Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

The Orwellian rewriting of nursery rhymes

In George Orwell’s 1984, one of Winston Smith’s depressing jobs at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite historical documents to make them fit with party orthodoxy. He destroys evidence of problematic past events, amends newspaper articles and deletes from the historical record any people who have since been identified by the party as “unpersons”. A similar process was at work in Britain in 2009, only it isn’t the history books that are being rearranged and rewritten by the Big Brothers of Britain’s ruling regime; it is nursery rhymes.

No nursery rhyme is safe in modern-day Britain. At any moment they could be snapped up by faceless bureaucrats and transformed from entertaining little songs into party-approved expressions of acceptable beliefs and behaviour. Last week it was reported that the old classic What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor? has been amended to remove all references to “drunkenness” and “sailors”. The government-funded charity Bookstart has published a new version titled What Shall We Do With The Grumpy Pirate? It contains such inoffensive lines as “tickle him till he starts to giggle, early in the morning”.

This used to be the most gloriously un-PC of nursery rhymes, providing children with a mischievous thrill as they sang lines such as: “make him walk the plank and swim at sea”; “put him in the pickle barrel till he’s sober”; “stick him in a bag and beat him senseless”; “put him in the crow’s nest and watch him fall down” and my particular favourite, “shave his belly with a rusty razor”. Not any more. In the new version, all children get to do with the “grumpy pirate” is “do a little jig and make him smile”. Well, we can’t have kids singing about putting drunk people in bags and barrels and beating them with sticks, can we? As for the classic old line “put him in the back of the paddy wagon”, no doubt that would be frowned upon as an expression of “anti-Irish racism” these days.

Bookstart insists that this isn’t about political correctness. It claims it rewrote the rhyme simply to make it fit with the pirate theme, which is apparently popular among children today. Who is it trying to kid? Britain’s ruling Labour Party, as well as the British police, media and various think-tanks, are myopically obsessed with the problem of alcohol abuse among apparently impressionable young people. They’re forever hectoring pubs to ban happy hours and have introduced new restrictions on alcohol advertising, all in the name of keeping young people away from the Bastard Bottle. Rewriting a rhyme that encourages even three-year-olds to see drunkenness as a sing-a-long hoot fits perfectly with the Ruling Party’s anti-alcohol drive.

This isn’t the first time a nursery rhyme has been rehashed to suit contemporary orthodoxies. In 2006, it was revealed that nurseries in Oxfordshire, England, were teaching children the song Baa Baa, Rainbow Sheep. Yes, apparently it is offensive to refer to a sheep as “black”. An education official in Oxfordshire confirmed: “we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do”. Which means that “black” must be replaced with “rainbow”, even if it doesn’t scan (trying singing it to yourself) or make any sense to children (when are they likely to see a “rainbow sheep”?)

Other nurseries in Britain have changed the ending of Humpty Dumpty to avoid upsetting children, and have removed the word “dwarfs” from the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (presumably it is now called Snow White and the Seven Vertically Challenged Individuals). In 2004, a study by the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children found that nursery rhymes exposed children to levels of violence that they would never be allowed to witness on kids’ TV. For example, Humpty Dumpty features “nasty head injuries from fall”; Jack and Jill features “double hillside fall tragedy”; Six In A Bed involves “repeated bedtime tumbles”. The report found that where there are about “five violent scenes per hour” on TV, there are more than 52 per hour of listening to nursery rhymes. Although this study was tongue-in-cheek (it’s hard to tell what is serious and what isn’t these days), it gave rise to a real debate about violence in nursery rhymes.

The most bizarre children’s story controversy occurred last year when a book based on The Three Little Pigs was turned down by a government agency awards panel because its subject matter — pigs — might offend Muslims. The judges warned that “the use of pigs raises cultural issues”. The judges also criticised the story, titled The Three Little Cowboy Builders, for being offensive to builders. This shows the extent to which British officialdom now practices pre-emptive, just-in-case censorship. No Muslim groups complained about The Three Little Pigs; officials simply presumed that they would be offended. The idea that certain things are “unacceptable” — whether it’s drunken sailors, little piggies, or any mention of dwarfs — comes from our uber-sensitive, patronising elite rather than from mums, dads or children in the real, normal world.

The war on nursery rhymes, the Ministry of Truth-style approach to rearranging kids’ ditties to make them more politically and socially acceptable, exposes the British elite’s deep desire to shape our outlook on the world, and force us to conform, at the very earliest opportunity. What should we do with a rhyme rewriter? Slap him around and call him Suzie.