Tue | Apr 7, 2020

Tony Deyal | Nursery rhymes and whodunnits

Published:Saturday | February 22, 2020 | 12:10 AM
Humpty Dumpty

Goosey Goosey Gander, whither shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber.

There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,

So I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.


If you think the treatment of old people in the nursery rhyme is bad, wait. It can, and possibly will, get much, much worse. According to emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent Frank Furedi, prominent academics are pushing for the World Health Organization (WHO) to include old age on its list of diseases. In other words, people of my age will soon be listed in WHO’s Who.

While the advocates for this move see it as improving the lives of old people, Professor Furedi is convinced that in reality, it will give everyone the excuse to write us off. He says, “Being old is already considered to be an unattractive and undesirable stage of life. The call to diagnose ageing as a form of illness will merely enhance its negative image.”


The fact is that while all life is eventually fatal, it does not have to be an illness or treated as one. As Abraham Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

I still remember my early years, the games we played and the nursery rhymes we learnt at school. My friends and I thought that what Goosey Goosey Gander did to the old man was funny, and we laughed uproariously at the ending. I can still remember our class demonstrating for the teacher the satisfying process of kicking the old man down the stairs.

What we did not know was that when you take a close gander at Goosey, there is a very dark story behind that rambling rhyme and most of the others we recited so loudly and with so much gusto in those days.

In one version of the story, the rhyme is about the religious persecution of Catholic priests who would hide themselves in order to say their Latin-based prayers, and so when asked to say his prayers in English, a priest refused and was thrown down the stairs.

Another version is that in the 16th century, when that rhyme was composed, Catholic priests were very unpopular. Not only were they considered corrupt, but there was proof that many had broken their vows of celibacy. In fact, there was even a bounty on the heads of priests who indulged in activities that were inconsistent with their religious commitments.

In the ‘Goosey, Goosey’ rhyme, a priest was caught literally with his pants down in the bedroom of a ‘goose’, a slang term for ‘prostitute’. He was put to the test of reciting the new English prayers that had been recently introduced, and not the Latin ones. In this case, however, the priest refused and was killed by being thrown down the brothel’s flight of stairs.

Then, there is, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary/ How does your garden grow?/ With cockle shells and silver bells/ And pretty maids all in a row.”

The Mary in the children’s rhyme is Queen Mary I, who became queen after the deaths of her father, Henry VIII, and half-brother, Edward V. She was a staunch Catholic and immediately started to undo what her father had put in place.

This accounts for the “quite contrary” description in the nursery rhyme, and the “garden” is her Lord Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner. The “silver bells” were a thumb crusher, and the “cockle shells” were a torture device attached to a man’s ‘cockles’. The pretty maids were the many women Mary had executed, including Lady Jane Grey.

Political commentaries

Many of the other nursery rhymes we grew up with, including ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, ‘Jack and Jill’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, and especially ‘Georgie Porgie’ (about a fat Prince, later King George IV, who, despite his 50-inch waist, was a ‘ladies’ man’), started as lightly disguised biting and bitter political commentaries, in some ways like the early calypsoes of the Caribbean.

It is perhaps why, looking at what seems to be a great idea to make life better for older people, I join Professor Furedi in his doubts about the rationale and outcomes of declaring ageing a disease. What happened to the old man in ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’ might well happen to us. In other words, our goose might be already cooked.

I have always believed that age does not matter unless you’re a cheese or a wine, and, even so, the cheese gets sharper and the wine gets better and stronger as they grow older.

Indeed, I am convinced the whole business of getting old is all mind over matter, and if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

However, Professor Furedi points out that Western society rarely associates old age with any positive attributes and that the elderly are dismissed as out of date and irrelevant people whose archaic views ought to be ignored.

In addition, we are demonised and scapegoated for robbing the young of their future and condemned for being responsible for the environmental crisis facing the world.

In addition, many doctors, especially the younger ones, tend to be very impatient and harsh with older people. One, who did not see the need to change his approach and was giving his patients hell rather than health, was actually called “thrombosis” by the nurses at an English hospital because he was “a bloody clot that messed up the system”.

There is a story about an American reporter who tried to interview a famous doctor. “And what,” she asked naïvely, “is your favourite recreation?” “Actually,” he smiled, “It’s sleighing.” “No,” she protested. “I mean outside your profession.”

As I head into my 75th year, I believe I know the difference between ageing and illness. I can distinguish between blood pressure and societal pressures. I don’t agree that old age is a disease. What I believe is best expressed in another nursery rhyme:

Doctor Bell fell down the well,

And broke his collarbone.

Doctors should attend the sick,

And leave the well alone.

Tony Deyal was last seen suggesting that we in the Caribbean can slow the ageing process down considerably if we pass it through the CARICOM Secretariat.