Before anything else, song-wise; before my sister’s 21st birthday, when songs suddenly became tangible, accessible, re-playable plastic; before my siblings’ friends shared selections from their disc collections, and before my parents’ generosity helped to amass our own modest collection… Before all this, song recordings were transitory, occasional, ethereal; and there was Children’s Favourites on the radio, and that was about it.
Saturday mornings, I think, over a leisurely makeshift breakfast sitting next to the kitchen fire, there’d be Nelly The Elephant on the radio, and Danny Kaye singing various songs from Hans Christian Andersen; there’d be Alma Cogan singing either about a railroad running through the middle of the house, or about ‘This Old House’. There’d be the Teddy bears Picnic (‘if you go down to the woods today…’) and the three Billy Goats Gruff and –as I later discovered –AA Milne’s little song about Christopher Robin watching the changing of the guard; there’d be Tubby the Tuba and – a particular treat –Sparky’s Magic Piano . In retrospect, it was all pretty good.
Retrospection and nostalgia have become, of course, big business. At the end of 1988, I found and bought a double cassette album of all these old songs, ‘Children’s Favourites’, originally thinking of it as a great Christmas gift for… somebody, and then realizing that nobody would appreciate it as much as I would, and so deciding to keep it. I shamelessly wallowed in the syrupy nostalgia and enjoyed every song. Amongst the crass gimmickry, and there was plenty of that, there were also some tasteful classics, and some nicely crafted treasures including ‘Little Boy Fishing’. We’ll come back to this.
It was a time when I had given up my regular income job on a whim/ spiritual impulse/mid-life crisis/sense of vocation… Travelling to Bournemouth in the turning of the year to begin my intensive TEFL course, I listened to the cassettes as I drove and seriously considered ways of raising income: how about busking on the streets of Bournemouth, I thought, and, hey, why not buy into the musical nostalgia business, and focus on these numbers for us baby-boomers? Okay, I couldn’t quite see myself performing ‘I Know An Old Lady’ (and I didn’t begin to look like Burl Ives till several years later) or even Max’s ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’, – but I could sort of imagine myself singing ‘Robin Hood’ (riding through the glen);’Little White Bull’ a la Tommy Steele; I’d have a brave stab at ‘The Runaway Train’ (while coins continued to drop in the imaginary hat)… and yes I thought I could learn that Shirley Abicair number about the little boy fishing off a wooden pier.
It was a daft, momentary dream – for one thing a TEFL course allows no free time for anything beyond planning lessons, let alone busking! So I never did take to the streets with my handful of Uncle Mac classics. But oddly enough about seven or eight years later I did work the ‘fishing’ song into my repertoire. Singing it at folk club got a fairly ambiguous response –but then again so did most of my ‘covers’ (in that list include ‘Paper Moon’, Brel’s ‘The Desperate ones’, Goffin/King’s ‘Goin’ Back’) – but it gave me a kick, and that’s what counts.
If I came to love this song as a child – and I did, I think – then I can only conjecture at some of the elements of appeal. The image of the solitary kid enjoying his solitude was always attractive – particularly with the added ideas of imagination, dreaming… and that’s all here. ‘Little boy dreaming with a secret smile/one day sail away cannibal isle…’ (! Uncertain attraction there, perhaps!). The song also hinted at the exciting anticipation of growing up (‘Soon enough little boy’ll grow big man/then he’ll go fishing for the frying pan’ – not that I got that, I’m sure), the idea of aspiration (‘Gotta make some money for that boat of mine…’) but all within the cosy safety of childhood – getting sleepy and going to bed –on ‘Blanket Bay’. And I’m guessing the jaunty little internal rhymes were fun too: ‘Dogfish catfish any this or that fish’; ‘can’t catch shellfish but I wanna sell fish’; as well as the colourful idiomatic lines which would have seemed nonsense to me, but fun if taken literally – ‘Many a general would eat his hat…’ We didn’t fish, as kids, our family, but I kept the image of it, Huck Finn-like, as something a bit romantic, and requested a rod for one birthday before I’d quite quit childhood. (The reality of fishing was less entrancing, though.)
If I think of the TV Shirley Abicair, all I can conjure up is someone compositely between the lady who accompanied Muffin The Mule, Shari somebody who worked Lamb Chop, and Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary. But with a zither… Or was it an autoharp? But this was radio Shirley Abicair, just a pretty voice, singing a nice song… The song? Well, without any supporting research, I suspect this is a sort of modified traditional song. I think I’ve read it has aboriginal origins (and S.A. was Australian wasn’t she?), but to me it has a kind of possible West Indian feel, somehow, at a time when it was not particularly non PC to affect Caribbean mannerisms to sing about ‘dat ol banana boat’ etc. This song doesn’t do that; and I may be way off the mark. Even if this were some kind of traditional, it has been neatly smoothed, anglicised, even almost sort of pop-structured. But there’s something quietly substantial about its dreamy childhood images, that has stayed with me a little more doggedly than eg.Windmill in Old Amsterdam, and such . And yes I still like it.