Ludo ergo sum

On a more cheerful note from yesterday’s moan, I can also report to anyone still reading that I played many games over Easter with the Offspringses and Sigoth. My goodness, we do like games in this family. I don’t mean those boring video games either, I mean good, solid, frequently German, board games or card games.

When Sigoth and I were young sprouts playing about with this new-fangled notion called “home computing” we played some of the early games available: Donkey Kong was a favourite along with one involving running about in corridors being chased by a dinosaur. It was a ZX Spectrum game and may have had “Escape” in the title; it certainly had it in the raison d’être. Often Sigoth typed the game in directly, which was more interesting than the game itself, but such is life. The journey may exceed the destination.

One weekend a friend came to stay with us in our appalling basement student flat. It was genuinely appalling. There was a toad living in the bathroom under a fungal growth, and mice in every nook and cranny. It was cold and dark and damp. I was ill with bronchitis and had to sit up all night in the armchair for two or three nights because I was unable to breathe if I lay down. Feral dogs wandered the backyards, and one day we were trapped indoors by one which had decided not to allow us out into its territory. But in compensation there was also a kestrel hunting on the waste ground behind the terraces next to the little shop where the pints of milk were frozen solid in winter and rancid in summer. Oh, my dears, the views across the valley at night made constellations and rivers of light!

We therefore had to distract our friend when she visited because she was (and is) a gently bred soul. Mice and toads and feral dogs are not her beverage of choice. So we introduced her to Donkey Kong and she played it for hours, jumping in her seat every time she jumped a barrel on screen. It was more entertaining to watch than playing the game.

The same friend also loves board games and we play every time she visits, even though we no longer have a toad or a feral dog, and the mice only visit briefly in winter when the fields are frozen over.

There are a very wide range of games now available. We don’t play the old classics so often now the Offspringses have grown up, games like Monopoly or Scrabble or Cluedo. We play games like one of the Catan series, or Seven Wonders, or Carcassone or Alhambra or Inkognito or Dominion or Pandemic or Shadows over Camelot. Some of these games are co-operative games, where you play together to beat the game itself, for example by curing a deadly virus before it wipes out the human race. They require thought and discussion and strategy. They are, as young people nowadays are wont to say, mint.

We played, my dears, and then we played a computer-based game. Normally, as I have intimated, I find these quite boring when I don’t have a friend to watch bouncing in her chair with frustration. This one was a networked game though, called Artemis, and we piloted our starship across the known galaxy in a simulation that was completely unlike, for reasons of intellectual property, Star Trek. There were stars and nebulae and aliens and space stations. Otherwise hardly any similarities at all. It was hilarious fun.

Why do we do it? Not just this family, but humans? Why do we play? Honestly, humankind are all just big kids who never grow up. We drink milk (often) until we die instead of moving on to adult food when weaned, and we play like babies. Other species use play as a tool to learn. Humans use it as a tool to do anything but.

As a family we enjoyed pretending to be other people in another time and place, on a starship in a galaxy far, far away instead of being ourselves together. The escapism and shared enterprise (if I may call it that) allowed us to be one big happy family without having to work hard to be one big happy family. Real families and relationships take effort, but game play is easy, so long as it isn’t Diplomacy and everyone plays the game for its own sake rather than to win. We are British game players and it’s the taking part that matters.

Taking part – that is crucial. We play games to build our sense of community, society even. Sports replace war, as Desmond Morris liked to claim, and sports fans recreate tribal behaviours. When we beat South Africa 25-17 (I was there!) or when we place the final card that defeats the Evil Sorceror / cures the purple virus / completes the mission, we feel triumph and a rush of excitement and love for our fellow game players / fans. Even when the game is competitive, if it was well played we can all take some pleasure from something well-executed or nimbly done.

I love playing games. I love that they have no real point, and that somehow that is the point.


Slippery thinking

I don’t know what prompts certain memories. It’s a bit like getting a tune stuck in your head all day, but without the music. For no good reason my thoughts have been sliding around sliding, and ultimately why butter is bad for you.

Out of the blue I started remembering about the tea tray game from when I was little. My friend and I would dare each other, successfully I’m afraid, to slide down the stairs on a tin tea tray. We only did it at her house because (1) her mother didn’t seem too worried about it and (2) she had the tray. Both of these were critical success factors. Also her stairs were straighter and the hallway a little bit longer. It was the perfect combination for successful tea tray related activity in a semi-perpendicular (yet stepped) environment.

