SHEILA BESKINE, who teaches in a secondary modern school, was one of the voluntary helpers at the Lollard Adventure Playground in Lambeth, which was recently described in H. S. Turner's book Something Extraordinary (Michael Joseph). She edits the newsletter of the National Association of Recreation Leaders.
"AW – THAT'S NOT SHEILA IS IT? GOOD GOD!" Arriving for another interlude at Lollard, I meet the Masher, 17, in the Lambeth Walk, and receive his usual welcome. How long I stay this time depends on where I can find to sleep. Last time I was able to stay, on condition I fed the cat, at the top of a very rocky building. Like the rows of squashed, grey little houses, the place was due for demolition in 1939, and I believed it when the floor shook to my walk and rattled the windows. The girl in the "Top Value" food store smiles: she knows me and the grubby-handed children who call religiously for Oxo tins for our cooking and marbling. The stall man on the corner gives me a little grin and I turn into Wake Street to a noisier welcome from some of the smaller Clarks and Haleys.
I dump my rucksack on the platform in the Hut and sink down to be clambered over by various small children, and some older girls who want to "do my hair". I am presented with another Spearmint Chew, this time a whole one. When I first came as a student I was, like every other visitor, a subject of unhidden curiosity. A little girl whispered "Hasn't Sheila got long hair, Mr. Turner? But she's an artist, isn't she?" I'd always wanted to try jiving and had never plucked up the courage, but here one could and the girls had patiently taught me their dead set little pattern, but soon found my variations impossible to partner; and bare feet with the hair, which of course fell down, convinced them I was "Bowey" (pre-beatnik term for bohemian).
Today my rucksack contained, besides the usual fascinations of sketchbook and edibles, a marvellous lump of green glassy substance, very heavy, which I'd found half buried in a north Essex field, and hopefully suspected to be a piece of meteorite. So we took it to the museums to be identified, and we (myself and three boys of vaguely twelve) ended up in a very learned basement of the Natural History Museum. In no time at all our precious meteorite, with its popping bubbles and whorlings all suddenly stilled, was identified rather flatly, as a piece of roadstone probably from Fords at Dagenham. Anyway, they'd signed the Enquirers' Book and gone through a specially unlocked door, and we spent the rest of the morning in the Science Museum.
Peter, who had just finished his apprenticeship, was the only local person I met who helped at all regularly, spending most of the day in the workshop with a group of younger boys, emerging at dinner time for our co-operative cooking in Oxo tins, which became the rage. Today we had a "smashing" dinner, admired by many, and thus diminished: onions with burnt sausage bits greasily whammed in between thick lumps of bread, and then greengages, which were cheap. Other days we cooked mackerel or eggs. Once when it was hopeless trying to get myself any dinner (though there was always the Eel and Pie shop up the Walk), we had a hot dog session, very successful, at cost price (which varied according to face and pocket).
Another fire activity which magnetised the younger children was "Tie-Dyeing", and Paul, a little crippled Greek boy, was a most enthusiastic helper, often collecting firewood from the fruit stalls in the Walk. We tied up stones in bits of old shirt and then boiled up the dye, which I had got as free samples, and the cloth was attended to with much prodding and stirring. We hung them up, like so much brightly coloured seaweed, on sticks wedged into the netting fence to dry in the sun, soon to be untied, to discover, delightedly, the white circles. The interest caught on well, and one of the big boys, not realising that this could almost come under the heading of "needlework" and therefore be cissy, summed up the example as being "very flash". Then the older girls got interested. The fact that the idea comes from India and Africa convinced them that it was as nuts as me, though nice. But the one enamel bowl got stoned in when I didn't put it away, and in any case no one brought any more cloth.
