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  • In Search of "Childish Things":An Interview with Iona Opie1
  • Leonard S. Marcus (bio)

In a talk given at Columbia University in the fall of 1988, Iona Opie recalled that she and her late husband Peter had embarked on their pioneering child lore researches more or less by chance. A moment's curiosity, which might have passed but didn't, had first served to focus their scholarly attention on nursery nonsense and other "childish things." For the next forty years, the Opies had, she suggested, played out the consequences of their chance introduction to a largely uncharted field of study.

The fruits of Iona and Peter Opie's passionate persistence are well known and comprise a sizeable shelfful of pathfinding works: The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969) and The Oxford Book of Children's Verse (1973), among others.

Since her husband's death in 1982, Iona Opie has continued their work, seeing into print The Singing Game (1985) and Tail Feathers from Mother Goose (1988) and arranging for the transfer of the Opie Collection of children's books to the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Her most recent publications are A Dictionary of Superstitions (co-edited with Moira Tatem, 1989) and The Treasures of Childhood: Books, Toys and Games from the Opie Collection (co-written with Robert Opie and Brian Alderson, 1990).

Iona Opie lives in a late Victorian farmhouse in West Liss, Hampshire. The following interview is based on a conversation recorded in New York on October 21, 1988, during the author's first visit to the United States.

LM: How did The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) come about?

IO: Ah, the story about the famous ladybird, who helped us at the time that we were expecting our first child. It was due to this ladybird that we started our whole life's work. She is more or less the heraldic beast of the Opie family. But before I tell that story perhaps I should go back a bit further because the actual beginning of our work of course was our getting married.

Peter had written three autobiographies by the time I married him—two and a half, actually; he finished the third after we married. He was [End Page 7] 24 then. And as the books brought in almost no money at all the elders of the family told him he must get a proper job. So he joined a publisher of reference books just off Fleet Street in London. But towards the end of the War work became difficult in London because of all the bombs.

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Figure 1.

Iona and Peter Opie in the library of their home in Hampshire, 1959. Photo: Jarché.

LM: It must have been incredibly frightening.

IO: It was. They were terrible. There were the buzz bombs and the rockets. The buzz bombs were the worst because they were pilotless planes with this curiously relentless chugging noise. You knew that at any moment the engine was going to cut out and they would fall and the bomb would go off leaving a huge crater somewhere.

LM: A sort of roll of the dice, then. [End Page 8]

IO: Yes, exactly. The whole of Peter's firm was evacuated down to the country and I had already been dismissed by the WAAFs (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) because we were expecting our first child. So I was also down in the country. We were rather at a loose end and used to go for long country walks. On one of these walks we were walking down the side of a cornfield and found a ladybird and automatically put it on our—I forget whose finger it was; somebody's finger—and said its rhyme to it, and suddenly saw the rhyme quite dispassionately. It was hardly a narrative but at any rate it seemed a very curious thing to say to the ladybird:

Ladybird, ladybird,    Fly away home,Your house is on fire    And your children all gone;All except for one    And that's little AnnAnd she...


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