Burma-Shave And Other Rhyming Things

Irene Adler (whose previous names include Sjenka and Skuggi and Elphaba) brought in a mouse couple of nights ago. She was under the table thoughtfully hunched over her victim when we found her. As soon as Mr Č said “Kitty” (in italics), she picked it up in her mouth and ran outside, looking appropriately guilty. She hasn’t brought anything in since.

I’m doing research into folk traditions for my novel, so when I heard someone saying part of one on the street the other day it was tempting to make a brief detour in that direction. It had just started raining unexpectedly, and a woman began singing “It’s raining, it’s pouring…” to her granddaughter, but didn’t finish it, and I automatically completed it in my head. 

It’s raining, it’s pouring

The old man is snoring

He bumped his head and went to bed

And didn’t get up in the morning.

Hang on. Does that mean he got a head injury and died? As a child I always assumed he was just tired. 

It’s been said before: nursery rhymes can be deliciously horrible, providing spine-achingly vivid glimpses into specific eras and their accompanying problems (disease, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, animal cruelty…). “Ring around the Rosie” or “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” has been claimed to be about the Black Death or the later Great Plague: in a time when people believed smells transmitted disease (not entirely illogical in an era before we understood germs), the supposedly plague-preventing “posies” were scented parcels of dried herbs and spices carried around for protection.  The word “Rosie”, 20th-century folklorists claimed, referred to the red rash that was one of the Plague’s symptoms. But later scholarship (and comparisons with the rhyme in other languages) have discredited this theory. Nevertheless, pleasingly grim. 

What about “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”? The next line should probably be “this poem is boring”. It seems I remembered it incorrectly: the more accurate version is “he couldn’t get up in the morning”, not “he didn’t” – so presumably the man didn’t actually die. And it only dates from about 1912. Ho-hum. 

Having promised you horrifying poetry, I couldn’t just give you tame examples, so here’s a choice offering from around 1790.

I married a wife on Sunday,

She began to scold on Monday,

Bad was she on Tuesday,

Middling was she on Wednesday,

Worse she was on Thursday,

Dead was she on Friday,

Glad was I on Saturday night,

To bury my wife on Sunday.

— From Tom Tit’s Song Book

And for those of you who can’t stand crying babies (with apologies to new parents), a gem from the Napoleonic Wars: 

Baby, baby, naughty baby,

Hush, you squalling thing, I say.

Peace this moment, peace, or maybe

Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he’s a giant,

Tall and black as Rouen steeple,

And he breakfasts, dines, rely on’t,

Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you

As he gallops past the house,

Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you,

Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you,

And he’ll beat you into pap,

And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you,

Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

— From an early Mother Goose lullaby

(I found both of the above at http://bookdirtblog.blogspot.co.uk/)

Rhythmic and jaunty, no? We need more of this sort of thing, though possibly without the infanticide. Unfortunately we have this instead (seen last week in Baker Street tube station). The second line is so painfully awkward. I died a little when I read it, trying over and over to make it scan in my head. And there are so many, so much worse than this, all over London. Could they have not hired some starving but rhythmically capable poet to do the material for this campaign? 

Nothing like the old Burma-Shave ads, is it? Burma-Shave, if you’re not yet familiar with its delights, was a mid-century brand of shaving cream sold in America. Their great gimmick was a series of mildly witty one-line signs placed at intervals along U.S. highways in the mid-20th century. Each sign was just a single line of text, so you didn’t get too distracted from your driving (this was good, because you probably weren’t wearing a seatbelt anyway). 

Some of the jingles were wickedly funny. On the wondrous burma-shave.org, they have the complete collection – spanning the years 1927-1963 (you can thank me later). Here’s an example: 

He lit a match

To check gas tank

That’s why 

They call him 

Skinless Frank


Can you imagine anything more delightful than that slow reveal, a hundred yards or should between each sign, leading to the irreverent punchline? Some of the jingles are pretty lame, but the good ones make up for it, and the format is perfect, and must have ensured that all those drivers remembered the brand forever. 

Here’s another, because it’s Saturday, and why not? This one’s for my Dad, who first told me about the Burna-Shave poems (and explained targeted advertising to me):

Our fortune is

Your shaven face 

It’s our best

Advertising space 


I hope that this very serious message has given you lots to think about. Please, write more doggerel, everyone! And have a good weekend! 

Dead Birds And Gold Tattoos

Of all my irrational fears, the fear of dead birds comes pretty close to being the worst. I have a cat, and I’m completely sanguine about chasing her out of the room so I can shoo a live bird out from under the sofa and reintroduce it to the Great Outdoors. More grown-up friends tell me that the worst situation is finding an injured bird that’s not quite dead, but [VIGOROUSLY KNOCKS ON WOOD] that hasn’t happened in the Čičić-Brazil household yet. Yet. 

