Heavy Words Lightly Thrown, by Chris Roberts

Nursery rhymes of the expected

Well, I never. Did you know that "Humpty Dumpty" was the name of an ale-and-brandy drink? Or a clumsy person of either sex? Or a popular emblem of human fragility? No, hang on a second - it was actually a huge and powerful cannon mounted on the walls of St Mary's Church, Colchester, a Parliamentary stronghold in the Civil War. When Royalist forces captured the town in 1648, they turned the cannon on the Roundhead besiegers, misjudged the rules of ballistics and blew it to pieces. And, frankly, all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't repair the shattered ordnance.

This farrago of exegesis typifies Chris Roberts's method in his amusing socio-political exploration of nursery rhymes. He takes 24 of the best known children's chants and bedtime lullabies, and teases out their political or sexual subtext, to reveal layers of cruelty, smut and historical intrigue.

Thus "Orange and Lemons" isn't just about debt and the penalty of decapitation: it's a wedding rhyme full of (in its longer version) double entendre about phallic chopper and fragile maidenhead. "Baa baa, black sheep" is a whine at taxation. "Jack and Jill" is about the loss of virginity: Jill falls pregnant and Jack dresses, not his head but his membrum virile with "vinegar and brown paper".

Some fascinating insights appear. Little Jack Horner was a real-life steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Faced with the sacking of his beautiful church, the abbot tried to bribe the king by offering him the title deeds to 12 fancy houses, if he would spare the Abbey. Horner took the deeds to the monarch in a pie, taking care en route to poke his finger inside it and extract the deeds of his own house, Mells Manor.

Much of this is a fascinating blend of mythology, folklore and historical record; the trouble is, you're often unsure where history stops and speculation takes over. If in doubt, Roberts throws everything in. So "The Grand Old Duke of York" refers to the Duke who fought Napoleon at Flanders, but was originally about the King of France in the 100 Years' War - although it may have concerned the Duke of York who later became James II, and who ran away from confronting William of Orange... You pays your money and you are none the wiser.

This uncertainty of fact is compounded by a desperate uncertainty of tone. Mr Roberts cannot decide whether he is offering serious lecturettes on history, or writing for laughs. His chapters are peppered with modern references. He describes contemporary criticisms of Charles II, the subject (perhaps) of "Little Boy Blue", for wasting his time in Europe "leading the good life at the Moulin Rouge, drinking fine wine and perhaps (as he spent a good deal of his time in the Netherlands) doing nice things to his head with herbs". The effect is jarring and rather juvenile, like being buttonholed in a Student Union bar by an amiable but slightly blurred second-year history undergraduate. Roberts breezily contextualises these tiny fragments in Tudor and Stuart history, but cannot resist adding his own layers of myth and japery. The result, like His Grace, is neither up nor down.

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