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I don't know about you (well, obviously I don't, I'm not even sure who you are) but Amazon and their associates have the happy ...

Thursday, 12 August 2010


The other day, we were called into action to look after our youngest nephew, Robbie, whilst his mum (my sister) had her biannual appointment with the dentist.  The centre of Burton upon Trent has limited scope for infant entertainment, so we fell back on the tried and trusted method of ‘going to see the ducks on the river’. 

I have written before of my childhood perambulations with my Nana Whiteland across the Ferry Bridge, ostensibly to see the swans (see ‘My Burton Ferry Tale’ in ‘Steady Past Your Granny’s’ at    

In those days (early 1960s) the River Trent had been so reduced to an evil-smelling gutter that only the odd foolhardy swan or deluded duck would venture anywhere near it.  Fortunately, we are less gung-ho than we were about what can and cannot be chucked into our waterways these days and, as a result, the Trent practically teems with wildfowl once more (at the time of writing.  I’m acutely aware of man’s capacity to screw such things up).

We wheeled our nephew down through the Garden of Remembrance to the Andressey Bridge, where all three of us viewed the assortment of ducks sleeping on the bank and swimming, moorhens busily skittering across the river and swans anxiously shepherding their small brood of cygnets out of harm’s way.  Inevitably we were carrying on that one-sided conversation beloved of all adults when tasked with entertaining a small child.

“Look at the ducks, Robbie.  What do ducks do?”

They'll keep their welcome in the hillside

In all honesty, we would have been pretty shocked if he had made the requisite noise.  We would have been even more astounded if he had suddenly expounded on ducks, their mating rituals, habits and habitat.  Fortunately, he did none of these things.  Instead, he emitted a piercing squeal of excitement and pointed to the creatures under discussion.  It was clearly down us to hold up our end in this conversation.

I have this rather cynical theory that the British rather like young children because, bereft of language skills, we can foist our own view of what they might say on them, thus endowing them with a personality that is entirely of our own making.  We do much the same thing with our pets.  Of course, once they have gained language skills and are able to demonstrate their true personalities, we tend to lose interest.  By the time that they are losing their carefully honed language skills, usually in their early teenage years, they have gone so completely beyond the pale in our eyes that the only personality we’re willing to foist on them is one that would ensure a lengthy stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.  No?  Oh well, perhaps it’s just me.

Anyway, this “what do the ducks do?” question reminded me of a book that Robbie’s mother was very fond of when she was small.  This was one of those all-purpose colouring books that try to incorporate many different educational endeavours.  There were puzzles and rhymes, things to draw and things to colour, dots to join up and counting to practice.  It was this last aspect that particularly amused me.   This was a book where the publishers obviously believed in quantity and value for money above all things, resulting in a fairly thick tome that they had obviously struggled to fill with quality material.  Hence the final section, which introduced the reading infant to the concept of counting via a series of animals and their offspring.

The content was relatively straightforward.  An early example relating to fish should give you some idea.  It went something like this:

“Down in the river, by the old oak tree,
Lived a mother fish and her little fish three,
“Swim!” said the mother fish,
“We swim!” said the three,
And they swam all day by the old oak tree.”

Good eh?  You may shake your head and wonder why I’ve remembered this particular piece of doggerel from nearly forty years ago, and I wish I could tell you.  All I can say is, like a particularly irritating tune, it seems to have become stuck in my mind.

The structure of the verse, for each creature, basically involved the mother animal commanding her offspring to do whatever it was that said animals were typically expected to do.  This worked well with animals whose habits were relatively well known.  Dogs barked, sheep grazed, ducks quacked and so on.  However, in a worthy desire to fill up the book, the verse began to stray into creatures that really did not fit the format.

The two that convulsed me with laughter then, and still make me smile today, were the lizard and the beaver.  Clearly, the authors were struggling to come up with well known activities for these, so the Mother Lizard ordered her children to “Bask!” with a particularly stern look on her face.  I had a vision of a small horde of reptiles throwing themselves on their backs, little legs in the air, screaming “We Bask!” in an effort to placate their, obviously insane, mother who had clearly been overdoing the basking herself. 

However, I think the beaver was my all-time favourite.  The writers had the Mother Beaver issuing the cryptic command “Beave!” to her unfortunate offspring.  You could imagine them looking at each other in puzzlement, shaking their wet and whiskered heads sadly, in the sure and certain knowledge that their mother had finally cracked up (probably through having trees constantly fall on her head) and was now one log short of a dam.  “Beave?”  I could hear them saying, “What the hell do you mean, beave?”  On reflection, I suppose they were just trying to avoid having her say “Dam!” which would have made sense  but would have sounded as if she had suddenly realised she had forgotten something.

“What do beavers do, Robbie?  No, I don’t know either.”

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.  This story features in the new bumper collection now released as a Kindle edition - "Crutches for Ducks" at and at