There’s a picture in The Third Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes of a small, nervous boy in knickerbockers appearing before a man of authority: ‘I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,/ The reason why, I cannot tell./ But this I know and know full well,/ I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.’ It’s a curious little thing, but somehow very pleasing. It rhymes, there’s a clear, easy rhythm behind the words and we’re familiar with the sentiment. In short, it’s a typical nursery rhyme.
I became interested in nursery rhymes when I was writing my last novel, When the Floods Came. The novel is set in the near future and I wanted a heritage for the children, something that would connect them – living in an otherwise empty tower block and surrounded by a crumbling, watery world – to their parents’ old life. A book of nursery rhymes provided the solution, with the words and pictures embedded in everyone’s memory, little gems of harmless nonsense that are reminders of the past, that link people from all ages and backgrounds. So I unearthed the three Ladybird Books of Nursery Rhymes that I’d read to my children. They were surprisingly familiar, almost as if they came from my own childhood, but the dates of publication – 1965, 1966, 1967 – make it clear that they didn’t. How interesting that they’ve remained with me for decades when they’re not mine at all. Now that I have rediscovered them, though, it worries me that they’re losing their place in our collective memory, marching down the hill with the Grand Old Duke of York and lacking the energy to march back up again. Do they still have a place alongside the electronic entertainment of today’s children?
But when I open them there’s something wrong. Some of the words that I remember are different from the ones in the books. How can this be? You’ve got it wrong, I want to say. My version is the only right one. Obviously! Could this be the result of regional pronu
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