Mr. Turner, the warden, has brought his violin today, and we went to the workshop to listen. Rita Quinn made a quaint little drawing of him, and then one of me, adorned with little circular bosoms. Sylvia was looking at the drawings over my shoulder. "Look at them, Sheila." "What's wrong with them?" "She's drawn them!" she said, pointing either side of her chest, in such a sweet way, not aggressive. "What's wrong with that, Sylvie?" "It's dirty," she whispered. "Why?". Shoulder shrug. Sylvia is 7, one of a family of seven children (including one by "uncle") ranging from the baby last Christmas to Jimmy who is 9. One day the father told us with the air of a dutiful parent, "I only reckon to drink 4 pints a day when I'm not working. 1 drink 10 when I am."
Once, by accidental invitation, I spent an evening in their kitchen. Sylvie had been sent to ask if I'd like a cup of tea (I was in the Huton my own) and I assumed this meant I must come and get it. There was a hasty and embarrassing tidying up, and then I was allowed to creep in. Dad and the baby were asleep in the front room. The space was mainly taken up by a solid table covered with a green chenille cloth on which was a bottle of milk and some bread and two of the smaller children with the breadknife. The walls were all peeled paper with bits of wood and plaster exposed in places. In the space between the table front and the oven against the wall were two chairs, where Sylvie's Mum and I sat. The pram was squashed into the space between the table side and the wall, and the space on the other side was taken up by the sink. The other children were around and between us, fidgeting, laughing, squabbling or scribbling on the wall. I had protested about the clearing up for me, and she now seemed anxious to keep me there, telling me about the terrible rent and the terrible houses and the cheek of the Council, while we drank our tea. One of the rooms upstairs was quite unusable, she said, and that left 3 out of 4. They were in the list for a new flat in Camberwell, but I wondered how that would improve the difficulties basically due to very poor intelligence.
Yet Sylvie is a much happier child than Rita, who at 8 is terribly distorted: no love would suffice unless she could endlessly demand the whole person. "She has had it in a big way". The amount of love within a home is the only valid means of valuing it. This is here in many homes, though often under guises not easily penetrated by people from a different upbringing, and often an extensive network of aunts and uncles within the locality is included.
I remember a particular day in the holidays when I'd been home for a few days. Almost as soon as I reappeared Rita triumphantly shadowed me. She was more claimative than usual and after we'd been shopping she waited tirelessly outside the door of the wobbly house where I was staying, while I went upstairs to unpack and eat. Then she started calling me. I couldn't open the windows, long sealed for safety and in any case they were too far back for me to see the pavement. So I went down and explained to her that I couldn't let her in because it wasn't my house, and tried to get her to go back to the Playground, or go and collect egg cartons in the shops for making paint divisions in Oxo tins. After another session of calling me she demanded I went home with her. I promised I would if she was sure Mummy wouldn't mind, but she must go back to the Playground for half an hour.
The atmosphere at her home was very awkward at first. I tried to dispel the lady idea straight away; I was just Sheila from the Playground. I was a bit afraid of Dad at first, and noticed uneasily the way he grabbed Rita in when she was introducing me, presented on the doorstep, as though he was afraid she might let them down. I stressed that I'd had tea, but they insisted that I share their paste sandwiches, which were good. Somehow the awkwardness disappeared and I listened to many self-assurance stories and played draughts with various members of the family. They seemed to have much more living space than Sylvie's family; the room was lit by a single gas mantle, and when anyone left the room or went upstairs to fetch something for Daddy (who seemed to have everything done for him), they took a torch. The room seemed to be peaceful and the children happy enough, but there were little incidents that made me wonder how apathetic Mum had become, and how used to it and unsurprised the children were.
When all but the oldest girls had gone to bad, I asked, as far as I dared, why Rita was so much more "nervy" than the others. "Well she's very highly-strung," and there followed a long story of her schoolmaster, which sounded terrible to me, but if it were true, either they as parents were too dim to tell him anything, or the headmaster was dead to his job. But oh yes, she's been to County Hall about it. I wondered.
