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Monday 31st March 2003

I am always on the look-out for new songs to sing to Paddy. Anything to avoid Old Macdonald again. This morning I woke up early and watched a bit of telly.
On one channel there was an Australian man dressed up as an old woman singing a song I had forgotten about, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
I don’t know how it had slipped my mind. It used to be one of my favourites and is an excellent number. Not only does it have slight variations in each verse (as well as that old standard, repetition of a list of all the verses – excellent), it is also a very witty song. It employs what I believe is known as Socratic irony, in which an illogical idea is taking to its logical conclusion and is a telling satire of the fears and neuroses of human beings.
First comes the jeopardy, an old woman swallows a fly. Understandably she is concerned. It could result in her demise. Although she has already lived for longer than an average life-span she is still afeared of death (though interestingly there is an implication in the song that the act was deliberate “I don’t know why she swallowed a fly,” says the narrator.) Like so many of us, she seeks a short term solution without considering its immediate and long term consequences. She swallows a spider. Spiders, she has reasoned correctly, are the natural predators of flies. The spider will seek out the fly and eat it and her problems will be over.
Yet as soon as she has ingested the arachnid she realises she has a new problem. The spider is probably more hazardous to her health than the fly she initially ate. She now has a spider wandering around in her system. Sure he has just eaten, he is satiated for now. But there will come a point where he becomes hungry and has no choice but to eat her old lady insides. She could keep eating flies to dampen the spider’s appetite, but such an action would surely make a mockery of her decision to swallow the spider to catch the fly in the first place. She would have to admit that swallowing the spider was a mistake. She is human. She hates to be wrong. In any case the spider could be pregnant (she forgot to check) and then her insides may become clogged with spider children and grandchildren and the flies required to feed them within a matter of days. Instead she chooses to rid herself of the problem in what some might consider a short-sighted fashion. She swallows a bird.
Birds of course, eat spiders (also worms, but that is not the concern of the old lady at this juncture, though if she has worms this could prove to be an additional and unexpected bonus). Even if the spider has spawned a hundred tiny spiders, then one small bird could soon make short work of the family. At last her intestines are free of creepy crawlies.
But in an elaborate satire of the arms programme, her problems have escalated. She now has a bird flying around inside her. Hitting her with its wings, nipping her with its beak, burrowing into her pancreas in a vain search for worms. She is in pain and though by now she may have noticed a pattern emerging, she has no option but to find a creature that will bring about the demise of the bird. She either has to swallow Colonel Sanders or a cat. She takes the more humane option, largely for fear of Colonel Sanders refusing to eat the bird before covering it in his secret blend of herbs and spices. She may be desperate, but not desperate enough to have KFC batter in her stomach.
Her choice of a cat is logical, but clearly insane. The cat does not like to be confined anywhere, but especially in places that are damp. A cat is also angered when bile and stomach acids are squirted in its delicate cat eyes. The cat eats the bird, but is now writhing around, biting and scratching, ripping the sensitive tissue of the foolish old woman. She knows her death is inevitable, but her survival instinct is too strong to let her go down without a fight. She swallows a dog.
Up to now her choices have been sound. It is once the dog has dispatched the cat that things start to go wrong. The old lady now has a living dog inside her (which itself presumably contains a living cat which contains a living bird which contains a living spider which contains a living fly). So, how does she choose to counteract the dog? She swallows a cow.
This seems like an odd choice to me. The old lady’s logic has broken down. The dog and cow, whilst not particularly friendly, are not enemies. The cow is a herbivore and you should only really swallow one if you have previously swallowed a life-threatening quantity of grass. It is difficult to think of an animal that would be prepared to eat a living dog though. I can only think of a tiger, but I believe the old woman considered this and realised that though a tiger may attack and eat a dog, it would also be as likely to attack and eat an old woman. He would swallow her long before she could swallow him. I think by this stage she’s pretty much given up and thinks “What the fuck! May as well go out in a blaze of glory.” I think she had another option that she missed. She should have realised that dogs really love to chase things. What she should have done is taken off her pants and bent over, had her anus clamped open and pointed it at a field of sheep. The dog would have been so desperate to worry the sheep he would have jumped out, with the cat and other creatures inside him and the old woman would have been saved (though possibly had severe anal injuries. Maybe Michael Barrymore could use this as a possible scenario in his defence. Sorry. But not so sorry that I have deleted what I have just written)
Instead, the old woman swallows a cow (I don’t know how she swallowed a cow) and is astonished to find that she is still alive. Maybe she begins to think she is immortal or maybe she just likes a challenge, but her last choice of animal shows that she is really not interested in solving her problems. Perhaps she has seen that there is no way out of her predicament. If she wanted to be rid of the cow she should certainly have swallowed something that ate meat. But instead she goes for a horse. Why has her logic let her down at this point? Is she just confused by a stomach full of animal, or is there a more sinister explanation?
It is only in over analysing this child’s song that I begin to wonder if this was her wish all along. As I’ve said she possibly swallowed the fly on purpose – we at least do not know why she did, which heavily implies it wasn’t an accident. Maybe she knew all along where this would lead. She was an old woman, she was tired of life and frustrated by her frailties, yet she did not wish to commit blatant suicide aware that this would be upsetting for her family. So she chose this eccentric path, which would make her look a little crazy, but nonetheless would certainly kill her.
She died, of course. Of course. It was clear she’d die. Only a deliberate desire to end it all can explain this logical (and yet illogical) progression of events.

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