The Riddle


As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?¹

For 62 weeks during 1984 and 1985 songs by Nik Kershaw peppered the UK singles chart more often than any other solo artist² and his first two studio albums both went platinum. He never had a number one song but five top ten releases in those two years is pretty good going by anyone’s standards.

Nik’s second album, The Riddle, had a place in the Crotchety vinyl collection and several of the tracks live on among some of my fondest memories long after the record itself moved on to another home. So, in recognition of Mr. Kershaw’s talents as a song-writer, musician and producer, I’m giving the album’s title track the honour of a Crotchety Track of the Week award.

Nik Kershaw started playing guitar and singing in 1974 when he was still at school. That first band was called Thor. The following year, after a change of drummer, Thor was renamed Half Pint Hogg. Whether the new name had anything to do with Nik’s small stature (he stands just 5′ 4″ tall) I can not say. In any case, the Half Pint was soon dropped and Nik Kershaw’s Hogg gigged for another three years in and around the Ipswich area.

It must have been about this time that the Crotchety brothers’ band also changed its name. We were provisionally calling ourselves Galadriel, which we liked, but it turned out that there was already a band with that name. (In fact, I think there have been several.) Having been invited to play at a gig in Chiselhurst Caves, we needed to choose a name rather quickly and we plumped for … Hogg.

Eventually, of course, we discovered that Hogg, too, was also the name of another band, but whether it was Nik’s band or some other porcine-inspired group I do not know. I do remember, though, that we managed to get a plug for our Hogg (two ‘g’s) on a local radio station. When the DJ invites listeners to phone in with details of their gigs you can’t turn down the offer of free publicity.

LP cover

The Riddle is one of those songs with a singable pop tune and a beat that can only be described as infectious. Propelled along by staccato rhythm guitars and embellished with fast synthesiser runs it pumps energy into the blood stream like a caffeine-stuffed, sugary drink. (That kid’s not hyper-active; he’s just listening to The Riddle.)

The lyrics are, I believe, a riddle with no answer. Parts of it make some sort of sense:

Near a tree by a river there’s a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran goes around and around

But what can we make of this?:

A blackbird sings on bluebird hill
Thanks to the calling of the wild wise men’s child

A comment on the video says that the words are ‘filler’ lyrics that Nik would use when writing music and, with time in the recording session for just one more song, it wasn’t possible to write ‘proper’ lyrics. And the video, which is quite surreal, seems to support that.

Life’s perhaps the only riddle that we shrink from giving up.

– W. S. Gilbert


  1. This is riddle number 9 from The official answer is “one” because I was the only one going to St. Ives; the man, his wives, their cats and their kittens were all coming away from St. Ives. Crotchety Pedant, however, cries “foul”; the riddle says nothing about where the man’s party was going and some (or all) of them may well have been going to St. Ives with me.
  2. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 299. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  3. All information from Wikipedia and the wonderfully amusing biography on Nik Kershaw’s official website, which is highly recommended reading.

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