Dozens of masks line the walls of Dan Jones’ kitchen, occupying all the empty space over the fireplace, the cupboards and his greenly-lit aquarium.
Collectors often don’t realise how obvious their pursuits are – while we talk, this white-bearded man feels compelled to point at the multicoloured memorabilia hanging behind him by means of explanation.
“You see, traveling around I got into gathering bits and pieces” he says showing me the Balinese, Indian, African, Korean artefacts, “and when you start…”
Gathering memories systematically is, by definition, a meticulous pursuit, but not all people who do are natural-born archivists.
Sitting in front of me is someone who doesn’t stake butterflies behind a glass panel. His material is very much alive and kicking: it jumps, claps, somersaults. Dan Jones collects nursery rhymes.
He has been doing it for so long that he can’t even really remember why he started. “It wasn’t systematic, it happened by accident” he admits, as if it was the most logical thing in the world.
It’s only in the last 15 years or so that he’s started being a bit more methodical about it – even inputting the songs into a mysterious software which turns out to be Excel. “I’m not very good electronically,” he chuckles. A ‘ferocious’ selection of 1500 of them will soon be turned into an archive at the British Library.
As well as recording games and rhymes, Jones paints them – the first time he did was for his wife’s project in an art school; “Blimey, that was 50 or 60 years ago” he says, surprising himself.
His enormous murals are filled with children playing, like happy L. S Lowry figurines, and eclectic and colourful characters suspended in the midst of the songs’ lyrics. His works adorn the Museum of Childhood, the National Children’s Bureau as well as Bethnal Green Children’s Library and the University of Newcastle.
A primary school teacher and a youth worker for decades, Jones has been in contact with kids for most of his life. After illustrating a book by Michael Rosen and Susanna Steel, ‘Inky Pinky Ponky’, he definitely got a taste for what was to become his lifetime’s project. Now in his 70s, he has stopped teaching but carries on his part-time work for Amnesty – 25 years on from when he started with them, he still gives conferences and talks about human rights to the children in the local schools.
As I sit on a lino-covered table surrounded by sturdy IKEA chairs that look hard to break, I note that this kitchen has been carefully childproofed. The toys scattered in a corner of the room – a little red rocking horse, random bits of jigsaws – look like they’ve been played with not that long ago. Unmistakable thumps from the floor above tell me that a heavy-footed nipper is not far away. Indeed, shortly afterwards Rumi appears in the kitchen, waiting for his cup of tea.
Jones’ daughter and two sons have all given him grandchildren – while Rumi and his mum live with him, the others live with their families in Cornwall and Nagano, in Japan. Of course, they have provided plenty an international nursery rhyme for their grandpa.
Kids do not seem to be able to leave Jones’ life. While he’s at the schools giving talks for Amnesty, a little walk around the playgrounds allows for the best first-hand research. “Because I’m an old chap, some kids will go through a process of self-censorship and avoid the rude words. The scatological end is relatively mild, but obviously there is a big fascination with wee and poo and farting”, he says, smiling under his bushy moustache.
Sometimes, though, the rhymes come to him, overheard by chance. “I’ll be on the train, I’ll hear something and I’ll go ‘hang on, can you do that again?’” Like the best myths, or the funniest phrases mangled by a round of Chinese whispers, rhymes are imperfectly handed down from person to person. Which means that randomness and fortuitous changes can decide whether a game survives or not.
“Now and again you can really trace where things come from – take Yankee Doodle, which was a spoof by British soldiers mocking the ‘scruffy’ Americans” he explains. Stone-throwing games, which can be found in Ghana, Grenada and England, obviously travelled along slavery routes. But methodical Victorian scholars who liked orderly explanations would force meanings onto songs that could not be classified so stringently. “They just assumed that Ring a Ring O Roses was about the plague – we all fall down because we are dead – but it’s complete rubbish”. To this day, because of the differences in the many international variants of the song, the origins remain confused.
More often than not, establishing ancestry is almost impossible. Aware of the difficulties, Jones has settled on being happy with trying: “I like to poke at the origin of things”, he says. When different versions of the same game appear all around the world, as far back as four or five thousand years, certainties must be given up.
Pictures of kids playing stone, paper, scissors can even be found in pharaoh’s tombs. “Who started it? Where did it come from? We’ll never know,” he says, with a hint of excitement about the slippery matter he’s got at hand. All we know is that nice tunes and words are misunderstood and travel and transform without apparent control.
