At school we used to play a bizarre game.
St Mary’s C of E in Welton, Lincolnshire, was an ordinary, medium-sized, rural primary school. For the most part, the playground games were equally ordinary and universal: classics like tag (though we called it tiggy) and British Bulldogs, plus of course football. These could all be played on the concrete play area that we had access to for most of the year. The school had a much larger grass playing field, but this was usually out of bounds due to the soggy ground that was the inevitable result of the British weather.
However, during the few weeks of early summer, when it was sunny and dry, but we hadn’t yet broken up for the holidays, other possibilities were opened up.
First, we had to seek permission to “go on the grass”. A child would be nominated by their peers to go and ask the supervising teacher, who would then walk to the edge of the concrete play area adjacent to the grass. Meanwhile, the children would all line up along that sacred boundary and poise themselves in anticipation. The teacher would reach down and touch the ground, feeling for moisture and assessing the situation. Then they would loudly announce their decision: yes or no. If it was a no, we would all trudge dejectedly back to our humdrum, concrete-based games. But if it was a yes… the whole school would sprint out onto the grass, screaming with delight. Some would race to see who could reach the far side of the field first. Others would run immediately to secure a preferred area to play. Once the field had thus been ritually claimed, we would decide which game we were going to play. And more often than not, it was Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese.
Occasionally, years later, I’ve remembered this game, and marveled at just how odd it was. Unusually for a children’s game, there was very little element of competition; on the other hand, there was a subtle undercurrent of violence, or physical jeopardy. It was creative, dramatic and complex, like a strange ballet with different acts, but continuing in an endless cycle (endless, at least, until the bell went to signify the end of lunch break).
Everyone knew the sequence of events and rules, but no-one remembered being taught them. Presumably we learned them from watching or playing with slightly older children. Thus the game must have been passed on by practice and word of mouth, from year group to year group, from elder siblings to younger: a piece of oral folk tradition, an ephemeral artifact of children’s culture.
I was playing it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it may have existed for many years, even decades, before that, evolving over time. Playground lore has surprising longevity: we also used to play “lurgy” (a form of tag in which being “it” was re-imagined as a disgusting disease that you could only get rid of by touching someone else to pass it on; the defence was to mime a vaccination in the arm and shout “injected!”) even though this originated from an episode of The Goon Show from 1954. The children at St Mary’s may still be playing some descendant of Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese today.
I’ve searched for Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese on the internet, and there are a few references, but none of them have much detail.
In this forum post, the user SuperCracko remembers a version of the game, beginning with the rhyme:
Eggs, bacon, chips or cheese?SuperCracko, Popjustice forum post, 12 March 2008
Which would you rather please?
Around the world in 80 Days (although sometimes replaced with “Stick it up your granny’s bum” for hilarity)
They then state that “some complicated game ensued” although don’t give any details.
In this forum exchange, the user Fragezeichen asks (in German) if anyone can identify the children’s game in which two children hold hands and spin each other in a circle. The user bevalisch responds (in English):
The one where one person spins another was either something to do with statues or one of the categories in “Eggs, Bacon Chips or Cheese”bevalisch, leo.org forum, 3 August 2009
The user bevalisch mentions it again in another post but gives no details there, either.
It’s mentioned in passing in this even less informative post:
Kids just used to run around and play games such as … eggs bacon chips or cheeseFrankiielot, MouthsOfMums forum, 8 May 2021
A game/song of the same name appears in the index of the book The Musical Playground: global tradition and change in children’s songs and games by Kathryn Marsh (Oxford University Press, 2008) and appears to have been recorded during fieldwork at Springfield Public School in Sydney, Australia.
It’s mentioned on the blog of Kathleen Jennings, an illustrator from Australia, with no details other than to say it’s “convoluted”.
The Mouths of Mums forum is also based in Australia, so it appears that some form of the game, or at least the rhyme, existed on the opposite side of the world to where we played it. But no details of the game or rhyme are given in the book.
And that, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of references to this game on the internet. I’ve also searched for “Eggs, Bacon, Chips and Cheese”, thinking that perhaps that would be an obvious variation, but that gives no results at all.
So, from this evidence, it appears that the game was widespread, existing in both the United Kingdom and Australia. The way it is mentioned off-hand by several forum posters suggests that they remembered it as such a playground staple that it required no more explanation: readers would recognise and understand the game from the name alone. Finally, there appears to be consistency in the following facts:
- There is/was a game called “Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese”.
- The game included, as a core element, a rhyme beginning with the line “Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese”.
- The game was complicated.
- It may have involved spinning.
It seems odd that no more detailed record of the game exists. Therefore, I will now describe the game, as far as I can remember it. Note that this is simply the version that existed circa 1990 at St Mary’s C of E Primary School in Welton. No doubt different versions existed elsewhere (SuperCracko’s rhyme is certainly different), and I’d be interested to hear what they were, and when and where they existed.
The game was played in repeated rounds, each broken down into several phases. For clarity, I will name and describe each phase separately, but they were never described as such or given names at the time. The game was simply played through without interruption, indefinitely, with everyone understanding what would happen next at every step of the way.
