Thursday, February 5, 2015

This will give you a crooked smile

There Was A Crooked Man
There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
Ever wonder who that crooked man was, or where he came from? Well, I am from Baltimore County, Maryland, home of a crooked man who became county executive, governor of Maryland and vice-president of the United States under Richard M. Nixon.  This was a man we knew as Spiro T. Agnew, so heinously dishonest that he continued his practice of taking canvas sacks full of bribe money even when he occupied an office in the White House. He was a true scoundrel, and yet that old nursery rhyme had nothing to do with him at all. 
The rhyme goes back to the 1840s, and it's about the Leaning Houses of Lavenham, Suffolk, England.   That town is about 70 miles from London, but like so much of England, its buildings go back quite a few years.  
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lavenham was so prosperous, due to its production of top-quality wool for making broadcloth, that it was able to construct the highest village church tower in all of Britain (141 feet).  
So just as anywhere that finds people making lots of money, the population soon swelled as plenty of others moved to Lavenham to cash in on the bonanza.  Sheep were getting shorn, wool was being spun, and people were moving into houses built in a hurry by carpenters so eager to nail down a slice of the fortune that they used green timber for framing out the houses.
All those purchasers of new houses joined the local sheep in getting fleeced.  New-cut lumber is not so good for building. You know the steps on your neighbor's deck, with the third step that buckled and had to be replaced?  The wood wasn't aged long enough to dry.  But two bad things happened at once in dear old Lavenham: Dutch immigrants built up a rival wool trade in the town of Colchester, and soon eclipsed Lavenham's business, eventually taking all the English wool trade and leaving Lavenham a town without a lot of jobs.
And then the green timbers twisted in the warmth of the sun and the afternoons' drying of the mornings' rains.  That almost sounds poetic, but I doubt that many of the people who suddenly found themselves living in houses that looked like Salvador Dali was the architect were moved to poetry over finding their houses looked like this all of a sudden:
And there was nothing to be done; no one could afford to have their house re-built.
All these years later, the houses are still there, bent but unbowed!

There is another Lavenham poem that you know by heart.  On the village's Shilling Street, at the end of the 1700s, lived a poet named Jane Taylor. Jane wrote a poem called "The Star," and from that poem came the nursery rhyme "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."


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