“It seems to me that a lot of the best things that happen are accidents”, he murmurs. Like, for example, his mum, artist Pearl Binder, moving to Whitechapel in the 1930s, and living in the shop of a ostler who sold hay for horses.
She went on to illustrate a book called ‘The Real East End’ with pictures of places that she loved and felt something special about. “It would be silly to say there is no connection between her work and mine, because I grew up with it, but I think my work is independent from that”, he says.
After being evacuated during the war to the Lake District (where, Jones tells me, he was ‘nearly born in the middle of Lake Windermere’ due to an accidentally mis-timed rowing trip) she returned to the East End.
Since 1973, Jones has been living in the same house in Cable Street – only a couple of doors down from where he used to live in with his parents. The bright red front door opens on a narrow corridor crowded by his vivid paintings.
A lot of them are about the local area. “I like to draw what I see around me”, says Jones. Despite having chronicled the big political and social events that shaped Stepney, he resists defining himself as an activist. “I guess you can’t exist in an area without entangling to some extent”, he shrugs.
Even just as a spectator, Jones has seen the area change profoundly. The East End has always been a multicultural area, but ever more nationalities are mingling in its streets – even communities from remote and unknown regions like the Xinjiang province of China. “The thing is, the world has moved next door”, says Jones.
Nowhere can this be seen more than in the local schools. As an assiduous frequenter of playgrounds, Jones has witnessed how cultural intermingling works and sees it reflected in nursery rhymes. “Criss-cross exchanges do happen. Two little girls once taught me a song – one of them was Polish, the other one Bengali, but they shared the same rhymes”.
Visiting most playgrounds around Tower Hamlets has also given Jones the definitive proof that, against widely held popular belief, outdoor games are not dying at all. “Of course, a lot of games we used to play you don’t see anymore, but cascades of new stuff keep coming in daily”.
Not even computers and tablets can destroy the joy of a silly dance routine. When Jones stands up to mimic a game he used to play as a child, ‘Jimmy Knacker’, I realise this pleasure cannot be cancelled by anything, including age. “It was a bad boy game, five kids would make a long horse, then another lot would jump on and the horse would try to wiggle them. It was such a dangerous game…” He bends down in his trousers, slightly baggy at the back, and his sunny orange jumper, and we laugh together.
Kids’ games and songs have always been full of violence – often only invoked, but gruesome nonetheless. Wolves eating children, bears snatching cubs and bridges collapsing are staples in games around the world. “It’s true”, he confirms, “some are really, really dark – about being drunk, murder and death, often involving nasty things that happen to teachers”.
Yet, there’s always a light-heartedness to them, a humorous side that makes them playful. “I think they’re a way for kids to explore what teenagers are up to, what’s going to happen when they grow up, and to come to terms with it”, he says.
His collection and his paintings share this dual nature. They are silly and at the same time important in order to remember where we come from and how we can interpret the world. “The silliness, the nonsense – I love it. I’m fascinated by the poetry in kids’ rhymes”.
Which is why most adults are happy to contribute to his endeavour, and enjoy doing it – reverting back to childhood becomes justified, and definitely not something to be ashamed of.
Walking along one of the murals at Jones’ recent exhibition at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, it was virtually impossible to resist the temptation to start singing the rhymes once I’d recognised them. They opened a sudden window to buried memories: breathless running, bruises on knees, friends I’d forgotten the name of.
I sing my songs to Jones, even if he doesn’t understand the Italian words he looks on fascinated. When I ask him what is his ‘childhood song’, he pauses. Then he looks at me, in a moment of naïve, fleeting intimacy.
“There’s this one, that my dad taught us – he was in the war so I must have been five or so”, he says, tentatively. “I remember him saying it was a ‘formative’ thing”. He starts reciting it like a poem, but as the lines go on, he slips into a childish rhythm, and lights up.
I went down the road to buy a penny whistle
A copper came behind and stole my penny whistle
I asked him for it back, he says he hasn’t got it
Oi oi you curly wibby you got it in your pocket!
“Funny thing, isn’t it? But it shapes the way you think”, he says. It’s a brief glimpse of each other’s childhood selves, but it makes me understand why, once you start, it’s so hard to give up on peeking into our past at the contagious sound of clapping.