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.'

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.

So I loved this, but I didn't know why it had invaded my imagination so thoroughly until I started writing. I began to see the power of the twinning of narrative and rhythm, which is something my books go into very much. It taught me to think about the difference between what poetry does—old fashioned thumping, rhyming poetry—and the effects that really beautiful, percussive, musical, melodic prose can achieve with rhythm.

In this simple little rhyme, you're seeing an unraveling of the tightest form of poetry into free verse. The rhyme form is immensely interesting; it sets a tight, highly versified and melodic opening against a free-verse and percussive closing.

An excerpt from Jim Crace's interview.

It goes like this. You're starting off in that first sentence: tinker, tailor. Not "tinker tailor soldier sailor," not only with alliteration, but with but with matching pairs of syllables: Tinker. Tailor. Soldier. Sailor. And, you've got a perfect rhyme: tailor and sailor. Those four words there could not be stitched more tightly together than they are in the form that I've just given them to you.

Then you come to the third line. Again, we observe pairs of syllables—but there's a subtle change, and a weird change. "Tinker tailor; soldier sailor; rich man, poor man." You've got repetition—but exactly the same words don't rhyme with each other. Pear doesn't rhyme with pear; bear rhymes with pear. "Man" and "man" don't rhyme—they're simply repetitions. There's a kind of loss of verve about repeating a word. So it's subtly, subtly starting to fall apart.

Then you've got a real falling apart on the next line—because "tinker, tailor," "soldier, sailor," "rich man poor man": You've got pairs of syllables. And then you've got this tricky three-syllable line: beggar man. It's three syllables, which breaks the pattern—and yet you've got the repetition of the word "man" that links them together. But it's loosening up its form. And then finally, the percussive note, the little drumbeat at the end—that slap on the skin of the drums—is the word thief.

Thief, of the words in this small piece, stands alone. It's only one syllable. It doesn't complete the rhyme. It's the only one that implies a kind of moral failing. On all three levels, it subverts the established pattern. And so the "thief" moment is the moment of prose—the moment I go after in my writing. I never achieve the regularity of tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. I'm trying to achieve melodic and rhythmic beauty in prose that is expressed here in this nice little so-called poem.

This poem registered profoundly in my imagination, even though I didn't understand it until later. But it created a literary consciousness in me. We should never underestimate what it is that will turn a young person into someone who wants to love literature. Or the young person who wants to make music, or the young person who is attracted to lyric. How are these people formed? They're not formed by being sent to do MFAs in creative writing. That's too late. They're formed by early encounters. They're formed by something that their mother said that made them laugh because it was so well-shaped. And "Tinker, Tailor," is something that seems so simple, that seems so one-dimensional—this little rhyme. But if you start to pick it apart—well, I'm having no trouble talking with you about it for 20 minutes. And those things enter into you. Straight from the plum tree, into the plum pie and onto the family table counting the stones: That's where my writing voice was formed.

I hate to think how this whole story might not have been possible today—that I caught just the tail end of a world that's all but disappeared. We are in a society where everything is getting more "user-friendly," to use that horrible phrase. Food is being packaged so thoroughly. Fewer and fewer people are scrumping. There are fewer damson trees to raid—and if there were, they'd be fenced off. Fewer people are buying fresh fruit—they're buying it tinned. And more they're buying produce which doesn't have pits or stones in it. Parents aren't sitting at the family table chatting around—they're in front of the TV set. Now I sound like an old fart, but you see what I'm saying: The life of that little rhyme, the content of that little rhyme is to some extent threatened. And I'm not wagging my finger at change, I favor change. But this is one of the things we're going to lose. The great, rich oral tradition, and the narratives embedded in the land—these spoil when we abandon them, like summer fruit left hanging on the tree.

In some way my encounter with the stones—both when I was scrumping them and then again when I was eating them—somehow helped forge my passion for the natural world. The natural history and the landscape are my characters, in a way more important than the human characters. And it was this nursery rhyme that helped me realize that the natural world has powerful and deeply embedded narratives. Trees across the road flowering with perishable fruit. The thrill of a young boy going out scrumping, and the terror of being caught. The fact of a family gathering at a family table to eat their food together, some of it grown and some of it borrowed. All of this is made sense of by a little snatch of beautiful language, one I've carried all my life. To encounter it is to re-encounter the dining table. To relive my love for my parents, which has not abated one bit. This little rhyme is one of my most powerful reminders of my family's love. It shows exactly how big things of childhood and transgression can be powerfully expressed, and recalled whole again, by the form of beautiful prose.