Obviously this led me to also recall the other sliding we did as children, down the side of the flyover on cardboard. If we were lucky. Otherwise it was grass stains and grazed knees, and on one memorable occasion a broken collar bone for a boy who got carried away with how clever he was at sliding down backwards. We would hurtle down the slope into the ditch at the bottom, and you had to aim just right else you hit the nettles. The drivers going over the flyover seemed less concerned than my friend’s mother did about the tea tray.

SlideI suppose it all started when I was even smaller and we used to play on the slide in the park. It was a very high slide, built a bit like the watch towers at a prisoner of war camp. There was a wooden platform surrounded by wooden planks that were too high to see over unless you were at least seven, and the slide itself was taller than our parent. We went down it forwards, backwards, tummy side down or up, in pairs (although not all of those things at once). Sometimes the slide was not very slippery so we greased it with butter (or marge, in extremis) to make ourselves go faster. We took it in turns to steal the butter for home.

There was a crater at the end of the slide where we all shot off and landed, occasionally feet first. If it was raining it turned into a large, muddy morass, and landing in that was definitely too slimy for words, so on wet days you had to be able to build up enough speed to jump over the crater as you came shooting off the end of the slide.

I cannot begin to tell you the trouble we got into for the state of our clothes.

And that, my dears, is why butter is bad for you.


The Spirit of Willy Woodthorpe

19890611Ashford Woodthorpe Road School5Recently the daily prompt at WordPress asked me to write a memorial to part of my childhood that had been destroyed.

It’s not fashionable to admit liking school. Sometimes anti-intellectualism goes too far, and so I am here to tell you that school was happy for some of us, at least some of the time.  My secondary school was horrible, but primary – well, I lived in heaven for several years, my dears. I told you about one of my teachers there the other day. The fantastic Mr B.

It wasn’t just Mr B though; it was the school itself. It wasn’t Hogwarts (if Hogwarts ever had a prep school, which it didn’t, but never mind), with Houses and homework and ghosts – although allegedly there was a ghost in our classroom. I think Mr B made him up, but you can’t be too careful about these things. The ghost lived in the roofspace over our classroom; you see that big arched window in the main building? That was our classroom, and Willy Woodthorpe, the ghost, lived above it.  At the end of the day, when we were getting giddy, Mr B would sit us down and play his version of Sleeping Lions. We had to sit at our desks and not smile or giggle. Meanwhile he stalked among us, telling us about Willy Woodthorpe and making silly faces and noises until we cracked. The last one to laugh won.

When I say the school was special, I don’t mean the teachers, although most of them were fabulous. Except the one who threw the blackboard wiper at your head if she got cross. She was not fabulous at all. She was the threat we held over annoying kids.

“I’ll tell Miss Scary!”

That wasn’t her real name of course, although it was how we thought of her. I doubt she meant to be scary, but she did get quite angry quite often. She used crutches because she had had polio as a child, and so she was not very mobile. I suspect the throwing was compensation for a clip round the ear, which other teachers might have adopted.

Anyway, not the teachers. The school itself, the bricks and mortar and crumbly, fading glory of it that you could pick out of the cracks with prying fingers when you were bored.

It was typical of many schools of that age – high windows and ceilings, resulting in cold rooms with grumbling, clunky radiators fighting a losing, cantankerous battle, and a polished wooden floor in the main hall where we went to sing hymns and do gym (not at the same time). The stage had library shelves at the back which you were allowed to use once you were good enough at reading. It was brilliant. There were books about astronauts and dinosaurs and volcanoes, although sadly not all in one stupendous volume.

The playground had lots of nooks and crannies, because the building was so fractal on the edges. It was a bit like Slartibartfast’s fjords, lovely and crinkly, providing a baroque feel. By unspoken agreement, different year groups inhabited different areas. Once we were in the final year we took over the space outside our classroom and held manic conker competitions and pretended to be daleks and had fights and long, soul searching discussions on the benches (because it was almost, but not quite, time for puberty).

During playtimes we might see our mums going past on their way back from shopping in town, which meant we had to be reasonably well-behaved otherwise we would be in trouble at home time. There was a rain shelter (you can just see the edge of it on the left hand side of the photo; it’s the square brick wall poking in behind the railings) which only held about half the school complement on days it was wet, so the smaller children tended to steam slightly if they sat near a radiator on a wet afternoon. We always went outside at break, without exception. Blue knees were pretty common because the girls all had short skirts and the boys all had short trousers; the science class on circulation of the blood made complete sense once you had examined your mottled knees and realised your life was being sucked from you by vampire winds. Our mums knitted balaclavas to keep our ears warm, but knees were left to fend for themselves.

