Triv­ial pur­suits


The Simple Things - - OUTING - Words: JULIAN OWEN


The weep­ing wil­low bends low to softly kiss the lazily me­an­der­ing river. Prob­a­bly. Thrrrrrrrrp-clack! A pair of swal­lows brush bel­lies against grass tips be­fore ris­ing and fall­ing on swept­back wing as if dis­cov­er­ing their aer­o­batic artistry for the very first time. In all like­li­hood. Thrrrrrrrrp-clack! Monk­ton Park, Chip­pen­ham, the sum­mer 1987. That much is cer­tain. Your cor­re­spon­dent is hazy on the sur­round­ing de­tail on ac­count of fo­cus­ing heav­ily on open­ing his arms to send a cigar-shaped cylin­der fly­ing fast along two lengths of string and hit­ting hard against the han­dles held by his nan. Thrrrrrrrrp-clack! She spreads wide her arms to re­turn the favour, and on it goes, back and forth, far be­yond what might rea­son­ably be asked of the older player’s pa­tience. Thus, the game known as Streaker. Proust can keep his madeleines – as far as this writer is con­cerned, noth­ing pulls the sen­sory trig­ger to times past quite like chanc­ing

upon the sound of thrrrrrrrrp-clack!

You’ll have your own game-shaped mem­o­ries, of course. The sight of a young girl jump­ing over a rec­tan­gle of elas­tic, stretched be­tween two pairs of legs, and a chant starts un­bid­den in your head: “Eng­land, Ire­land, Scot­land, Wales, in­side, out­side, mon­keys’ tails!” Hear the ur­gent cry of “catch it!” go up from the group of of­fice work­ers wind­ing down with a spot of rounders (see page 24) and you’re back be­neath a fast-de­scend­ing ball on youth club games night, ner­vously await­ing glory or ig­nominy and, higher stakes yet, ad­mi­ra­tion or pity from the tall boy you’ve twice caught giv­ing you the side-eye.

And that’s the point. It isn’t the me­chan­ics of the game we re­mem­ber, but the time and the peo­ple we played with. To hear some­one send­ing plas­tic cylin­ders along strings is to be in­stantly trans­ported through 30 years and to in­vol­un­tar­ily open the mem­ory box of the first time I stayed a week on my own at Nan’s: ac­quir­ing the game in Wool­worths; buy­ing lardy cake from that other bak­ery a lit­tle fur­ther away be­cause it’s al­ways worth the ef­fort; pre­tend­ing to drive the rac­ing coupé in the garage Nan rented out be­cause there was no car to put in it af­ter Grand­dad died.

None of which speaks to the rea­sons for play­ing the game in the first place, of course. That was all about the mo­ment, the whoosh of speed­ing the cylin­der down the line as hard as pos­si­ble. Rounders in the park was a so­cial agent, the third-party means by which I could en­joy time with peers while hap­pily dis­tracted from what was oth­er­wise a stul­ti­fy­ing shy­ness.

In the great ledger of life, out­door games are pretty much all credit and no debit: ex­er­cise, ca­ma­raderie, laugh­ter and, yes, mem­ory cat­a­lysts.

Now sum­mer is here and pos­si­bil­i­ties open up be­fore us. Of course you’ll have your own hardy peren­ni­als to dig out and pass on, but per­haps you’ll also ac­cept this hand­ful of ideas for your con­sid­er­a­tion. » Park­life: a his­tory All hail Joseph Strutt! The in­dus­tri­al­ist was the driv­ing force be­hind the very first of our most pop­u­lar games spots: the pub­lic park. Derby Ar­bore­tum opened in 1840, with Strutt seek­ing not only to give back to the work­ers who’d made him wealthy, but – in true Vic­to­rian phi­lan­thropist style – “im­prove” them. Pro­vid­ing the first place they could go of a Sun­day af­ter­noon to get away from mill or home, Strutt was de­ter­mined the park would en­hance their in­dus­tri­ous­ness, teach them about botany and im­prove moral con­duct. By 1900, al­most ev­ery town had fol­lowed his ex­am­ple.

“For Fran­co­phone au­then­tic­ity, lib­er­ally punc­tu­ate play with ex­cla­ma­tions of ‘Bof!’”

There is lit­tle more English than a game of croquet (above) – flamin­gos and hedge­hogs op­tional. For an out­door game that al­lows for stand­ing about with a pastis in one had, Pé­tanque (above opposite) is your pas­time

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