The Rancorous Hobbledehoy is an old folk song collected by the old folk song collector Tick Vange. He was roaming the rustic goat-strewn byways of that splat of land between Fort Hoity and Fort Toity one day when he stopped to lean against a fence and smoke his pipe.
In his memoir of old folk song collecting, Collecting Old Folk Songs In The Vicinity Of Fort Hoity And Fort Toity : A Memoir, Vange wrote:
As I leaned there, against a fence, puffing on my pipe crammed with a goodly swug of moff, o’er the greensward came drifting to my ears, as if from far far away, a haunting melody, played on a pig whistle. It was haunting in the way one is haunted by a grisly ghoul. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled, a shiver ran down my spine, the blood drained from my face, I trembled and I shook, and I piddled in my stylish Italianate faux peasant trousers. What damnable tune was this?
The year was 1937. It was the day after the Hindenburg Disaster, of which Tick Vange knew nothing. His only interests were pipe tobacco and the collection of old folk songs, and he was barely even aware of the existence of airships.
I worked on the assumption, he wrote elsewhere, that anything flying about in the air above my head must be a bird of one sort or another. Having not a jot of interest in ornithology, I could thus safely ignore flying things.
As Vange listened, the melody grew louder and clearer, and he realised the pig whistle was accompanied by singing. The voice was plaintive and grating, like a corncrake with a broken heart. One meets such birds in fables, of course, but this was brute reality.
Peering over the fence into the distance, Vange saw, approaching o’er the greensward, a pair of what he took to be peasants, the one tooting the pig whistle, the other singing. And as they grew closer still, he was able to make out the words.
Here sleeps the rancorous hobbledehoy
On a bed of filthy straw
Oh do not wake the hobbledehoy
Until the crow does caw
The crow will caw and the pigs will snort
The asp will hiss and then in the fort
Our captains brave will come clattering through
Red with the blood of the orphans they slew
All but one who fled and hid
Oh such an ill-tempered kid
They will hunt him down, they will find that boy
They will slay the rancorous hobbledehoy
“I must ask these putative peasants,” thought Tick Vange, steadying himself against the fence, “If their song commemorates an episode in local peasant history. A fort is mentioned, which may be Fort Hoity or Fort Toity. Either fort, or indeed both, might once have witnessed a massacre of the innocents as is alluded to in this haunting plaintive grating song.”
But as the tooter and the singer came ever closer, the old folk song collector saw that, far from being local rustic persons, they were in fact the very picture of metropolitan sophistication, dripping with pearls and dallying with impossibly long cigarette holders. With a start, Vange recognised them as none other than the world-famous music hall variety act Mr Peevish & His Lovely Wife Gwendolyn. What in the name of all the saints in heaven were they doing trudging o’er the greensward?
Tick Vange heaved himself up to his full height, a creditable six-foot-six in his socks, and raised his arm to halt the duo. He was eager to question them closely regarding The Rancorous Hobbledehoy. But they passed him by, without acknowledgement, continuing on their way, tooting and singing. Vange watched them vanish into the distance, in the direction of Fort Hoity, or possibly Fort Toity. He was uncertain of the terrain.
Had he had any interests other than pipe tobacco and the collection of old folk songs, he might have read a newspaper once in a while. Had he read that morning’s edition of Daily Airship Disaster News, he would have learned that among those who perished in the Hindenburg Disaster the day before were world-famous music hall variety stars Mr Peevish & His Lovely Wife Gwendolyn.