we have seen, the diversity of the archive gives us a better and more detailed picture of variation in language and melody than the published work. The detail it provides of the echoes of tunes and rhymes from children’s and adult worlds, along with the often-inspired compositional work of innovative details, clever juxtapositions, and the mix-and-match aesthetic of singing game culture, offers robust evidence for the Opies’ admiration of playground culture.
At the same time, when set alongside the material found in this project’s ethnographies, we can gain some sense of how continuity and change happens across the decades as well as within the micro-histories sometimes glimpsed in the Opie archive. We can see the perpetuation of the narratives and nonsense, the parody and wordplay, the rhythm and rhyme of the seventies in the songs and rhymes of the twenty-first century. We can see the disappearance of some familiar figures from folklore and the media - Cowboy Joe from Mexico, Poor Jenny, Shirley Temple, and Diana Dors - and the arrival of others – Tracey Beaker, Beyoncé, Barney the dinosaur. Some figures never seem to change: perhaps Susie and her ever-varying Seven Ages of Womanhood will be with us forever. And finally, we can see the perennial preoccupations with the taboos adults impose – sexuality, fighting and bodily functions – alive and well, if a little more muted within the regulatory regimes of contemporary playgrounds.
REFERENCES Appadurai, A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bakhtin, MM, (1965/1968) Rabelais and His World. Translated. H. Islowsky, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press Banaji, S and Burn, A (2006) Rhetorics of Creativity, commissioned by Creative Partnerships, at www.creative-partnerships.com/literaturereviews Boyes, G (1995) ‘The Legacy of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie: The Lore and Language of Today’s Children’. In Beard, R (ed.), Rhyme, Reading and Writing. London: Hodder Arnold.
131-47 Bishop, J and Burn, A (forthcoming) ‘Reasons for Rhythm: Multimodal Perspectives on Musical Play’. In Willett, R, Richards, R, Jackie Marsh, M, Bishop, J, Burn, A (forthcoming
2012) Children, Media And Playground Cultures: Ethnographic studies of school playtimes.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bishop, J. and Curtis, J. (2001) ‘Introduction’. In Bishop, J. and Curtis, J. (eds) (2001) Play Today in the Primary School Playground: Life, Learning and Creativity. Open University Press. 1-20.