The work of the Opies was key to my developing the interest in primary-aged children that led me to enrolling, in the mid-1970s, on a PGCE course to teach 5-9 yr olds. And for me one of the pleasures and privileges of the time I spent working in schools was being able to watch children at play in their various break times. I still miss that.
As these obituaries of Iona Opie, who long outlived her husband, make clear, the couple had an approach to their work which more resembled that of artists rather than scholars.
Both their combined work, and that of Iona Opie after Peter died, will be a treasure trove for decades (indeed, centuries) to come.
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.