Oliver Cross: How high is an elephant’s eye, exactly?

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THIS week, being on my own and the day being sunny, and having failed to notice the severe weather warning, I found myself singing (all together now):

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,

And the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye…

At which point I had to stop because I realised that I do not know how high an elephant’s eye is (about 7ft or 2.1336m I’d guess, but I would need check that with an elephant), nor how high the corn – or, in English terms, maize – would have to be to create such an optimistic outlook.

Furthermore, I don’t know how the great songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II came up with such an unhelpful lyric. He spent all his life around the theatre and entertainment world of New York, so although he may have seen an elephant in a show, it’s unlikely he ever saw corn on a prairie and virtually impossible that he saw a prairie and an elephant at the same time, so his height judgments are, to say the least, questionable.

(Diversion: Hammerstein’s father, called, as you might expect, Oscar Hammerstein I, was a vaudeville producer who apparently invented the custard-pie-in-the-face routine, which would be one heck of a legacy to have on your conscience).

Anyway, I do think Hammerstein II slipped a little with that elephant’s eye line, although the rest of the song – from my favourite musical, Oklahoma! – is as witty, evocative and playful as you’d expect:

All the cattle are standin’ like statues,

All the cattle are standin’ like statues,

They don’t turn their heads as they see me ride by,

But a little brown maverick is winkin’ her eye.

I also like the later line ‘The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree’ which struck me as particularly topical this week, as I smashed my head against a blown-down branch.

Another song from Oklahoma! that creates a difficulty concerns Ado Annie’s dilemma:

I’m just a girl who cain’t say no, I’m in a terrible fix I always say ‘come on, let’s go!’ Jist when I orta say nix

Clearly, if Oklahoma! had not been around for long enough to be mistaken for a cuddly classic, the Daily Mail and other guardians of the nation’s morality would be baying for Hammerstein’s liver on a plate, it being the most terrible outrage imaginable to ‘send out the wrong message’, which Ado was certainly doing.

This is also what Ken Clarke apparently did last week with his views on sentencing policy and (tangentially, although you wouldn’t think so) rape. The words ‘sending out the wrong message’ are the swiftest way to kill any intelligent debate stone dead.

They are why we can’t discuss, except in private so the Daily Mail and its bullying pals can’t hear, the alarming scale and evident uselessness of Britain’s prison system, nor any view of drugs which doesn’t involve locking even more people up, nor any suggestion that the our habit of getting involved in lethal adventures abroad might be worth questioning. Do anything you like, just don’t send out the wrong message, right?

BE CURIOUS: One of the events at a previous Be Curious festival.

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