I had to learn to wonder. Didn't she realise how Rita always has a very difficult time with other children at Lollard, and doubtless at school as well, because she, in particular, is always so dirty. I hadn't the sureness or tact then to try to talk to her mother. In any case I think it would come to a fight against her booze, and that there is probably more of "I can't be bothered" than I was allowed to see. At wash time the children used a large china bowl in the same room, one kettle of water, one black towel, and one sponge. A case of "you had it last, where is it?" This sort of dirtiness was very different from simply getting clothes filthy and torn at Lollard, and different from an acceptable "that'll have to do for today".
It didn't fit in with Mum's stories of her own school days, and having been Head Girl for three years running. I sensed that this was not a matter of lying, but a kind of wishful thinking, giving a mask of confidence to face living in a situation of unconsciously realised failure.
* * *
We had another fire, to burn the ox-head (under threat from the warden) which the butcher had kept for me. (I thought to rescue the skull – I love skulls). I left it on a corner shelf in the main hut, covered with newspaper so the nursery children wouldn't be frightened, for its eyes were quite horrible. I came back later to find it dressed in a green woolly cap, a white silky scarf a daffodil and a newspaper ruffle. It looked quite transformed.
A crash through the hut door – Masher of course – as I am doodling on the piano. "Evening Mozart!" with no change of expression whatsoever. The greeting almost held some hidden respect. He only just remembered he was pally tonight and threw me his evening paper, which he couldn't read, and was satisfied that I agreed with him that the new Lonnie Donegan record was good.
The potholes by the swings have just been rediscovered, with much excitement when some bones were found, chicken-like, but with teeth. The Playground is fuller tonight – is there nothing good on
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telly? Excavations are still going strong at 7.30: we close at 8 p.m. Sometimes, on such nights, there is time to talk to the warden about the children and the place. Our best perch was on the scenery steps (sent us by Ealing Studios) outside the train, a position from which we could "keep eye" over most of the 1¼ acres. I often drew while listening, (it was a way of hearing more!). Tonight's drawing was better than usual, and the leather-jacket boys, wandering off, demanded to see it, of course. There was general agreement that it was good. Then Charlie came over, always with a naughty grin for me. I sat back so I could watch back, so I could watch his face – it went dead serious in admiration and disbelief mingled. "Cor! … it's Mr. Turner! Cor! It's fucking great!" This was obviously the greatest credit his vocabulary could give, and was quite sincere. "It's a smashing likeness." I laughed; we all did. Usually they check anything 'bad' coming out in front of me or Mr. Turner.
I am sitting again on the large wooden step, with my arm around little Greek Ida who has had a nasty bash on her head. She seems quite content to sit beside me while I scribble, not looking at her or speaking to her. Pamela is standing in the Hut door, licking her ice cream, dealing out malicious glares to Ida; it was she who knocked her over. She's terribly spiteful; both her parents are practically mentally deficient. The WVS arranges children's holidays, and this year she went with Sylvie and another child, but she was so difficult with the others that she was sent home. This morning I made a special point of giving her a nice smile and decent bits of paper to draw on, and she was fairly reasonable. But I wonder what she will do when she is older; she is quite unlovable. Even Rita had moments when I thought I could help her. She was chosen for the WVS holiday too, but for some reason her father refused, and then changed his mind when it was too late. (The only cost asked was the child's normal Family Allowance).
* * *
The essence of the Adventure Playground as I knew it was not merely its being an area of rough ground sporting an unorthodox collection of playthings, nor even the freedom from petty rules. It was the belongingness resulting from the struggle for it in which the children or their older brothers and sisters, had taken part. Poverty was a strength of the Adventure Playground. As warden you'd suddenly remember: "My God! Five pounds due for the water rate at the end of the month!" You know the committee certainly wouldn't have any money, so somehow you had to raise it. When you needed wood for camp building, you couldn't send in an order for it, you had to find a local timber merchant and somehow get round him, giving the reasons. When the wood comes it's an absolute triumph. The installation of the phone at Lollard was an amazing example. Children came in just to look at this lovely black thing, to fondle it and hear it purr. "Cor, Blimey! We've got a bleeding telephone now," said Masher.
