At the heart of this conflict lies a simple question: is “Row, row, row your boat” a masterpiece of cyclicity and stasis at the heart of global spirituality, or is it nothing but a secular linear ditty that may be travestied at will? Here follows a summary of the debate between the two parties in the playground near the Pavilion café.
Tower Hamlets parents: linearity and progress
The Tower Hamlets view is that “Row, row, row your boat, / Gently down the stream. / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, / Life is but a dream” was all very well, but that it has had its day, and should be replaced by practical, improving lyrics that express the simple truth that time is an arrow, not a boomerang. An example:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Throw your teacher overboard
And listen to her scream.
Hackney parents: cyclicity and stasis
Hackney parents, on the other hand, have fallen under the spell of the groundhog yesterdays of the Lauriston Road boutiques. And for them, the medium is the message, and the monochordal musical round is nothing without the circle of existence expressed in the lyrics.
Their guru is the American Catholic philosopher Bing Crosby, author of other eternally recurrent works such as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, featuring the Holy Trinity of Laverne, Patty and Maxene. They are particularly proud of the fact that Bing’s classic version of “Row, row, row your boat” segues into “Frère Jacques”, which, although bichordal and French and thus somewhat inferior, subordinates time to timelessness:
Demonstrating that they are not doctrinaire conservatives, they have devised a quasi-Buddhist variant, which is used on holidays:
Aware of your karmic stream,
Go along easily, completely and perfectly
Toward enlightenment in you daily life.
Happily, happily, happily,
Meditate on the impermanence
Of all Dharmas.
At this point a wandering Mudcatter pointed out that the 1852 minstrel original evokes in verse-chorus form the timeless stability of plantation life as a contrast to the timeful tribulations of freedom in northern and western towns:
Down by the river our log hut stands,
Where father and mother once dwelt
And the old door latch that was worn by our hands
And the church where in prayer we knelt
Years, years have passed since that happy time
And the river is rolling along
And the rippling sound on the mossy bank
Is singing the same old song:
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream
All that’s past is gone, you know, the future’s but a dream
Row, row, row, gently down the stream
Row, row, row, gently down the stream
Moreover, he said, divine writ in the form of the episode “The Ballet Shoe” from Bagpuss integrates linear and cyclical narrative, and to demonstrate his point he sang the last verse-chorus of that song, as recorded by Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner:
the mice decided they needed a wash
they smelt a bit its true
they filled the basin with orange squash
and jumped right in with a splish and a splosh
to wash and polish until they were posh
and sticky and pretty as new, as new
stickily pretty as new
row row hoe the boat
sticky with orange squash
lickily stickily blibbily blubbely
what a lot of bosh
Ah yes, he said, and then what to make of Lewis Carroll’s gloss on “Row, row, row your boat” in the epilogue to Through the Looking-Glass, “A boat beneath a sunny sky,” which ends thus:
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?
Closing arguments and resolution
But here a Tower Hamlets parent interrupted aggressively, noting that the Bing Crosby recording was echoed in an old anecdote about Anglo-French overseas relations, and suggesting that conclusions might be drawn about Hackney parents’ intelligence:
A flying saucer descends almost to Earth – or rather to the Northwest Atlantic, where the alien scientists observe four Newfies fishing and singing the round “Row, row, row your boat.”
The aliens decide to conduct an experiment, and fire a beam into the boat which removes a quarter of the Newfies’ brains. They carry on fishing and singing “Row, row, row your boat.”
The puzzled aliens intensify the beam so that it zaps half of the Newfies’ brains. They carry on fishing and singing “Row, row, row your boat.”
The aliens are amazed, and whack the beam up to full power so that the Newfies lose their entire brains. They carry on fishing, now singing a different round: “Frère Jacques, frère Jacques.”
A scuffle broke out in the sandpit, parents began to reach for the wine bottles and other weapons concealed in their tote bags, and things were looking bleak, when Retrograde Akira arrived, doing his daily laps backwards round the park.
“What’s going on, friends?” he asked.
“Hackney parents can’t agree with Tower Hamlets parents about the best lyrics for ‘Row, row, row your boat,'” said someone.
“That’s simple,” said Akira with a toss of his leonine locks, “it’s ‘Dream a but is life, / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, / Stream the down gently / Boat your row, row, row.'” And he took one step and then another backwards, and off he went, singing the refrain.
The warring parents looked at one another in embarrassment. One joined in with Retrograde Akira, and then they all walked off with him, singing merrily away, and their children were eaten by foxes.
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