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The Riddle (Nick Kershaw)
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One of the 80's most famous mysteries, The Riddle: Near a tree by a river there's a hole in the ground. Where an old man of Aran goes around and around. And his mind is a beacon in the veil of the night. For a strange kind of fashion there's a wrong and a right

For many years, people were still asking for the meaning of this enigmatic riddle: what is the answer? Well, not a mystery anymore. Or maybe it is a mystery just as unveiled as it was back then? Read under the Meaning tab to find out. And if you have your own ideas about its meaning, please, share it with us writing your comment below. Let's unveil the mystery... or at least have fun trying.

Nik Kershaw, singer and song-writer, was a teen idol in the 1980's, when he stayed on the UK Singles Chart for 62 weeks. His most famous hits are "I Won't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", "Wouldn't it Be Good" and this one here, "The Riddle" (1984). He also wrote hits for other singers.

I got two strong arms
Blessings of Babylon
With time to carry on and try
For sins and false alarms
So to America the brave
Wise men save

Near a tree by a river
There's a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There's a wrong and a right
But he'll never, never fight over you

I got plans for us
Nights in the scullery
And days instead of me
I only know what to discuss
Oh, for anything but light
Wise men fighting over you

It's not me you see
Pieces of valentine
And just a song of mine
To keep from burning history
Seasons of gasoline and gold
Wise men fold

Near a tree by a river
There's a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There's a wrong and a right
But he'll never, never fight over you

I got time to kill
Sly looks in corridors
Without a plan of yours
A blackbird sings on Bluebird Hill
Thanks to the calling of the wild
Wise men's child

Near a tree by a river
There's a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There's a wrong and a right
But he'll never, never fight

Near a tree by a river
There's a hole in the ground
Where an old man of Aran
Goes around and around
And his mind is a beacon
In the veil of the night
For a strange kind of fashion
There's a wrong and a right
But he'll never, never fight over you
No, he'll never, never fight over you

BLESSINGS= A blessing is something very good that you have or that happens to you, especially when given to you by God or Nature. In this case, his blessings are the two strong arms he has, but the higher power giving him those strong arms is not God or Nature, it is Babylon (?).

BABYLON= The ancient capital city of the Babylonian empire which originated in Mesopotamia (in modern Irak) 4,000 years ago and dominated much of the Middle East. They also conquered Israel and destroyed Jerusalem, its temple, and deported the population, so in the Bible, Babylon is the symbol of Evil and sin.

CARRY ON= Continue; keep on with your life.

BY A RIVER= Next to a river.
The preposition BY means "in that area", so the meaning is similar (but not exactly the same) as "near" or "next to".

ARAN= Aran (also Haran) is a man in the Book of Genesis (first book of the Bible) who lived in the Summerian city of Ur (in modern Irak), brother of Abraham and one of the ancestors of Jesus. But Aran is also the name of different places (cities, villages, valleys, etc.) in Iran, Azerbaijan and even Spain, etc., so if the song is referring to a place, it is really difficult to know which place it is. It is even more possible that this "old man of Aran" mentioned in the song is echoing an old British fictional documentary from 1934 titled "Man of Aran", about life on the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland. This film won the 2nd Venice International Film Festival and depicted the lifestyle of a community who still lived in pre-modern conditions, so the "man of Aran" can also be connected with the romantic idea of ancestral wisdom or even magic.

BEACON= A guiding or warning signal, as a light or fire, esp. one in an elevated position (for example, a lighthouse).

THE VEIL OF THE NIGHT= A veil /veɪl/ is a piece of light fabric hung to separate or conceal what is behind it; a curtain. In poetry, the night is often referred to as "the veil of the night", because the dark of the night veils (covers) everything, hides things behind the dark so we can't see them clearly.

FASHION= Manner, form, variety, custom.

FIGHT OVER YOU= If you fight over something, you fight for that reason. If you fight over a person, you fight to obtain that person's favour or to protect that person and save them from a danger.

SCULLERY= A small room adjoining a kitchen (especially in old times), in which dishwashing and other kitchen chores are done. (see picture)

WISE= Having the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting, how to behave in life in the best possible way.

VALENTINE= Saint Valentine is the day we celebrate romantic love so "pieces of valentine" is things of love. The song says "it's not me you see, (but) pieces of valentine", you don't know or care about the real me but you project on me your own ideas of romantic love.

KEEP FROM= If you keep from doing something, you try not to do it, you avoid doing it.

SEASONS= A season is a period of time.

GASOLINE= /gæsə,li:n/ petrol (AmE: gas = gasoline).

FOLD= Give in, surrender; to weaken or collapse from a big effort.

I GOT TIME TO KILL= I have (got) free time. To kill the time is to do something just because you have nothing to do and you don't want to get bored. If you have time to kill, you have free time, so you can do a certain thing.

SLY= clever, cunning, mischievous, insidious, crafty, furtive, roguish= intelligent in a subtle and evil way.