Struggle produces a whole range of human emotions that are otherwise absent. Without it the human spirit becomes apathetic and dies. Hence the "community spirit" of wartime that people always remark about. Also the bewildered fathers who thought they fought for the children of the future. Tradition is far too abstract. Each generation, each individual, needs to be involved in his own struggle for something. This is why freedom to change is so important in any community. One of Lollard's favourite activities was making and mending rules.
There is a widespread and childish theory that because there is alleged to be no material need to cause juvenile delinquency, there is no "excuse" for it, and therefore today's young people are worthless, etc. Surely it is simply that new living feet are squashed into very old boots, instead of being allowed to wear their own shoes or sandals, with plenty of toe-wiggling space and room for growth. How stupid is the surprise when the new feet grow social corns and bunions! Only the feeble stop growing altogether. So, in 1961, we have the Anti-Violence League … the tooth-for-tooth types.
In 1895 Oscar Wilde optimistically wrote that "When each member of the community has sufficient for his wants, and is not interfered with by his neighbour, it will not be an object of any interest to him to interfere with anyone else …" Today we are not so much affected by the physical starvation which Wilde saw as causing so much "crime". We are in a new emotional starvation.
* * *
The development of Play Parks as a kind of halfway house between the conventional asphalt-and-swings playground and the radical conception of the Adventure Playground, is of course a good thing as far as it goes, but even the most attractive architect-designed children's parks in Sweden, Germany and elsewhere have, to me, the most important thing missing. Things are provided and arranged for their pleasantness to the adult eye, but atmosphere of the personal kind can never be built, and it is easy to associate it with "eyesores". This is simply because voluntary organisations are never rich, a fact which is also their strength because it eliminates interference.
A vast administrative set-up automatically becomes "Them". There is far less care of equipment and much more stealing. At Charlton Play Park the leaders have a pawnshop deposit system to ensure that barrows, balls, chalks, etc.. are returned. One day when I was there some children ran up to me: "Miss, a boy's just thrown a barrow over the wall!" He'd also climbed over a high brick wall to the road and disappeared. The leader checked the barrows: there were two missing. The place had been open a week and everything was new. About an hour later an elderly gentleman came up to the hut with both barrows, damaged, one of them wrecked. He'd stopped two boys in his road and guessed where they belonged. We were surprised that he knew of the Play Park and were grateful. Charlton (Blackheath) is hardly a "poor" district.
Because the LCC is "Them" and is also huge, it merges in many people's minds with the other Thems, like Income Tax, the Rates, the Government. They are "sue-able" establishments to get the better of, to be hostile to. The Adventure Playground is not; it is a personal thing in their midst which they have come to respect and value. It is even protected by them. It is often unworkable because unsupported. Offers of support invariably meant attempts to influence, to control, policy. We often met the idea that a benefactor could buy his way into the committee, and had a right to do so. (A reflection of the stocks and shares mentality.)
The financial ideal would be to be granted the bare running costs, – covering sanitation, lighting, heating, salaries and maintenance of any hard surface; with the day-to-day things like paint, wood, nails, tools, etc., being covered by the children's own efforts. At one time at Lollard there was talk of a fantastic sum of money being given by an impressed and well-meaning visitor. In the warden's words, "the offer terrified me – it would have killed the place quicker than anything – unless I could have given it out at about 2½ d. a day, when it would have lasted for years."
The Adventure Playground could be invaluable for developing personality in a poor or apathetic area. The disadvantage at Lollard was the dependency upon the warden which began to appear in some of the older boys of 17 to 20. He became to them a kind of god. This is unlikely to happen on a Play Park because everything is far less personal and struggle-free. Also because there are more play-leaders and the boys would probably not stay so long, even if the present age limit of 16 did not exist.
