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The Old Woman and the Pig

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So much is said about the importance of books and reading, but language and stories begin with talking and singing, not reading. Nursery rhymes are stories: Humpty Dumpty, the Grand Old Duke of York, Jack and Jill. When I was tiny I loved the rhyme of the Old Woman and her Pig (see below). It has such a magical mood, timeless, strange and sinister – a world where even fire and water and sticks are thinking beings – and where a poor butcher is hanged just so an old lady can get home for her tea. I can hear my mother saying it now, on one of those summer evenings when it is still light long after bedtime.

Through almost all of human history storytelling was oral not written. Writing, as Karen Armstrong explains in her book The Great Transformation, was viewed as a threat when it was first invented, three thousand years ago: a dangerous new technology that would lead to terrible misunderstanding. Speech uses eye-contact, body language, tone of voice: just think how easy it is to be misunderstood on Twitter, or in emails, or how easy it is to be misrepresented if someone takes a joke out of context.

A lot of the troubles with Islam and Christianity historically have been disputes over how certain passages of scripture were meant: whether they should be read literally or poetically. And of course, literal interpretations of holy scriptures continue to cause a lot of trouble. The U.S Constitution is a holy scripture of another sort – and the problems of the phrasing of the Second Amendment are well-known. It reads like this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But what does it mean?

The Druids didn’t trust writing, and the feats of memory of Irish and Welsh poets were legendary. The Odyssey, the Iliad, the Mahabharata – it’s astonishing to think that Greek and Indian storytellers remembered whole epics.

Still today, a good storyteller needs a good memory. Telling a story, just in ordinary conversation, it is the memory for detail, the instinctive remembering of structure, that keeps the attention of listeners.

I grew up as one of six brothers, and each of us has published a book of one genre or another: poetry, politics, philosophy, children’s books, books of cartoons, etc. My mother was a headteacher – and she is a published author now too – writing a book in retirement about her work pioneering new methods for teaching damaged children. My Dad worked on a non-fiction book for forty years, and sadly died leaving it unfinished.

He was a storyteller, but his interest was facts. He told the same anecdotes of his working life or childhood over and over again – and we teased him mercilessly for it as we grew older. But when I was seven, I remember him telling my older brothers (they were 9 and 10) a bedtime story about the origin of the First World War. I listened at the door of my brothers’ room in a mix of awe and jealousy: why wasn’t I treated to this sort of hour-long epic historical exposition? Well, obviously, because I was too young to understand half of what was said. But that’s just another thing that seems unfair as a child.

The next night he treated my older brothers to the story of the origin of WWII. I can remember thinking it wasn’t quite so good(!).

My mother is not really a natural storyteller – but she is a very adept communicator, and loves words, and as a family we talked A LOT, about everything.

We all had things to say – opinions, questions, telling stupid jokes. And as we got older me and my brothers loved arguing about ideas, sometimes spending whole days discussing something or other.

I was a talker and a listener before I was a reader, or a writer.

The Old Woman and Her Pig

An old woman was sweeping her house, and she found a little crooked sixpence. “What,” said she, “shall I do with this little sixpence? I will go to market, and buy a little pig.”

As she was coming home, she came to a stile. But the piggy wouldn’t go over the stile.

She went a little further, and she met a dog. So she said to him, “Dog! Dog! Bite pig. Piggy won’t go over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the dog wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a stick. So she said, “Stick! Stick! Beat dog! Dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the stick wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a fire. So she said, “Fire! Fire! Burn stick. Stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the fire wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met some water. So she said, “Water! Water! Quench fire. Fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the water wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met an ox. So she said, “Ox! Ox! Drink water. Water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the ox wouldn’t.

She went a little further and she met a butcher. So she said, “Butcher! Butcher! Kill ox. Ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the butcher wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rope. So she said, “Rope! Rope! Hang butcher. Butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the rope wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rat. So she said, “Rat! Rat! Gnaw rope. Rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.” But the rat wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a cat. So she said, “Cat! Cat! Kill rat. Rat won’t gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.”

But the cat said to her, “If you will go to yonder cow, and fetch me a saucer of milk, I will kill the rat.” So away went the old woman to the cow.

But the cow said to her, “If you will go to yonder haystack, and fetch me a handful of hay, I’ll give you the milk.” So away went the old woman to the hay-stack; and she brought the hay to the cow.

As soon as the cow had eaten the hay, she gave the old woman the milk; and away she went with it in a saucer to the cat.

As soon as the cat had lapped up the milk, the cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope; the rope began to hang the butcher; the butcher began to kill the ox; the ox began to drink the water; the water began to quench the fire; the fire began to burn the stick; the stick began to beat the dog; the dog began to bite the pig; the little pig in a fright jumped over the stile; and so the old woman got home that night.

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