BLACKBIRD= A small kind of black bird with an orange peak (see picture)

BLUEBIRD= A small kind of blue bird with a white and orange chest (see picture)

THE CALLING OF THE WILD= The wild is nature, away from human habitations. The calling of the wild is an urge to go back to wild nature, away from human environments.


For many years after the song was out, people wondered about the meaning of this riddle. There were literally hundreds of different interpretetions, some of them really clever, but the author never wanted to reveil what was the true meaning of the song. And then, years later, he made some astounding declarations. Here is the transcription of Nick's answer in an interview:

My producer (Peter Collins) came over to my house just before we commenced recording on the second album to hear how I was getting on with the writing. He went away saying he thought it sounded great but didn't think I had the first single. Incensed by this, I went straight up to the spare room and got the chords and melody together for the Riddle. This must've taken all of twenty minutes. Knowing time was short before we started recording I jotted down some jibberish with the intention of writing the real lyric as we were recording it.

About a week later we started recording and I threw a rough guide vocal down using the jibberish lyrics. As the album progressed, I tried various different lyric ideas but nothing seemed to fit as well as the guide lyric. So we decided to stick with what we had. "Let's call it the Riddle", I thought. Then people would think it was actually about something.

I had completely underestimated the fuss this would cause and, to make matters worse, the marketing and promotions people at MCA decided to make a competition out of it (without telling me). The response was unbelievable. We got sack loads of mail with elaborate and detailed analysis of the song. Line by line, word by word. Some were the size of small novels. Some even made sense!! People stopped me in the street to give me their thoughts and theories. On one occasion I arrived to do a live Radio 1 interview with a certain DJ only to find he'd told the Great British public that I would be "revealing all" on his show. He was most put out when I wouldn't (couldn't) co-operate.

It all got a bit out of hand and, very quickly, passed the point at which I could come clean without pissing off a lot of people.

In short, "The Riddle" is nonsense, rubbish, bollocks, the confused ramblings of an 80's popstar.

Please forgive me. I knew not what I did.


But after years of expectation and intrigue, would people accept this incredible riddle was simply nonsense gibberish? No way, many people still claim Nick Kershaw simply refused to unveil the true meaning of this song, and new interpretations were tried in this exciting quest to solve the mystery. Maybe they are right and this song has a real hidden meaning after all, or maybe they are wrong and this is nothing but catchy nonsense. One fan even said, "I can't believe that Nik Kershaw just randomly created lyrics for this song. He's either lying, or he's been inspired by some unseen force. Either way, we'll never know for sure!"

Anyway, I will leave a few interpretations here just for you to get a taste of what people try to make out of this:

The Riddle is about war, specifically, war fought over oil.

I think the problem with The Riddle arose from people assuming that the song itself is a riddle (partly the fault of record promoters). I think the title was meant to describe the overall theme of the original album: Why fight over oil? (The Riddle) Why have a Cold War? (Don Quixote) Why destroy the planet? (Coming up Roses) Why not find a better way? (Wild Horses) etc. etc.

As for the "nonsense" lyrics of The Riddle, they are not nonsense at all. Aran is an ancient region in what is now Azerbaijan, between the Kura and Araks rivers. Like Babylon (Iraq), it has been fought over for thousands of years, and also like Babylon, Aran has some of the world's richest oil fields. Aran was, at the time the song was written, one of the most important oil refining centers in the Soviet Union.

Aran was also the stronghold of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, where many famed fire temples burned beacons to symbolize the wisdom of God (Azerbaijan means "Land of the eternal flame") It is possible that "old man of Aran" refers to Zoroaster (Zarathushtra). The core precepts of Zoroastrianism are human equality, fairness, environmental responsibility and the ethical treatment of animals (pretty much the same as Kershaw's songs). It is therefore very ironic that Aran has become a center for oil refining, the ultimate fuel for war, empire-building and environmental devastation.

I had always viewed this song as being an anti nuclear war song, about early 80's Cold War paranoia. Lines like the "Hole in the ground" represented the missile silos,...
"The Old man of Aran goes around and around",..clutching at straws perhaps, but in Tamil, aran is "defence" going around and around, the beacon in the night I took as being a reference to a radar defense system...
"For a strange kind of fashion there's a wrong and a right,"
Meant in the Cold War both sides, for whatever reason, thought themselves to be right, and they will never fight over you, but over their political ideology. (Wise men fighting over you)
The next lines could well have meant hiding in the underground bomb shelters,.."I got plans for us, Nights in the scullery..." etc.

It's not me you see This is a Valentine Just a song of mine
To keep from burning history, Seasons of gasoline and gold
Wisemen fold:
ie, burning history, destroying all that has been created, seasons of Gasoline and gold, = fighting over commodities?

Other lines point also to fears of nuclear war, including
"Wisemen's child"...the Atomic Bomb, (Oppenheimer's toy??)
No he'll never never fight over you...the riddle was, what are they fighting over, and will it really happen?

Chris - Nagoya, Japan


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