2017-10-25 15:14:53 UTC
Iona Opie obituary
Folklorist who collected, codified and published children’s rhymes, riddles and street culture
Wednesday 25 October 2017 10.59 EDT
When asked how she became a custodian of the lore and traditions of childhood, Iona Opie, who has died aged 94, told a bedtime story. The publishing company that employed her husband, Peter, was exiled by the London blitz to Bedfordshire in 1943, and there the couple walked by a field of corn. Iona, who was pregnant, picked up a bug and recited “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children all gone.” It flew and they were “left wondering about this rhyme – what did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it?”
No index in the public library could direct them, so from scratch they started researching nursery rhymes. Iona claimed the rhymes were uniquely British: “All part of being frightfully tough and not minding the weather; we’re nourished with nonsense and it does us a lot of good”. The Opies collected, codified and published that nonsense.
Iona had learned to study while young, as a silent child who read locked in a loo in the family house in Colchester, Essex. Her father, Sir Robert Archibald, a pathologist, was often away in Africa researching tropical diseases; her mother, Olive (nee Cant), nurtured Iona’s studies and her first purchases of old books. She meant to follow her father into science, but “I was hijacked”.
During the second world war, she made meteorological maps in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Off duty, she read I Want To Be a Success, a popular 1939 publication written by, and very much about, an old Etonian, Peter Opie, another peruser of reference books. She sent him a letter; the correspondence became a romance, an elopement, and in 1943 a marriage. “I did this very stupid thing of letting myself get fascinated with Peter. I was 19 and knew it was the end of my independent life.
Since they had no academic background, the Opies did not know they lacked proper qualifications, or how to publish within academic conventions; the keeper of western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, discovered them collecting riddles, and recommended them to the Oxford University Press. The couple’s inquiries were exhaustive and exhausting. Peter did the writing; Iona, whom he called “old mother shuffle paper”, did the research. They worked three shifts daily in separate rooms, communicating by note in work hours – no social life, no money, picking nettles in the park to eat in lieu of greens.
“We were both puritans; we liked hurting ourselves,” said Iona. “Neither of us liked luxury. I wanted a hard life.” She got it, although both Opies could burst into playfulness: “The happiness a child can find … is more intense than any in adult life and the treasures of childhood which often exist only in the memory are among our most precious possessions.”
Their first publication was I Saw Esau (1947), a slim precursor of the wide spines of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) and The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955). The Opies applied years of rigour to an oral culture too commonplace to have received attention before: their scholarship, informally communicated, was important to the postwar discovery of the words of ordinary people. “It took 50 generations to make up Mother Goose,” Iona said. “Nursery rhymes are the smallest great poems of the world’s literature.”
They slogged on. “We stayed home and plod, plod, plodded along.” The Opies wanted to do fieldwork among the juvenile tribes of Britain, about whom anthropologists knew nothing; they ignored claims that traditions were dead and recruited helpers to question children in 70 schools. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) revealed a complex, secret society with its “own code of oral legislation for testing, betting, swapping, keeping secrets”.
The tribes remembered from generation to generation a codex of knowledge, yet could speedily disseminate a joke nationwide. This society was unsentimental, anti-authoritarian, aware of the absurdity of adults. The book that recorded it – just before its customs were changing with the commodification of childhood – was on all the reading lists for the new subject of sociology in the 1960s.
On the Opies plodded, no car, no telly, interviewing thousands for Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969) and filing folk fictions for The Classic Fairy Tales (1974); they also anthologised children’s verse. Books furnished their Hampshire homes (first at Alton, then West Liss) and because they tried to “think as a child”, these homes also became repositories of once-put-away childish things – toys, games and teaching aids.
After Peter’s death from a heart attack in 1982, Iona continued the work alone. Her publications included The People in the Playground (1993), a diary of two of the 13 years for which she attended morning playtime at Liss junior school to document the scatology and lewdness left out of The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren –“In 1959, you didn’t publish anything worse than ‘knickers’: now in the name of science I’m going to put in everything.” Tail Feathers From Mother Goose (1988) and Here Comes Mother Goose (1999) were meant to transmit tradition to children who no longer learned it from peers or grandmas. Iona overcame a fear that printing would dispel the spell: “The world of childhood is too independent, too large, and too vital to be affected by any book.”
She sold 20,000 books from the Opies’ private collection, worth £1m, half-price to the Bodleian in 1987. Oxford University’s appeal for purchase funds exceeded its target. Some of the money helped subsidise her son Robert’s collection of ephemera – he applied Opie principles to collecting items such as the baker’s brown paper bag and the bus ticket, and the result is now housed in the Museum of Brands in west London. Robert collaborated with Iona on The Treasures of Childhood (1989). Her son James was an expert on toy soldiers; her daughter, Laetitia, worked in education. All three children had been sent to boarding schools so they should not distract from their parents’ work.
Iona changed direction temporarily with A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989), but never lost faith with children: “I have a way of life that comes from the children, I’m going to go on playing until I expire.” The encyclopedic by-product of this vow was Children’s Games With Things (1997).
The universities of Oxford, Southampton, Nottingham and Surrey awarded the Opies honorary masters’ degrees and doctorates; and they won international literary medals. Iona was made CBE in 1999.
James, Robert and Laetitia survive her, as do four grandsons and a granddaughter.
• Iona Margaret Balfour Opie, folklorist, born 13 October 1923; died 23 October 2017