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I’m quite good at this. But I have to admit defeat here. Even I couldn’t conjure this little story up, not in my wildest imaginings.

All families are different, all unique in their own way. Sometimes you hear stories and think ‘Hmm, that reminds me of…’ and you may well be right. Other households are often very similar, not wholly different.

However, in one respect the Swallow household was unique in having its own collection of childhood songs that I have genuinely never heard anywhere else. I know of nobody outside the immediate family who has ever heard of them, let alone can sing them some fifty odd years on.

I learned these songs at the knees of the Master, Nana Platt. They must have drifted into her life somehow, but I really do not know their provenance. All I can say is that she and my mum, who added a rather nice contralto descant on occasion, must have had the patience of saints. We must have sung these songs a lot if I can still remember them after all this time. And as they are mainly pure nonsense you can’t predict or make up the bits you don’t recall.


Very Merry Life

There’s one two three four five six seven eight

Funny little kids at home

An old tomcat

A she-cat too

An old poll parrot

And a cockledoodledoo

There’s an old French dog with his ears cut short

And a great big fat strong wiiiife…

With a lot like that

I’ll eat my hat

If you can’t lead a very merry life


What do you do, a’John?

What do you do a’[1]John?

I push I push I push

Where do you push a’John?

On the Delaware acker one a one a one a one

The Delaware acker one


What do you push a’John?

I push I push at a truck

Where do you push a’John?

On the Delaware acker one a one a one a one

The Delaware acker one


A right down scientific man

This is some of the most inspired gibberish you’ll ever hear.


He knew all about etymology

Hebrew, shebrew, jujuology

Syntax, tintacks, hobnail bootblacks

He was as full as a pixen van[2]

Those who lacked or backed his evidence

Swore his jaw was more than medicine

Simply because

People said he was

A right down scientific man

(When fully learned, this song should be sung at a breakneck pace. The aim is to reach the end before the other singers. Singing as a martial art.)


Chickery Roo Tantan

This is a clapping song. You don’t really need to know the tune, you can simply follow the metre.

In China once there lived a great man

His name was Chickery Roo Tantan

His legs were long and his feet were small

This Chinaman couldn’t walk at all…


Chickery Roo ch’choo ch’clar

Chickery Roo, ninnapy nan

Packet a dust keyanta[3] key

Canopy annopy China coo

(The last four lines can optionally also be sung at breakneck pace. More singing as a martial art.)


Michael Finnegan

Not sure of the uniqueness of this one, but I stuck it in anyway

I knew a man named Michael Finnegan

He grew whiskers on his chinigan

When he shaved they grew backinnegan

Poor old Micheal Finnegan, begin again[4]


There’s a rather pleasingly surreal aspect to this. On holiday in Goa in 1992, my wife Alison and I were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary, and some of the people we knew organised a party for us. Loads of food, loads of beer, then SHOWTIME!

Our Goan mate John had brought his drum, made of half an old paraffin can, and he and the 16-strong Goan contingent launched into a strange but entrancing medley of folksongs, interspersed as the evening wore on with what is best described as mild smut – sort of sub-music hall innuendo, I suppose, with a lot of references to rams, cocks, bullocks, etc.

In England it would have been cringingly embarrassing, but the overall effect was hysterically funny, and it was very pleasing they made such an effort for  us. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, and all too soon the dread words.

‘OK. Time for some English songs.’

Now your average Brit isn’t at his best in such circumstances, and Alison and our two English friends went a bit tharn (look it up in Watership Down), which is how I ended up sitting on a beach some several thousand miles from Blighty, singing the family nonsense songs at two o’clock in the morning to an audience of drunk Goans. As you now know the repertoire is rather limited, which is in the nature of songs learnt at your grandmother’s and mother’s knee, but mine hosts listened enraptured.

Goan Charlie finally broke the silence.

‘I don’t understand them.’

‘Well, the thing is you aren’t supposed to. They’re nonsense songs; a bit like nursery rhymes. They are just for fun. My nana and mum and we children used to sing them – when I was younger’. They’re just nonsense.’

‘Aaah. Excellent. Now I understand. Well, sing them again then.’

[1] I think this may be a corruption of ‘our’, a very Northern construction

[2] No I don’t know what one is either

[3] Sounds like ‘Chianti’ but with a final a not i

[4] As in begin again, sing it over and over till you’re all sick of it