Dead birds, though. My god. 

I do an impression of one when I’m trying to explain The Horror to people: it involves pressing my straight arms to my sides, screwing my eyes shut and my fave into a dead/pained expression, and leaning forward to suggest that ghastly prone position I always find them in, reduced to tiny brown bundles on the floor, mysteriously intact, neat little specimens of recent avian life. With no evidence of mauling, and only a few feathers floating under the dining room table, what did they die of? Surprise? Heart attack? Irene Adler (aforementioned cat) is such a monster. 


She’s a cute monster, right?

But she’s not a monster. She’s just doing what cats do, and it’s probably the result of boredom, the urge to bring me presents, and with her long-held passion for killing, a pastime she must enjoy being so good at. “Hey,” she seems to say. “I notice you’ve switched away from the expensive, delicious cat food to the less delicious cat food. You must be having trouble hunting again. Don’t worry – I can help!” 

Last night I had just gone to bed when I heard the suspiciously smug, long  “Mrrrroooow?” she saves for I’ve-just-brought-an-animal-home! occasions, so I went downstairs to investigate. I cast a queasy glance under the table and saw nothing. I went back to bed in a state of denial. 

I think I knew what was really going on. She doesn’t normally meow like that – when she wants to be fed or she’s saying hi, she sort of chirps at me, more a repetitive squeaking noise than a meow. This morning, sure enough, I found a dead sparrow under one of the dining room chairs. 

I spoke to Itene Adler in very firm tones, hoping that she might understand. “Please take that bird out of my house, NOW,” I said, but she just looked at me fearfully and bolted. She sulked in the garden for about an hour, and then disappeared.

To my credit, I managed to tiptoe around my panic and pretend, temporarily, that the body wasn’t there: I had a shower, and actually got dressed, but then I was stuck, partly because I was now frozen and wretched with The Horror Of It All and party because I had to leave the house and had no shoes on. The corpse stood between me and the shoe cupboard, but I wasn’t abut to step over it. I was supposed to be meeting Mr Č at the airport at 2pm. There had to be a way around this. 

When I took the recycling bin out (wearing slippers), I noticed a delivery man outside, getting into his white van. I had been planning on running shamefacedly to number 9 and begging my nice neighbour to come and pick the bird up for me and put it on the bin (this has happened before; she is a compassionate lady), but now I saw another way out. 

“Hello. I was wondering… do you think you could do me a favour?”

“Yeeessss,” he said, slowly and with deep suspicion.

“How are you with dead birds?”

Very good, as it turned out, and he was happy to help. He seemed to find the situation hilarious, but declined my offer of tea. He was anxious to get away.

I have been reliably informed this week by people of my own age that temporary metallic tattoos are a thing from the 90s and therefore terribly passé, but since the 90s passed me by (I grew up in Asia and attended strict schools where Fun and Pop Culture were hard to find), I was delighted to discover a nice selection in this month’s Birch Box. 

Birch Box is a subscription service that selects beauty-related things for you, puts them in a smallish shoebox, and sends them to you once a month. I don’t know where birches are supposed to come in, but I do like it. I’ve only just started, but I loved the contents of the first box, which came last week: it was full of mini versions of niche/luxury things I wouldn’t have the time or energy to go and search out myself, and it’s silly good value. (In case you were wondering, they did NOT pay me to say this.)

I’ve taken to the temporary tattoos with the enthusiastic abandon of a teenager, much to the chagrin (and — don’t ask me why — amusement) of my friends and husband. Before a concert in Aldeburgh a few nights ago I was threatening to wear one as a “statement necklace” in the gap left by the Monteverdi jacket, a suggestion that was met with such pitying derision that I didn’t follow through. Today, though, off to meet Mr Č at Heathrow and thence to a meet-the-agent writers’ event in London, I thought: yes. I am going to put a gold feather on my wrist. And I will look fey, and super-cool. 

Here is the result. Judge for yourself; but I quite like it. And it made me happy, because it felt like a tribute to the poor dead bird. I hope that, frolicking as it must now be in Bird Heaven, its wings are tipped with gold. 


In Anticipation: Oxford Poetry Professor Will Be Announced Today

I’m on a bus to London at the moment, on my way to catch another bus to Aldeburgh to sing BWV 198 tonight in Snape Maltings (that alto aria! It’s ravishing to sing in spite of the impossibly long phrases – Bach, you bastard). But my mind is entirely on the election for the next Oxford Professor of Poetry, whose results will be announced today.  

