Tuesday, 8 November 2011


On a nearby building-site – in an attempt to make the place look more attractive than building-sites usually look – colourful hoardings were erected and were specially graffitied with helpful suggestions on how to brighten up our otherwise hum-drum Kennington lives.

For example, why not...

Or, again, you could...

But, whatever we do, we were reminded, we absolutely MUST remember...

I wonder exactly when it was decided that one ought NOT to walk on the lines on the street?

Certainly if it wasn't down to A A Milne, he (with his penchant for bears) at least made it something of which every reader of When We Were Very Young became acutely aware through this little verse...

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I'm ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street,
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, "Bears,
just look how I'm walking in all the squares!"

And the little bears growl to each other, "He's mine,
As soon as he's silly and steps on a line."
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe the talk;
It's ever so portant how you walk.
And it's ever so jolly to call out, "Bears,
just watch me walking in all the squares!"

A few hours after posting innocent piece of flummery above, I was driven by my insatiable curiosity (and readers of Kipling will recall where insatiable curiosity inevitably leads) to start trawling the net in search of a pre-Milnean origin for Linesofthestreetphobia!

The result was both illuminating and shocking according to CSI the website of the magazine Skeptical Enquiry.

Here (in their uncensored words) is the alleged origin of Christopher Robin's innocent bear-avoidance game:
Ill-fortune is said to be the result from stepping on a crack in the pavement. Present day society usually associates the superstition behind treading on cracks to the rhyme: "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" but the superstition actually goes back to the late 19th - early 20th Century and the racism that was prevalent in this period.

The original rhyming verse is thought to be "Step on a crack and your mother will turn black." It was also common to think that walking on the lines in pavement would mean you would marry a negro and have a black baby. (Apparently this superstition only applied to Caucasians and because of the rampant prejudice against black people, was considered an activity to avoid.)

Stepping on cracks also had significance for children. In the mid-20th Century it was popular to tell children that if they stepped on the cracks in the street, they would be eaten by the bears that congregate on street corners waiting for their lunch to walk by. [Appallingly, no credit given to Mr Milne here! Ed]

Also, the number of lines a person would walk on corresponded with the number of china dishes that the person would break, later in the day.

Only in the last few decades has the rhyming superstition resurfaced to be the recognized "step on a crack, break your mother's back" and in some areas, two superstitions above are melded together to include the number of lines one steps on will correspond with the number of your mother's bones that are broken.

Original illustrations to When We Were Very Young (1924) by Ernest H Shepard


elizabethanne said...

I think the thought of bears watching to see that I didn't step on the lines would have been less frightening to me as a child as the oft-repeated (at least on this side of the pond) "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," which made me VERY leery of even accidentally stepping on a crack in the sidewalk.

... I just tried saying the alphabet backwards, as one of those hoardings suggests, and I think I've done myself an injury...


Suzanne said...

I'm sure that there are many of us who have wondered for years why we didn't walk on the lines!

I do remember though that I went through a phase of walking only on the lines, but then again I've often I must have been a bear in a previous life!

Brian Sibley said...

By the way elizabethanne, since I was – originally – writing about A A Milne: do you know his poem 'Explained' in Now We Are Six?

It begins...

Elizabeth Ann
Said to her Nan:
"Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, 'cos I want to know?"
And Nurse said, "Well!"
And Ann said "Well?
I know you know and I wish you'd tell."
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
"Now then, darling, it's time for bed."

Brian Sibley said...

Interestingly, elizabethanne's comment came in as I was writing the addendum to today's post... I'd no idea where my feet were leading me when I started out on this topic...

As for the alphabet: I still have problems saying it forwards!

And in response to Suzanne's perverse habit on walking ON the lines of the street: I understand such a contra-imperative all too well!

elizabethanne said...

Thank you for that addendum, and for the quotation from Milne about Elizabeth Ann. Somehow Nurse's response rang a bell of recognition with me. I suspect we've all had such questions put off with a handy "oops, time for bed!" or somesuch.

I somehow missed out on Milne as a child, and only became acquainted with the poems and the Pooh stories after the age of 17. They have enriched my life ever since, but it's far too long since I've read the poems. Thank you for bringing them back to my consciousness!

Now for that alphabet thing. Z...y...er, x... um, w... Ow. I've hurt myself again.

SCB/Beth/elizabethanne/the person of a thousand names

WRJ said...

Having walked on many London streets, and paved streets the world over, I think that anything that draws ones attention to the position of the lines and the tripping hazard they might represent, is probably a good thing, and a sensible thing to pass on to the young.

Brian Sibley said...

Couldn't agree more! Besides which, if a bear DID happen along, well you're on the alert...