The sordid truth about Jack, Jill and that hill
AN eccentric academic named Norman Iles had a robust approach to nursery rhymes. To sum it up, he believed that almost all of them dated back to pagan times and were about sex.
His book Who Really Killed Cock Robin? (Robert Hale, 1986) saw him run the risk of sounding like some old nudge-nudge, wink-wink bar-room bore who tries to turn everything you say into filth. After an evening with Norman's book, you never thought of Little Miss Muffet's tuffet, Lucy Locket's lost pocket or Jack and Jill's tumble in the same way again.
But there was more to Norman Iles than a racy tale. An Oxford friend of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis who spent his later years far from the literary crowd with his wife and six children in Morecambe, he knew his folklore well enough to recognise that these were age-old tales with versions in a variety of European languages.
His work comes to mind with the publication of a new book, Albert Jack's Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meaning of Nursery Rhymes (Allen Lane, £12.99).
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Mr Jack, "when not engaged in research, lives somewhere between Guildford and Cape Town, where he divides his time between fast living and slow horses, neat vodka and untidy pubs", according to his publishers.
He is content to overlook Iles's research and ascribe the rhymes to specific events in English history, momentous or trivial.
Thus we see dusted down once more the theory that Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon used by the Royalists in the siege of Colchester (some say Gloucester); that Jack and Jill were an amorous young couple who lived in Kilmersdon in Somerset in – amazing accuracy – 1697, a yarn that many Kilmersdonians are all too ready to promote, as the plaque above makes plain; and that Miss Muffet and her spider were the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and the great Protestant reformer John Knox.
In fact, all these rhymes predate the above events and people by centuries – which does not preclude the probability that if some great machine of war fell off a city wall during a siege it might indeed have become known as ~ Humpty Dumpty; that a couple who did their courting up a hill and then came a cropper would have become known as Jack and Jill; or that some Scots might have joked about John Knox being Mary's frightening spider.
But these were simply local interpretations of universal stories; Humpty Dumpty, for instance, appears as Lille Trille in Denmark, Gigele- Gagele in German, Boule-Boule in French, Annebadadeli in Swiss... In other words, it's a girl, and you don't need Norman Iles to explain to you what her great fall was all about.
One rhyme Norman did not discuss was Little Jack Horner – so the writer of the new book has a clear run on the story of Thomas Horner, of Mells in Somerset, who was sent by the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whyting, to deliver the deeds to 12 manor houses to Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of he monasteries.
They were taken to Hampton Court hidden under a pie-crust – and on the journey, Horner delved beneath it and pulled out the deeds to Mells Manor House, a plum piece of real estate if ever there was one.
To give Albert Jack due credit, he admits that Horner's descendants, who still live in Mells, dismiss the legend as "true fantasy".
In fact, much the same could be said of the rest of his book – but it's still a lot of fun.