Dusty Bluebells


“Like this,” I said to my daughter, taking her tangled-up, skipping rope from her hot hands to demonstrate how to turn and jump without getting in a muddle. Swinging the rope over my head, it slapped the ground. I quickly found my rhythm. What an enchantment! In an instant, the skipping catapulted me back through the years to my small self at playtime. Long quieted words, from somewhere deep inside, trilled out:

“In and out the dusty bluebells

In and out the dusty bluebells

In and out the dusty bluebells

Who will be my partner?”

Try as I might after that joyous moment of time travel, I could not dredge up a second song. Yet the words and tunes were on the tip of my tongue … The themes of calling a playmate to jump in, the choosing and booting out of partners I could recall, but not the rhymes themselves. They had been left behind me, a part of the lore of childhood, practised for a short time only, a language spoken only by children. When I’m in my daughter’s playground, I try to catch the words the skipping girls are singing but they float past and I can’t quite grasp them, whisperings of a secret that’s simply not shared between generations.

For some weeks, I lay awake at night struggling to remember the songs, in vain. I took up skipping again and tried to recapture the trance-like state in which “Dusty Bluebells” had returned. I could almost hear the girlish chanting: I felt its echo. I posted messages on a social network group for my hometown. Hundreds of posters shared my enthusiasm for childhood games they had played. A lively discussion ensued, reinforcing my feelings but only a handful could recount lyrics and some admitted to being school teachers who had heard the songs sung recently. The commonly recurring themes were reminiscent but none were the actual rhymes I had sung myself.

All in together, girls. Never mind the weather, girls. One, two, three. All out!

Dip, dip, dip my blue ship, Sailing on the water like a cup and saucer. One, two, three. You are out!

One, two, three a laira. I saw me Aunty Sarah sitting on a bumbelara, eating chocolate biscuits.

Inky Pinky pen and inky. I pick you!

Most of us feel a connection with magical things from our past; not just from our own childhood but from our society’s past. It has something to do with nostalgia, with some deeper cultural meaning, and it’s something that we can’t quite put our finger on. It’s the mystery that makes it interesting and captivates us.

Anthologists Peter and Iona Opie dedicated their working lives to documenting children’s play, folklore, language and literature and published several influential works, most notably The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959). Shortly after their marriage in the 1940s, they were out walking in the countryside, when their future was decided by a ladybird. In 1988, in a talk given at Columbia University, Iona Opie recounted this tale, “Idly one of us picked it up, put it on his finger … and said to it, ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children all gone.’ The ladybird obeyed, as they always do and yet it always seems like magic; and we were left wondering about this rhyme we had known since childhood and had never questioned until now. What did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it?”

The Opies’ search for answers to these questions led them on a treasure hunt, which was to last forty years. Their audio archive consists of 85 open reel and cassette tapes recorded by Iona during research for The Singing Game (1985) and deposited with the British Library in 1998. What the couple’s extensive research reveals repeatedly is that there exists a secret world that belongs to children and is not meant for adult ears.

Since the births of my own three lovely children, I have had a few magical moments similar to my skipping incident. Moments of time-shift fantasy that recall exactly this awareness of long ago experiences as these are lived in front of my eyes by my children. The sensation of sliding from one end of the bath to the other and back very quickly, after the water has glugged down the plughole. That’s an activity I’d never have thought of again if I hadn’t witnessed my toddler doing it. It’s a pleasure that’s past before you even reach double digits. A joyfulness.

Reading particular stories out loud from mildewed books that my father had read to me has led to recapturing memories that I had never articulated but were keen nonetheless. Especially when my children relished the very same passages that had so delighted me.

Our vocabulary is missing a word to describe this perception. It is more than mere nostalgia. Novelist Philippa Pearce knew it, too, in her story of the loss of Eden, Tom’s Midnight Garden, where it turns out time need not separate us, “Then and Now … Time No Longer.”

 Published in Parenting

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