It is always interesting to consider expressions still in use that refer back to bygone days, activities and customs. Sometimes they reflect how attitudes, safety concerns, technology and awareness have changed over time
A little while back I used the expression “What you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.”
It simply means what you gain in one circumstance or choice you lose in another so that it all ends up evening out. You want a bigger, nicer house; you pay more for the purchase, mortgage, rates, insurance.
But what can you gain on swings that you lose on roundabouts? What do they have in common as regards gains and losses: Time? Enjoyment?
For those not in the know, a roundabout is a children’s play device that used to be found in parks in the days before thought was given to child safety.
The ones I remember looked like this:
But the Poms made them even more deadly. They raised the central parts, making it more dangerous to be flung off at speed . . .
. . . and made a fiendish variation called a Witch’s Hat Roundabout . . .
Sometimes they were positioned alongside each other . . .
To make them even more deadly, they were sometimes then put on a concrete surface:
Even their swings were designed for maximum risk . . .
But that was tame compared to other children’s park activities in the days before OHS . . .
(The above pics date from the 1930’s
Here's another, showing that the depressing conditions of English council housing estates were often repeated in trying to provide a recreational outlet for the children growing up there:
This photograph is of the playground in the Halton Moor Estate, near Leeds. Note the height of the slippery dip.
The estate was constructed in the 1930's and contained approximately 1000 homes, made up of semi-detached houses, with some detached and terraced houses and some high rise blocks of flats. Decline was so severe that the estate was recommended for demolition but ultimately demolition was confined to some, with renovation of others. Regeneration is continuing.
But I disgress.
What do swings and roundabouts have to do with things evening out?
The best I have been able to come up with is that it comes from the fairground, not the playground.
A poem about fairground life, ‘Roundabouts and Swings’ by Patrick Chalmers (1872-1942) has a fairground man asked what his life is like. The poet writes:
“Said he, ‘The job’s the very spit of what it always were,
It’s bread and bacon mostly when the dog don’t catch a hare,
But looking at it broad, and while it ain’t no merchant kings,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts, we pulls up on the swings.’”
From what I gather, the fairground man provided rides on swings and roundabouts, when business was slow on one it was often picked up by business on the other.
Here is the full poem:
Roundabouts and Swings
It was early last September nigh to Framlin'am-on-Sea,
An' 'twas Fair-day come to-morrow, an' the time was after tea,
An' I met a painted caravan adown a dusty lane,
A Pharaoh with his waggons comin' jolt an' creak an' strain;
A cheery cove an' sunburnt, bold o' eye and wrinkled up,
An' beside him on the splashboard sat a brindled tarrier pup,
An' a lurcher wise as Solomon an' lean as fiddle-strings
Was joggin' in the dust along 'is roundabouts and swings.
"Goo'-day," said 'e; "Goo'-day," said I; "an' 'ow d'you find things go,
An' what's the chance o' millions when you runs a travellin' show?"
"I find," said 'e, "things very much as 'ow I've always found,
For mostly they goes up and down or else goes round and round."
Said 'e, "The job's the very spit o' what it always were,
It's bread and bacon mostly when the dog don't catch a 'are;
But lookin' at it broad, an' while it ain't no merchant king's,
What's lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!"
"Goo' luck," said 'e; "Goo' luck," said I; "you've put it past a doubt;
An' keep that lurcher on the road, the gamekeepers is out."
'E thumped upon the footboard an' 'e lumbered on again
To meet a gold-dust sunset down the owl-light in the lane;
An' the moon she climbed the 'azels, while a night-jar seemed to spin
That Pharaoh's wisdom o'er again, 'is sooth of lose-and-win;
For "up an' down an' round," said 'e, "goes all appointed things,
An' losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!"
"Fair-day come to-morrow": the day before Fair-day.
"Pharaoh": man who provides amusements at fairs.
"cove": fellow (slang).
"lurcher": cross-bred dog much used by poachers.
"the very spit": the exact copy.
"night-jar": bird with monotonous song.
"sooth": truth, wise saying
By the way . . .
the Poms weren't the only ones placing fiendish devices in kids' playgrounds.
Here's a photograph of Marilyn Monroe sitting on a roundabout reading James Joyce's Ullyses. Note that the roundabout has no solid floor.
(In real life, Marilyn was much more intelligent than the sex goddess public persona that she promoted).
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to have a glass of wine. There's an interesting winery in the Margaret River region in Western Australia that I've heard about . . .
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