As a small schoolboy a yearly highlight was “Camp 200” – this was something my school organised whereby 200 boys would go to a campsite in the wilds and woods of deepest Surrey and spend a weekend there. For an 8 or 9 year old it was exciting stuff: it involved a treasure hunt in the woods, a barbeque and an assault course. Scary stories were a big part of the experience: at the edge of the campsite was a ruined house, home of a spectral ‘White Lady’, and of course the woods were crawling with murderous tramps who would stab you through the wall of your tent if your eyes dared close.
The highlight though was the campfire. Mr White, the school’s token ‘trendy teacher’, would lead a sing-song and then tell ghost stories. Neither aspect was especially appealing in itself to cowardly young me but the atmosphere was intoxicating: being up excitingly late, and seeing teachers with guitars and off their guard (rumour had it that last year Mr. White had told a dirty joke). The songsheet was a mix of singalong scouting tunes, many in cleaner versions than their playground equivalents. “You’ll Never Go To Heaven In A Baked Bean Tin”, “Quartermaster’s Stores”, “On Top Of Old Smokey”, and folk songs like “Sloop John B” and “Streets Of London”. One of them was “Lily The Pink”.
It never occurred to me aged 8 that any of these songs had been written by anyone – except for “Streets Of London” which always carried a credit on the songsheet, perhaps Mr. White did not want to dis Ralph McTell. I assumed they were all tunes which the teachers had themselves sung in their dim boyhood. So it’s very odd to come across “Lily The Pink” in the list of Number Ones: I remember similar shock when I realised that Play School favourite “Octopus’ Garden” was a Beatles tune.
In a previous comments thread somebody mentioned that 1968 saw the start of a dedicated children’s slot on Radio 1, and an increase in childrens’ hits getting to number one. “Lily The Pink” definitely qualifies: as an adult I think I would go mental if I had to listen to it again, but I can still feel its appeal as a rousing group tune – the thumping rhymes, the quick syllables of “medicinal compound”, the daffy verses all make it terrific fun to sing (if you’re 8). So take the mark on this one as even more irrelevant than usual: this is a bad record which does a job very well.
Now I’m around the age Mr White was then, I can understand the campfire songsheet more from his perspective: a collection of songs reflecting a taste and ethos as well as doing a job. He would have been a teen or young adult in the 1960s, quite possibly he was into the folk revival, and then the Beach Boys, and dug the wit and informality and reclaimed childishness of the Mersey Scene. He would not, really, have been trendy at all, but none the worse for that.