Will it be A.E. Stallings, Simon Armitage, Wole Soyinka, Ian Gregson, or Sean Haldane? It’s very likely to be one of the first three; the others probably don’t have high enough profiles to attract sufficient votes (although Haldane did come third last time, in a very different race). 
Soyinka, the Nigerian activist-poet, is the most distinguished, with a Nobel prize, a stint in prison under an oppressive regime, and fifty years of writing about human rights under his belt, but there are serious doubts about his commitment to the role as a teaching position. Simon Armitage would make a fine and energetic choice, and I admire him immensely, but my preference is for A.E. Stallings. 

A major regret is that I voted for Simon Armitage before I was asked to write a piece about the election for Quadrapheme. At the tine of voting, I had only done some cursory research by reading the Guardian’s coverage of the contest (which gave the impression that Soyinka and Armitage were the distant front-runners and nobody else was really involved). I hope other Oxford graduates eligible to vote were more thoughtful, but I have a horrible feeling the one-sided media coverage may have had a heavy impact.

It wasn’t until I started reading about each of the candidates in depth in order to write the piece that I understood how vital A.E. Stallings is, as a poet, translator, and classicist. She’s also a terrific public speaker, and an incredible advocate for the discipline and transcendence of poetic endeavour. For what it’s worth, I warmly endorse her for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, and look forward anxiously to hearing the result later today. We need more women in positions like this, and while I don’t believe in forcing the issue by appointing people who aren’t the equals of their competitors just to fill a quota, it would make me immensely happy to see A.E. Stallings – an American, a scholar, a woman, a new Formalist – in such an influential post, especially in a year when Oxford has nominated its first female Vice-Chancellor. 

For deeper background, head over to Quadrapheme.  

Chinese Youth Culture Explodes: Reviewing “Little Emperors And Material Girls”

Over at Quadrapheme today, I’ve written about Jemimah Steinfeld’s superlative new nonfiction book, Little Emperors And Material Girls. You can find the review here.

It really is the most gripping work of research I’ve ever laid my hands on. This might be because I have a vested interest; I spent the first eight years of my schooling in Chinese-language schools in Beijing and Singapore, and find today’s China overwhelming, strange, and familiar at the same time.  Steinfeld writes fluently with a wonderful air of confidentiality; it feels like getting together with an old friend to talk avout the state of Chinese culture today.

Several things didn’t make it into the review because there wasn’t space, mostly colourful wedding-related facts. Here’s my favourite: Chinese  brides hire multiple wedding dresses and have elaborate photo shoots in several picturesque locations (some as distant as London, as reported here) well before the ceremony, often dressed up as princesses from classical times with actors playing their palanquin-bearers, or in thoroughly modern outfits — the crucial thing is variety. They might have a few different white dresses (some slinky, some huge ball gowns), a few red ones (Chinese tradition associates red with prosperity and celebration, while white is traditionally a funeral colour), and sometimes more outlandish outfits that allow them create symbolic  tableaux with their husbands-to-be. It’s symptomatic of the exuberant materialism, the joyful embrace of excess, that’s taken hold in China among the young and moneyed. But I mustn’t go on – head over to Quadrapheme to see the full review.

Dragon Research and Masonic Eavesdropping

It’s been a little while since the last one. Business (and busy-ness) shouldn’t prohibit me from following the example of Esther-in-the-past and feverishly churning out blog posts in every spare minute (on the commuter bus, mostly), but I suspect that sort of steam comes in waves, to use a gorssly mixed metaphor. Nevertheless, I am BACK.

If you’re a regular commuter of some kind, whether daily or every so often, you’ll have strange, synchronistic experiences that involve seeing the same person on both your journeys in one day — even if you took the bus at a completely irregular time. This happened to me yesterday. After lunch, heading into London, I noticed that the two men behind me were both in white shirts and dark suits, with lapel pins, but they were too old to be Mormon missionaries (one was probably mid-forties and one was at least 70), so I went back to my reading, with only mild eavesdropping. Their conversation indicated that they didn’t know each other well, and the younger man said he hadn’t been into central London for five years, to which the older one expressed polite disbelief. It wasn’t desperately interesting, and after the first few pleasantries they suddenly lowered their voices, so I gave up.

And then there they were again as I got on the bus at Baker Street late last night, in precisely the same pair of seats. Mine from earlier was empty, so I sat back in it, giving them a big smile first to indicate that I’d recognized them. They didn’t react, so I forced the issue, since otherwise I worried they’d think that I’d turned around to grin at them because I was some kind of weirdo. Although, in retrospect, I probably compounded that effect. Oh well.

“Hello! Didn’t you sit behind me on the journey into London as well? This afternoon?” I said, peering through the gab between the headrests. They both looked up with considerable alarm.