I suppose the school was hard to heat, although the kitchens cooked us hot dinners every day so it felt warm in the hall itself. The only way in and around was up and down stairs, which were problematic if you had difficulty walking, like Miss Scary, or like the boy in our year who had cerebral palsy. He took forever to get up to the classroom. At the time we just waited because that was how long he took, although some of the boys called him names when the teachers weren’t around.

The downside to this suburban idyll was the toilets. When I say toilets, don’t be fooled into imaging pristine water closets with working flush mechanisms and gleaming porcelain. This was the 1960s. They were in special blocks the other side of the playground, and they were unspeakably horrible. I suspect most of us, if we learned nothing else, learned top quality bladder control because really anything was preferable to having to use them. It was a wonder we didn’t all catch cholera, although if we had I expect we would still have had to go to school. You needed a cast iron excuse to be off sick, such as death, and even then only if your mum wrote a note.

Most of us were happy there. Most of us learned to read and write and add up enough to get by.

I also saw the first man walk on the moon one summer day, and discovered that not everyone speaks English when a couple of Chinese children arrived (no one actually explained but I suspect they were refugees). I had my first crush on an actual boy, won another boy’s best conker in a fluke attack, and did handstands against the toilet block walls with the other girls. I made a model of an archaeopteryx which hung for the rest of term from the classroom ceiling.

Admittedly I also learned some unsavoury lessons, such as: if I hit the boy who teased me, he got in trouble for teasing a girl, and no one believed I had hit him. He learned the game wasn’t worth the candle and left me and my friends alone afterwards.

Eventually the council got fed up with the crumbly old building and hazardous toilets. They sold it to the Salvation Army and this is what is there now.

But the spirit of Willy Woodthorpe lives on, and, to paraphrase appallingly, you can’t take my school from me. Cue fiddles!

Take my love, take my land

Take me where I cannot stand

I don’t care, I’m still free

You can’t take the sky my school from me.


Take me out to the black

Tell them I ain’t comin’ back

Burn the land and boil the sea

You can’t take the sky my school from me.

Know my school and you know me.



Dangerous paths

Bilbo warned us, so there are no excuses. Stepping outside your door is a dangerous thing, because once you are on the road, the road that links to every other road or path, by whatever twisted or indirect route, you just never know where you might end up.

When I was younger my friends and I would play a game on those long, boring, sunny afternoons which filled the summer holidays. The game was about trying to see how far we could get by tossing a coin. In principle, we would leave the house and toss the coin with heads being right, and tails being left (or possibly vice-versa). And then we would walk until we came to a junction and we would toss the coin again to decide which way to go. Crossroads were tricky but we had a plan for those involving two throws – straight on/turn then if we had to turn, left/right.

Sometimes we went around the block and were back home in the blink of an eye, which was very disappointing. Sometimes we walked for quite a long time, and once we almost started walking to the airport, but it was a long way and we decided to go home instead.

One day we ended up in the local park, walking along by the river, and came across a little girl who had lost her shoe. She had been fishing for stickleback and her shoe had come off and floated away. We took her downstream and saw it swirling ahead of us but the water was deep and muddy, and we didn’t want to get wet and have to explain to our mothers, so we took her home and explained to her mother instead.

Life in a quiet dormitory town outside London was not all thrills and spills, I can tell you. We never found treasure, or foiled a bank robbery, or saved a dragon from a princess. But we might have done; that was the point. We never knew what might happen, and the thrill of finding out, even though it turned out to be mundane, was enough.

Life is not about getting through the storm, it’s about dancing in the rain.

We played at “Power Cuts” when I was little during the early Seventies.

There were many power cuts and they lasted a long time for boring political reasons. However, it was so exciting to be without electricity that my friend and I would recreate it in my room by drawing the curtains and pulling the blankets over our heads, making ghost noises, then shrieking wildly and collapsing in giggles. It was like camping but at home with teddies and snacks, and a working toilet.

Apparently you can’t do that when you are an adult. Apparently it’s not appropriate.

At least, if you do, the children roll their eyes and probably mentally run through some gothic fantasy where they are trapped with a madwoman in a spooky house and are about to find out there’s an axe murderer loose in the village. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

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