Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout,
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray,
And though she feels as if she’s in a play,
She is anyway.

Well, you know that song, anyway: “Penny Lane,” by the Beatles, about a junction in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool, a sort of circus – not just because there was so much going on there (many bus lines met there), but because the roads that met there met in a ring.

And then there’s this:

Onc’t they was a little boy would n’t say his pray’rs –
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His mammy heerd him holler, an’ his daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he was n’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was thist his pants an’ roundabout!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

That’s from “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley – it’s the poem that inspired the comic (about that little redhead girl with the empty rings for eyes) that inspired the musical from which was made the movie.

But in the end, need one meet all the busy-making and frights of the world head-on? William Cowper presented a differing view in “The Jackdaw”:

He sees that this great roundabout
The world, with all its motley rout,
Church, army, physic, law,
Its customs and its businesses,
Is no concern at all of his,
And says – what says he? – Caw.

That jackdaw (who has probably collected a bit of each of those parts of the world) cuts to the heart of the matter, but the matter is circling around him, and so the heart of it goes around it by going straight when it goes around.

Should I get to the point? Well, every circle has its origin, but it doesn’t touch that origin, while yet it doesn’t depart from it. The point may remain unspoken (and without spokes), and yet it is perfectly circumscribed. And sometimes in life that is what will make things go more smoothly – sometimes the express route is via the unexpressed.

Take a touchy topic: touchy of course means don’t touch it, so you have to play a ring-around-the-rosie. Or take several roads and bring them together: if you have them intersecting at a common point, it will be a vertex of vexation, with stopping and starting and collisions, but if you have everyone go around, the traffic can go smoothly.

Not that it necessarily will. There’s a very funny scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Chevy Chase et al. are stuck going around one and can’t exit. In Edmonton (Alberta), there used to be a lot of them, and they gradually got rid of nearly all of them – people just couldn’t drive them safely. Same deal on the highway near Banff. And yet they’re very popular in England.

What are very popular? Oh, for heaven’s sake, what I’ve been talking about. Even the name for them has a certain iconicity of verbal gesture: beginning with a rolling /r/, the tongue loops open and the mouth widens and then closes round in front and high in back, then the tongue touches at the tip and then it bounces to the lips, and then – why, then it goes back, Jack, and does it again: that big round vowel gesture again and back to the tip of the tongue, going around about the mouth. And each circular gesture is written with the aid of a ring as well, o and o.

It’s that word made of two Germanic words that in England often names a meeting of the ways without their actually meeting (Canadians call them traffic circles), and in other senses is everywhere often followed with way.

Sometimes the only way through is not to go through at all – go about, go around. Sometimes it would tease to cross; sometimes you don’t dot the eyes. The usefulness of round things is, after all, often in what is not there. And sometimes the point is not what is in the middle at all, but what you find behind it.

Thanks to Saro Nova for mentioning this topic.

2 responses to “roundabout

  1. Roundabouts are a national obsession in Britain. There is a whole culture attached to them, and a Roundabout Appreciation Society, founded by one Kevin Beresford:
    Mr Beresford has published a calendar showing the roundabouts of Redditch, a small town near Birmingham that nevertheless has 41 of them, and a series of books about the roundabouts of various towns:

    The most famous of all roundabouts is the Magic Roundabout of Swindon, a masterpiece of complexity consisting of a central circle surrounded by five mini-roundabouts all of different shapes:
    You can see a short film of a journey around this mysterious structure at

    G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Flying Inn includes a poem called ‘The Road to Roundabout’, but there does not seem to be a copy of it on the web. This pre-dates the invention of the traffic circle, of course.

  2. So, what was the little naughty boy’s “roundabout” in the Orphant Annie poem? A rope he tied his pants up with? Or were said “pants” his drawers, underpants? Perhaps what we call pants these days were what they called “trousers”? I never got this as a child. Please explain if you understand. Thanks for your time.

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