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” said the older one.

“It was the 1.20 bus,” I said, undeterred.

“That was our bus…” began the younger one.

“Maybe,” said the older one, and gave me a polite smile that said, “Please turn around, young lady.”

I finished reading my article just as their conversation got really interesting. They were gently tipsy, and though I could tell that they were still trying to keep their voices low, the volume would rise gradually until, every few minutes, they remembered, and started the slow crescendo again. They were talking about the words used in rituals and how nowadays more people are sadly dependent on “the book”, but that at this particular event it was pleasing to note that “hardly anyone needed it… not that there’s anything wrong with using it, of course…” There was mention of “lodges” and “chapters”. I kept careful track of pronouns.

Now I was intrigued. Masons! How thrilling! Visions of secret societies and bizarre candlelit rituals in underground vaults danced in my head. Unfortunately, at this point, they started talking about Oxford, and its nominee for Vice-Chancellor, who is (gasp) a woman.

As my cousin Pat would say, “Priority interrupt!” Before I tell you what they said about the new/forthcoming Vice-Chancellor, I want to ask you (all three of you, dear readers): why are masons so exciting to non-masons? They’re just a male networking organisation whose members really, really like to dress up. (Although a quick google search has revealed this: there are lady-masons too!) It’s got to be about the secrecy. Make something secret and people will struggle and pry and strain to find out just a little about it, even if it isn’t fundamentally interesting.

Anyway, the prospective Vice-Chancellor. What I heard went like this.

“…she’s Irish. Born in Ireland, educated in America, I believe.”

“So practically American.”

“Oh yes. Name escapes me… She’s up at St Andrew’s at the moment. Goodness knows how she’ll cope at Oxford. It takes a very specific skill set. Oxford’s never had a female V-C before.”

“Well, we all make mistakes.” Quiet snorts of laughter.

“Mmm, quite. I hope her Latin’s up to it.” Chuckling, with general noises of agreement.

This gave me pause. Professor Louise Richardson, currently Vice-Chancellor at St Andrew’s, has been hailed in almost all circles as a Very Good Thing, and I’d never heard her openly criticised like this just for being a woman. The news of her nomination has been welcomed in most quarters, and the University as a whole seems to be looking forward to her socially-inclusive, progressive influence. But maybe I move in more female-friendly circles these days.

The Cherwell published an opinion piece on the 6th of June that brought up concerns that as a former Harvard administrator, Richardson might encourage the corporatisation of Oxford, raising salaries for faculty in tandem with escalating tuition fees. It was a very good point, but the article itself was sadly sophomoric in style and content. The writer hysterically proclaimed that Oxford is “a university that ought to be run by and for students, workers and the wider community”, which makes me wonder where teaching and administrative staff are supposed to fit in. Not to mention the allegation that “these vice-chancellors prefer that the tuition fee cap be lifted than for the government to raise taxes on millionaires like themselves”. (Take a deep breath, James Elliott!) This is the only negative press I’ve been able to find on Richardson’s nomination, though. I’d love to get a more nuanced view – please reply in comments if you have any thoughts on her, from any perspective. I’m thrilled that Oxford will soonhave a woman at the helm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be a great V-C. Discuss.

In lighter news, A BOOK HAUL. All from Treadwell’s, an esoteric second-hand-books-and-more shop whose titles range from English history to books on Judaism, shamanism, and folklore. I should have gone there a year ago for resources, given the nature of the novel-in-progress. One reaction in rehearsal last night to the dragons book was, “Isn’t your book about witches?” Why, yes. But one of them has a dragon problem…

Here’s the dragon book:


And here are some samples. This “reference” book is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, which suits the tone of the novel nicely. I have no illusions that I’m writing anything more sophisticated than commercial fiction.


I got two others. “Maypoles” is reportedly a long-time standard text for This Sort Of Thing (folklore, magic, country customs, saints’ days, etc.), and “Auguries and Omens” has already proved enormously useful on the subject of magpies. Apologies that their very similar blue covers make it look like that’s one book, not two.


A sample for the 9th of June, St Columba’s Day:

“As men of peace go, St Columba was abnormally violent and competitive.” And: “If you wear the flower St John’s Wort in your armpit, like St Columba did, it will ward off evil. Independently of this, June 9th is very lucky, especially when it falls on a Thursday.” See? £5.95 well spent.

Last thing: I stumbled on the Paperchase mothership opposite Goodge Street station yesterday, entirely by accident. Three whole floors of Paperchase. The mind boggles. Actually, the mind boggles more at the fact that I only bought one thing. Now nobody will write their to-do lists at the bottom of my grocery lists any more, and harmony will prevail.


Until next time, dragon-spotters.