November 30th, 2012


Rooting through the Bins - and Scratching Forty-Year-Old Itches

When I was at primary school, I suppose in about 1970, we used to sing a song about school dinners. It went like this:

Say what you will,
School dinners make you ill,
And Davy Crockett died of shepherd's pie.
Our school din-dins come from pig bins
Out of town.

I used to walk home for dinner in those days (this was long before I became gentrified and started calling it lunch), so my interest in the subject was merely theoretical, but I sang along with the rest in a spirit of camaraderie.

It's interesting, if only to me, to piece together the various bits of this song. Its tune was the opening theme from the TV show Out of Town, presented by Jack Hargreaves. The theme's lyrics were:

Say what you will,
The countryside is still
The only place where I could settle down
Troubles there are so much rarer
Out of town.

Clearly the school rhyme is a parody of this, so we might expect that the school dinner song postdates 1963, when Out of Town was first broadcast. But there are features that irksomely suggest an earlier date. Davy Crockett is a quintessentially mid-'50s icon, is he not - thanks to the US film and TV series? In 1970 I had a vague idea who he was, but he was by no means a name to conjure with in my childhood. I knew the phrase "king of the wild frontier", for example, but had no notion what it referred to. (In fact I still don't. Is it the western frontier, or the frontier with Mexico?)

Pig bins were more mysterious still. They were obviously meant to be unpleasant, but what were they? This bothered me vaguely even in 1970, I now recall, but it took me more than forty years to find out. In fact, this post was prompted by my accidentally learning about pig bins just the other day, from a TV programme on the history of waste management. According to the programme, pig bins were a wartime feature - metal bins put on the street for the collection of scraps to be fed to pigs, in a thrifty effort at recycling. You can see a picture here.

At this point the song looks like a chimera. It references WWII pig bins, but also a 1960s TV programme, along with a figure whose cultural zenith was about 1955. What generation of children could possibly have invented it? Did it evolve over time in some way? Having read the Opies, one might find that plausible.

But the mystery dilutes when you learn that the Out of Town theme was actually written for the film Charley Moon (1956), where it was sung by Max Bygraves. So the parody may be earlier. Not only that, but if you look at the first comment on the article about pig bins linked above, you will read that they survived the war and lasted into the 1960s (though not in my town, obviously). Given all that, my best guess is that the song I sang was probably composed circa 1956, riding the wave of Crockett enthusiasm and taking advantage of Max Bygrave's song in Charley Moon, while alluding to the noisome pig bins still dotting the streets of Albion.

I wish now that I could go back to my 1970 self and share the news.