Friday, 30 January 2009


This really is too much. The PC brigade has got its hands on The Drunken Sailor. Captain Pugwash will be turning in his watery grave. Along with Seaman Stains and Master Bates. Remember them? Aired on primetime kids' telly throughout the glorious 70s.

What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor is a fabulous, rumbunctious, hale and hearty shanty which I can remember singing when I was small with a particularly convincing slur (that'll be down to my alcoholic aunt then...). In truth I wouldn't call it a nursery rhyme, but that doesn't mean that children shouldn't sing it. They may do it with more attention to diction than this hairy lot...if anyone can work out exactly what should be done with a drunken sailor from the following, um I'll think of some sort of prize:

The dilemma presented within its verses will be a familiar enough concept to any child with a family member who likes a tipple, or indeed any child who has attended a wedding with their parents in tow. One solution generally offered: 'Put him in the brig until he's sober' seems to me an eminently sensible and practical solution, although the modern child may wish to use a broom cupboard or cellar should no brig be available to them. Iinfinitely preferable to "Watch Dad try and pull the best man's girlfriend."

Seriously, there was a party a few years ago where a little girl we know had to watch her out-of-it-again Mum systematically (and unsuccessfully) try and shag each and every one of her friends' Dads as the evening wore interminably on, and then live it down at school the following Monday. I feel a brig or at least a spare room with a lock on it would have come in very handy quite early on in proceedings. The Mum, of course, could remember nothing. Which isn't the point.

Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, folk music and myths are there as a guide, a sort of unwritten handbook. They contain the wisdom of generations and although there aren't always clearcut answers offered up, they do help children make sense of what often seems a bewildering world peopled by giants who are unpredictable, strange, often drunk and sometimes cruel. Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book exploring the psychology behind folklore in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

In it, he argues that far from shielding our children from the scarier or more unpleasant aspects of the stories handed down to us, we should encourage their retelling as a way of helping kids encounter and examine 'unmentionables' like alcoholism, rape, incest and murder.

In fact Bettelheim has used the harsh realities contained within Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and The Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs and many other tales and rhymes in his work with children as a therapist.

But no, the powers that be have decreed that drunken sailors and their antics be replaced with grumpy pirates.

Excuse me, but what's so PC and preferable about grumpy pirates anyway? There are two flaws in this substitution:

  • The pirate in question may feel unfairly singled out for attention - is it his or her fault they have melancholic inclinations? What if it's actually a case of mild depression or seasonal affective disorder, just to entangle us further in PC hocus pocus.
  • The pirate in question could well be hungover. Which leaves us with our original problem
And frankly, "Do a little jig and make him smile," or "Tickle him till he starts to giggle" are not things I would want to do anywhere near a grumpy pirate. He might get you with his hook.

Apparently Bookstart has raided the original nursery rhyme because it wants to stage pirate-themed events at book readings for children. Not because of any sensitivity about alcohol references you understand.

What Bookstart has achieved is further Disneyfication of our children's lives, where no one behaves inappropriately and no one gets hurt.

Anodyne, meaningless, soulless and very, very pointless. And utterly lacking in danger and excitement, which are also important building blocks in the child's imagination. Not all children have had to put up with drunken sailors in their lives, but shouldn't we let them at least have a go at working out what they'd do with one if they did?


The Goldfish said...

I thought it was all about booze-droop. Seriously. So it was "Put him in the long boat, til he's sober", "Take him and shake him and try to wake him", that kind of thing. And then "Hooray and up she rises" presumably referring to the intended outcome. So not about drunkenness per se, but the after-effects on sexual performance, early in the (next) morning.

Am I wrong? I've understood this to be the case since I was old enough to understand the concept. However, it could be something out of Freud's Interpretation of Sea-Shanties...

Not that it matters, as it makes sense being about an actual drunken sailor. We sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" at primary school.

seahorse said...

Do you know that never even occurred to me? But now, watching the video again I am struck by the accordion player's phallic emphasis. And there was me thinking he was pining for his electric guitar and latex.

It's fascinating how these old tunes/stories etc take on multiple meanings. It's probably because they are so ambiguous in the first place.

So did I get it wrong then? Is the brig in fact 'back in your trousers'???