NEITHER AGE NOR ABILITY NEED DETER YOU FROM THE PLEASINGLY PECULIAR PASTIMES THAT ARE BRITAIN’S OUTDOOR GAMES
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