Crutches for Ducks

By Philip Whiteland

Biography & memoir, Comedy & satire, General non-fiction

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1825
3 mins

Introduction

It is a source of some amazement to me that we ever manage to teach our children to communicate coherently at all, given the amount of linguistic rubbish that we direct at them, from birth onwards, on a daily basis,. By this, I don’t just mean the “oozaboofulbabyden?” stuff that passes for intelligent conversation when anyone is let anywhere near a babe in arms, although that’s bad enough. No, I’m thinking in terms of phrases and sayings that we adopt, almost unconsciously, which do not really bear close examination.
Before we all start nodding wisely and muttering about the incursion of text-speak into written English and the adoption of street-slang as the lingua franca of our children, what I was thinking of here was the everyday rubbish that formed part of my upbringing.
I’m sure that all families have their pet phrases and sayings that are only really comprehensible to those in the know, and I don’t suppose we were much different. My Nanna Whiteland would look out over the garden, whenever rain looked likely, and pronounce that “it’s looking black over our Mary’s hole”. For years I used to think that this was a sly dig at my Nanna’s sister-in-law, Great Aunt Mary’s, home on the other side of Burton, although common sense and spatial awareness should have told me that we weren’t looking in that direction. It’s only in recent times that I’ve discovered that ‘our Mary’s hole’ used to be an old term for Tatenhill, a small village about 5 miles from where Nanna lived.
Odd phrases also used to be employed whenever adults did not want to give a straight answer to a child’s question, for whatever reason. This could be out of propriety. For example, it used to be seen as ‘not the thing to do’ to announce that you were going to the toilet. Therefore, the answer to “where are you off to?” asked at an inappropriate juncture could well be “I’m going to see a man about a dog”, which as a child I thought wonderfully promising, until I figured out its true meaning. An alternative to that was “I’m going to turn my bike round”, which conjured up images for me of men with perpetually revolving bicycles. My wife tells the story of her then in-laws coming to visit her new marital home and her father-in-law announcing that he “was going to see his aunt”, to which my wife responded that she didn’t know he had relatives in the area.
Another source of verbal obfuscation was the perennial cry of “what’s for tea?”, the answer for which could be “a kick at the pantry door” or “jam and herrings”. The latter was a stock answer at my mum’s home apparently and, when my Auntie Vera went to Army Camp in the Second World War, she wrote home excitedly to say that she had finally had “jam and herrings” thanks to the army’s habit of dishing all of the food onto one mess tray for consumption.
Some phrases were probably just for the fun of it. A typical response to “where are you going?” could easily be “there and back to see how far it is”. Mum had a stock of these that always amused me. If she was referring to someone who she couldn’t possibly know, she might say “Oh yes, I know her. Her mother used to chew bread for our ducks”. Don’t ask my why, I have no idea. She could say these things with a completely straight face but with a twinkle in her eye which often had me helpless with laughter.
A particular occasion was when we were driving home from a holiday with Uncle Jim and Auntie Vera. At that time, my dad was in the process of learning to drive and, on the way home, he persuaded my Uncle Jim to let him take the wheel for a bit of practice. Rather than simply get out of the car and change places, dad insisted on trying to negotiate the journey from passenger seat to the driver’s seat by levering himself over the handbrake and gear lever. This was no inconsiderable feat in the old days of Ford Populars, where the gear lever would not have looked out of place on a ten ton truck and dad therefore stood a good chance of "going through a form of marriage" (as the late lamented News of the World used to say) with it, if he wasn't careful. I was already giggling at this sight, when I asked mum what they were doing. “Oh, playing silly buggers I shouldn’t wonder” she said, matter-of-factly, which creased me for the twin reasons that 1. Mother never usually swore and 2. I loved the concept of there actually being a game called ‘silly buggers’, and this was how it was played.
However, my mum’s best phrase for dealing with questions for which she either didn’t know, or didn’t want to give, the answer, is one that has puzzled me for years. In this situation she would often say, “leos for meddlers, crutches for ducks” and tap her nose. I have spelt that as it sounded to me and it may be that I have completely misunderstood what she said. One correspondent reported that his mother used a similar phrase, which was "layholes for meddlers, crutches for ducks", which might make a bit more sense if we assume that 'layholes' indicates graves, which would fit with the usually sinister and morbid character of most ancient phrases. If you have any better suggestions, please let me know.
It could well be one of those phrases, like “all my eye and betty martin” (used to indicate that some statement or other was rubbish) that probably had its origins in a phrase from a foreign language, in that case, the Latin phrase “Mihi beata mater' might be a possibility according to an internet source. “Sanfairyann” was another favourite, usually meaning “it doesn’t matter”. I remember nearly falling off my chair in French when I realised that the phrase was actually “Ca ne fait rien”.
How I ever came to be able to string a coherent sentence together, in the midst of all of this nonsense, goodness only knows. I accept that the jury is still out on that one, so I’ll leave you to decide as you plough through the following stories.



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