Phase 1: spinning and throwing
One child is chosen to be in charge of the game for the first round. I will call this child the ‘spinner’.
(NB. I don’t remember this role having a name at the time. I originally wrote this description using the traditional term “It”, but that made it tricky to read. Since I don’t recall “It” being used specifically for this game – although we did use it for tig and other games – I decided to replace it with the term ‘spinner’, as that was a key part of the role.)
The spinner goes to each other child in the game, in turn, and performs the following actions, with the other child being the spinnee.
First, the spinner faces the other child and holds hands with them, left-to-left and right-to-right so that their arms are crossed. He or she then recites the following rhyme:
Eggs, bacon, chips or cheese,
Which would you rather please?
Around the world in 80 days,
Or a trip to China?
This isn’t sung as such, more spoken but with a definite rhythm: the final ‘China’ has to be drawn out to hit the required two stresses to make the whole thing scan.
This rhyme constitutes a cryptic method of asking the question “how fast do you want to be spun?” The spinnee must respond with one of the six possible answers, which are the six items listed in the rhyme:
- around the world in 80 days
- a trip to China
These items represent different spinning speeds, with “eggs” being the slowest, and “a trip to China” being the fastest.
In practice, most children would choose either “a trip to China” (i.e. spin me as fast as you possibly can) or “around the world in 80 days” (i.e. spin me very fast but not quite top speed). Only very rarely would anyone choose any of the slower, food-based options: it would have been a shameful admission of weakness to opt for anything less than a high speed spin.
Once the spinnee has responded and thereby chosen a speed, the spinner begins spinning the spinnee in a circle around him/herself, accelerating up to the chosen speed (which, as mentioned above, would almost always be “very fast” or “as fast as possible”). Once that speed is reached (and possibly sustained for a while) the spinner lets go of the spinnee. This results in the spinnee flying across the field and falling in a crumpled heap on the ground a few metres away. The spinnee must now stay still in the position they have fallen for the remainder of this phase. Meanwhile, the spinner carries on reciting the rhyme, spinning and throwing all of the children in the game, until everyone except him/herself is lying somewhere on the floor around them.
NB. Anyone who has chosen a slower speed is obligated to play along when thrown, by acting out an exaggerated, slow-motion fall and adopting a suitable position.
Phase 2: dance of the clockworks
The spinner goes around each child in turn, looks at the position they’re in, and chooses something he or she thinks the child resembles in that pose. This was usually an animal, but it could also be a machine, a type of person, etc: as long as it’s something that can move. The spinner whispers this thing into the child’s ear: this is now that child’s role for this phase of the game.
Once all the children have been assigned roles based on their poses, the spinner shouts, “Clockworks awake!” All the children now move around, pretending to be a clockwork version of whatever role they’ve been given: a clockwork lion, a clockwork pirate, a clockwork plane, etc. I don’t remember the spinner having anything to do during this ‘dance of the clockworks’. I guess they just stand and watch the elaborate, surreal dance going on all around them, enjoying the spectacle, and the added satisfaction of knowing that everyone is obeying their will by following the roles they chose.
After watching the dance for a while, the spinner shouts, “Clockworks asleep!” and everyone freezes. The spinner can, if they are happy with the frozen poses the other children are now in, choose to end this phase of the game and move to phase 3.
Alternatively, if they’re not happy with the current set of poses, or they just want to enjoy some more clockwork dancing, they can shout, “Clockworks awake!” again and start another dance, then, “Clockworks asleep!” again to stop it. I don’t remember this being repeated more than two or three times, so I’m not sure if there was explicitly a rule against too many repeats, or if it just wasn’t done in practice.
Once the spinner has given their final command of “Clockworks asleep!”, the game moves into the next phase.
Phase 3: statues
Now commences a game of statues. With all of the children frozen in exaggerated poses from the end of the clockworks phase, the spinner begins watching and examining them for any signs of movement. Whenever the spinner spots a child moving, he or she taps them, and they are released from their pose. They join the spinner in the hunt for movement and are also able to tap children they see moving. This continues until all children except one have been released from their positions.
Phase 4: the ring
The spinner and all of the free children surround the last remaining frozen child in a circle, linking hands.
Unfortunately, this is the part of the game about which my memory is most hazy. There was probably some kind of rhyme or song used here. At the very least, there must have been a command. Either way, the spinner and the other children in the ring somehow initiate what happens next, which is that the child in the middle unfreezes and must attempt to escape from the circle. The children forming the circle try to prevent the escape, although they must keep their hands linked in the ring at all times, which makes this quite tricky. As I remember, the escaping child was usually successful, managing to push their way between the other children’s legs despite their best efforts to ‘wall’ themselves together.
If the child successfully escapes the circle, they become the new spinner and the game returns to phase 1 and continues. If the child doesn’t escape, the previous spinner spins again. I don’t remember what conditions were applied to this – whether the escape attempt was timed in any way, perhaps with a rhyme or chant. My best guess is that there was simply a group consensus reached that the child had had long enough trying and wasn’t going to manage it.
And that’s it. To the best of my memory, that’s how Eggs, Bacon, Chips or Cheese was played in one Lincolnshire primary school around 1990. I’d be fascinated to hear of any other versions.