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Collecting Children’s lore




“If only I knew now, what I knew then.” As a folklore collector I not only hear this heartfelt plea often; I also find myself muttering it. I’ve been collecting folklore since the late 1960s and whilst not intentionally collecting children’s folklore I have unintentionally collected quite a swag. When recording oral histories it’s expected that I lead my informants back into their earliest memories. With a bit of subtle prodding most people will ‘open up’ and, just as often, glaze over with nostalgic memories. Last month I recorded the great Australian cookery writer Margaret Fulton. Margaret, now in her eighties, is affectionately called ‘the woman who taught Australia to cook’. I wanted to start at the beginning.

Margaret was four when her family moved from Scotland to Glen Innes, in rural new South Wales. She recalled glimpses of Scotland but had extremely vivid, and mostly pleasurable, memories of her childhood at Glen Innes. I wanted to find out how this country girl became the most famous person in the Australian kitchen. She related the pleasures of childhood and how she helped her mother in the kitchen, how she felt about schooldays and how, as a very young girl, she relocated to Sydney to work. There are obviously massive differences for children growing up in the 21st century.

Other people I have recorded take delight in reciting little poems they learnt some fifty or more years back, when in primary school. These poems are typical early 20th century stuff about daffodils, animals and the like. It is not so much the fact that they remember these works but the way they trigger off other memories. It is then that I asked about schoolyard games, birthday parties, diaries they kept, autograph books, and special foods they ate or even helped make. Sometimes the floodgates open, sometimes not.

Of course, considering I went to school in the 1950s, I also tend to travel back with them. I have a pretty good memory but nonetheless I get blanks. I have written extensively (in my books and on my website) about the games I played in the schoolyard, bottle tops, mumble peg, rock, paper, scissors, cockylora etc and also about festive occasions such as Christmas, Bonfire Night etc. I also carry two permanent ‘souvenirs’ of my childhood; a scar on my wrist from an extremely violet tumble from my ‘top of the range’ billy cart, and another scar right between my eyes where a backyard canon, made by forcing a ‘double-bunger’ down a bicycle pump. Oh yes, I have memories!

I do a lot of research work on life in the 19th century because I believe it has a defining influence on our lives today. These were the golden years of our pioneering spirit when life was far simpler and children knew their place. These were the days when the bulk of our population lived in the bush, even if some of the ‘bush’, at the time, was what we now know as our metropolitan suburbs. These were the days kids took pride in the fact they hardy ever wore shoes. Bindi-eyes be blowed! These were the days when families entertained themselves and the occasional break from routine was a cause of great expectation and delight. A store bought biscuit, even if from the ‘broken biscuit bin’ (because they were cheaper), was a major event. These were the days that periodicals carried conundrums, riddles and ditties for children. I have collected a lot of these and especially ones that mention Australia (and many did). They appeared in journals like the Argus, Australian Journal etc

I’ve also heard people say how one of their greatest entertainments was to invent games based on the wallpaper. I later discovered that early Australian homes used to make a flour and water paste and stick newspapers on the walls, cover all the walls like wallpaper. Maybe that’s where the word ‘wallpaper’ came from? The games ranged from ‘I spy with my little eye’ to ‘collecting’ similar words from headlines etc.

Marbles and knuckles were also big back then and no self-respecting boy wouldn’t have a stash of bloodeyes, bonzas and other king hit marbles, kept in a ‘marble bag’.

As well as recording oral histories and researching in old magazines and newspapers, I have also jotted things down heard in conversation, printed in newspapers and whatever. I am a bowerbird and I try and return these ‘bits and pieces’ of folklore through my radio broadcasts, books and performances. I have often said that I see much of my work as a folklorist and performer as ‘tapping Australians on the shoulder’ to remind them of their unique history and national identity. It goes without saying that we live in very fragile times and that includes our culture. We are continually bomb-barded with overseas, mostly American, cultural crap. Kids seem to be the number one target so it’s little wonder they are obsessed with American popular culture including street wear, cartoon characters, violent computer games and language. I don’t know if it’s just me but I seem to hear a lot of kids speaking in what I now call ‘cartoon voices’ ñ this is not a put on voice but their normal speaking voice. It’s scary!

But I digress. Two years back I devised a folklore collecting project that set out to survey the ‘folklore associated with the city of Sydney’. I obtained funding grants from the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts and from the City of Sydney Cultural Fund. I wanted to see what made Sydneysiders tick and folklore can provide some of these answers. It has been a fairly wide broom and, as a folklore collector and researcher, it is nigh on impossible to be so restricted in the collecting process. Where it will emerge is in the book I will (eventually) write using the various elements of the collection. In the meantime I have established a rather large website (www.warrenfahey.com) where I post various material and observations. There are several sections relating to children’s lore including the oral histories in the Australian Folklore Unit section (these all relate to tapes now held in the Folklore and Oral History Section of the National library of Australia), the Folklore of Sydney section has a designated ‘Kid’s lore’ section and, because of the nature of folklore, kid’s material is also in most of the other sections. In many ways the site is my filing system!

One recent addition to the site is a series of 24 Quicktime videos of three eleven-year old girls who allowed me to film their repertoire of clapping rhymes. Many of these are rather bawdy and this, of course, is typical of such rhymes. The one major revelation of the interviews and performances is the growing influence of American hip-hop, computer and similar culture on our schoolyard lore. I also show how the girls teach each other these clapping rhymes since one of the girls went from a different school to the others. These are the first of a series of folklore films that will go up on the site.

Other interesting parts of the site are the sections on dance, including Maypole dancing at schools, and the sections on school songs and war cries. As a collector I quite often send around requests to targeted groups ñ school songs and war cries was one such email request. I also managed to get a couple of pars in Sydney newspapers. This particular request seemed to trigger a lot of responses and I collected a representative national sampling. There’s also a wonderful account of May school festivities in Ballarat where one of my informants related how they had an annual pageant to Mary and formed a human set of rosary beads. She was a bead in the rosary!

[This essay first appeared in ‘Play & School’ ñ the website of the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Victoria. February 2006.]