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The advantage of the Adventure Playground is mainly psychological: its direct human contact with people's emotions. The warden, or whatever he calls himself, has to live with the families in the neighbourhood. "He's got to attend their funerals, their births, weep with them, and on Sunday console some woman whose man has just gone off with some other woman …" There are no convenient hours. Play Parks on the other hand are cut off at the root and operate on a superficial level. The Play Park Leader must record each day's attendances for the LCC's staffing and equipment quotas. "80 children present …" Any children. The Play Park man is even discouraged from any real interest in individual children because it would be inconvenient to the monster organisation with all its different departments. If the leader does become concerned over some child or family, and thinks something could be done he is expected to report it to the Play Parks Organiser, who, in turn, would be expected to refer it to the appropriate department: Child Welfare, Housing, Health, etc. But human nature is not designed to be organised by a system of pigeon holes. It is precisely because the leader is known and trusted that he is able, perhaps, to influence people. Quite apart from the fact that some parents are of unbelievably low intelligence, many are suspicious, even scornful, of advice from some abstract authority.
The Play Centres, on school premises, have been run for many years, drawing children up to the age of fifteen from the streets to a variety of indoor activities and organised games. The new Play Parks are a definite advance, using some of the features of the Adventure Playground, plus organised games as wanted. But activities like camp-fire building and so on cannot all be adopted at once for fear of a public outcry about the mess; there were even some warning complaints at one Play Park about the bits of stick the children were leaving on the grass from the wattle fence pieces they'd been using for building houses. At Brockwell Park the ground is much more interesting, being hilly and rough instead of like a lawn, with bushes at the bottom. An old willow tree there promised well for climbing, so a man was sent to trim it. He lopped all the branches off clean to the trunk, producing a useless wooden obelisk.
Lollard was a genuine community: by that I mean it was a place where anybody could fit in, making their own little niche, and through this security, could be able to peep out, creep out, or run out altogether, just as Michael, the mongol boy in Heather Sutton's film was able to fit into the village where he lived. Helpers who came were able to present themselves as they really were. For me at least this meant that much more valuable contacts could be made. I spent most of my first weeks there absorbing the honesty of these children and their relationship with the warden and helpers. I felt I wasn't doing anything at all, but then I saw that, simply by being there, the children and the older boys and girls were getting to know a new and different personality. You didn't have to stand on the grass with a whistle and a ball and organise games. You could just start doing something, unintroduced – sketching, knitting, excavating for interesting relics in the skeletons of burnt mattresses – in no time you had followers and could arrange for continuing operations tomorrow. And of course you became involved in the delights and problems of these young people. (If only education could be based on this voluntary principle instead of on that of the policeman: it is no new discovery – see Homer Lane or A. S. Neill). And there was no need to be frightened when there was a lull and no-one wanted to do anything. Some days the place was bustling with camp builders and fire makers, and at other times there appeared to be very little going on, but the fact that the place was there was its value.
The reasons for success and failure are purely emotional. Lollard has a fantastic spontaneous lease of life, which, like Emdrup, made it known all over the world. And then the spirit went and the thing slowly collapsed. While I was still there one was aware of this decline. Things got pinched – my camera with a roll of used film was my most disillusioning loss. Children are ourselves inside-out. Once the spirit has gone, they get sticks, they throw, they burn: the thing is dead, so destroy it, it isn't living any more.
When Mr. Turner took over from an earlier warden he had been told, "Unless you can do anything with it, the place is doomed." His successor was expected to carry on a spirit which had died, and it was not her fault that she could not stop this onrush of breaking. She could only have brought it off by bringing in new helpers and winning over a fresh nucleus of children; but the often unhealthy loyalty of the older boys to her predecessor and the fact that she was a woman, made it virtually impossible. Visitors came and spent two or three hours with us, and then went off enthusiastically to start their own places, with perhaps a romantic view of our activity but no awareness of the emotional problems.
Not long after the place was closed, the Hut was burnt down in the night. While it lasted it was indeed "something extraordinary". The workshop was the most rewarding example of the wave of possessive care these boys showed. "It wouldn't have lasted a week, elsewhere in this district."
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