The Hidden Poetic Genius of an Old, English Nursery Rhyme

Novelist Jim Crace, whose prose has been analyzed by mathematicians for its rhythm, learned his technique from the childhood counting game 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor.'
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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

When I asked the celebrated British novelist Jim Crace to tell me about a favorite line from literature, he was reluctant to choose something bound between the covers of a book. This is a writer, after all, who recently confessed to The Independent that he's never read a book by Thomas Hardy, another chronicler of life in the English countryside.

"I've got a degree in English literature," Crace told me, "but I spent the time drinking, to tell you the truth. I'm not that well-versed in literary theory—I don't know what it is. I come from a working-class background where I was much more likely to read socialist books and leaflets than Bronte or Dickens—neither of whom I've yet read."

He told me that asking about his process is a little like asking the tennis player Andy Murray what he was thinking when he hit a good forehand.

"[Murray] couldn't articulate it," Crace said, "but he wouldn't need to articulate it. Because it's all about the sinew in his body that delivers the stroke. And I guess in my pretentious way, that's what I'm saying: It's all about the sinew in my body that delivers the stroke."

For him, writing is rooted in the physical world rather than the abstract chambers of the intellect. Fittingly, then, Crace wanted to discuss "Tinker, Tailor," a fortune-telling rhyme that's inextricably bound to the land, to food, to dinner and the dining table. He notes that the rhyme's subversive power resonates in many literary works—and counts A. A. Milne, John Le Carré, Virginia Woolf, J. M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Neil Gaiman, Tom Waits, and Noel Coward among those who have borrowed from it in some way. To explain its power on him, though, he had to tell a story from his boyhood about stealing and eating a neighbor's damson plums—and how the forbidden fruit, and the rhyme associated with it, entered him and became like a part of his physical body.

Jim Crace's novel Quarantine (1997) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and mathematical scientists at Cambridge have studied the beguiling rhythmic patterns in his prose. His latest book, Harvest, is a tale about the way outside forces rupture communal life in a rural English town. The author spoke to me by phone from his home near Birmingham, England.


Jim Crace: I was brought up in a flat in North London—virtually the last building in London, because north of us was countryside all the way to the coast, and south of us was non-stop London for 20 miles.

My father had an allotment there, a small garden that we rented to grow our own vegetables. And next to that was a farm. My father used to send me and my brother across to a row of damson trees on the farmland. The trees hung thick with damsons that were sitting there not getting picked.

So we would do this—do you know the verb "to scrump"? It's an English word that basically means to steal apples, but also has come to mean to steal any type of fruit. My father would send us across to scrump the damsons. Of course, in a way, it wasn't truly theft: The fruit would have rotted if we didn't take it. But really, it was theft. We were trespassing on a farmer's land, and we were stealing from him.

Even though my brother and I loved scrumping—we loved the act of climbing trees and grabbing fruit—there was always fear we would be caught. We feared we'd be imprisoned, sent to Australia. You know how you are when you're a kid? We were terrified and excited by it at the same time.

The story didn't end there, because we'd take the damsons back home. My mom would bottle them—and all through the winter we'd have damson pie. In our generation in England, you'd have damson pie for Sunday lunch. You'd get your portion of pie, and as you'd get through it, the pips—the stones in the center of the fruit—would end up in your mouth. You'd take them out and place them on the tablecloth in front of you, and they'd remain on the table before you throughout the meal. Then at the end, you could make a little rhyme:

Tinker, Tailor
Soldier, Sailor
Rich man, Poor Man
Beggar man, Thief.

We used this around the table to tell our fortunes. Eight men—and you'd count off for each pip you had, stopping when you ran out, looping around to the beginning if you had more than eight. Every single one of the choices would be invite you to have a little imaginative spree. If you had five of these stones, you could think for a few minutes think about being a rich man. And how close you'd come to being a poor man.

And there's another level here—a sexist level—because it was different for girls and for boys. If you were a boy, you would chomp a bit, and it would tell you who you would become later in life. But if you were a girl, when you reeled off this little rhyme, it would only tell you who you were going to marry. When we were kids we wouldn't have seen the feminist aspect of it, that fact that women had different outcomes from men—that women were only defined by marriage, while men were defined by what they did.

This influential little verse had enormous power for me, in part, because of my fear of being accused of stealing. Imagine: My brother and I would thrill ourselves by stealing the damsons when my father ordered us to do it. We'd eat and enjoy them, and what was left over would come out again six months later in bottles, baked in pies. And as we ate we'd end with the rhyme with that accusatory snare-beat: thief. For me, the fear of being called a thief was resurrected again in that moment. The plums came back in a different form, and with them the ghost of the accusation.

There were happy memories associated with it, too. My father had a North London accent—he said thief like feef. My brother and I used to sneak pips into his pile to give him the right amount so that he'd fall on "thief." And we'd laugh ourselves dry—because not only did he become a thief, but he'd mispronounce the word.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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