Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

A packet of prunes

In the olden days there was a lot of emphasis on being ‘regular’. People were obsessed with it, especially parents. As children, we had a choice between eating prunes or being dosed with castor oil, a horrible substance kept in a dark brown bottle and meted out to us along with a daily fluoride tablet.

Prunes were also pretty cheap and a good filler if you were feeding a family. We had them for breakfast with our cereal and sometimes for dinner with creamed rice or baked custard. It was common to soak them in a little bit of hot water so that they were less chewy. My mum made terrible baked custard and I still really hate it to this day. Recently, my friend Megan explained to me mum’s custard was probably thin and watery because she didn’t put enough eggs in it, or too much milk, depending on how you look at it. This is probably true, because although she was a good cook, she had a lot of mouths to feed and everything was stretched as much as possible to feed the seven of us.

We always had five prunes, never four, and certainly never six, because that would mean that you were going to marry a poor man when you grew up. The prune stones would be lined up on the edge of the dish and we would recite the following…

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, RICH MAN, poor man, beggar man, thief. Five was definitely the optimal number.

The number of prune stones also determined what you would wear when you got married.

Silk, satin, rags, bags, and then back to silk. So if you wanted to marry a rich man and wear silk you definitely needed to only eat five prunes lest you jeopardise your future. I still stick to that rule and only ever eat five prunes, even when they have no stones.

I read somewhere that when Barak Obama made the comment about eating eight almonds as a nightly snack, he was only joking. He was tired of people asking him stupid questions about every part of his life. Nevertheless, I have read over and over again that eight almonds are the optimum number for a snack, as though this were an actual rule and not simply an off-the-cuff comment. It made me laugh to think how gullible we are.

It also strikes me that we put a lot of emphasis on counting things. We measure the number of steps we take every day, the number of hours we sleep, the number of calories we consume. We’ve become obsessed with counting things and unable to judge for ourselves how many glasses of wine we should drink of a night, or how many laps of the pool are enough. I always used to count the number of laps I was swimming until I realised that it was interfering with my capacity to think about other more interesting things. So in the end I just decided that it didn’t matter. I swim until I get tired or my fingers go wrinkly, whichever happens first.

I think that the more we focus on counting, the more we disconnect ourselves from our own inner voice, and the less control we have over our own lives.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t an optimum amount in relation to what you consume, only that your body probably knows very well what you need, and it must surely vary from person to person. I don’t see how there can be ‘rules’ that fit everyone, so my suggestion is that we listen more to our own bodies and less to what other people say.

Of course this means that I may have to rethink my five prunes rule and marry a poor man.

12 thoughts on “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

  1. I used to want to run or bike a certain mileage each time I went out. Now it’s more about time — go out for 30 minutes or an hour, and it doesn’t matter how far I go in that time. It’s more relaxing without the pressure of hitting a certain number of miles!

  2. I love prunes wrapped in bacon a 70s BBQ delicacy and I could not stop at 5. Delicious and often served at my BBQs even now. Stopped counting years ago for most things except when walking up hills. It takes your mind off how far you are going uphill until you get there. Old walking trick lol!

  3. —doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. I didn’t marry any of those but I did get a tinker (which is what the Chap men were originally and also booksellers (appropriate) and a tinkerer. I am always surprised that people don’t know these ditties which we were raised on.
    Re counting. I find counting – not sheep – very useful when you can’t sleep. Up to a hundred and then backwards. Also four square breathing with a count.

    1. Oh I had forgotten all about the doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. It’s funny how these denoted male occupations in the olden days, but now they aren’t so gender specific.
      What is four square breathing?

  4. I have just today bought prunes and cooked them in a little brandy. They are for a Vanilla , Prune and Armagnac Tart. I hope the custard part works out better than the thin, watery type you describe!

      1. I find swimming much more meditative now that I’ve stopped counting the laps. I think it’s fair to say that I get my best ideas in the pool (or under the shower).

  5. Totally agree. I used to adapt the saying “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” to “If you can measure it it’s probably not worth managing”

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