Costless Games The Children Used To Play (28 June 1974)
What games do children play today around the streets and on spare patches of grass? I see pavements marked for hop-scotch. I also see girls skipping with a long rope swung by a girl at each end. But apart from that I see little to remind me of the improvised and nearly costless games of my childhood.
In particular, what do the boys do? Of course, I see them kicking soccer balls about, but the balls look real and expensive. And occasionally I see them playing impromptu games of cricket, usually with soft balls. I also see both boys and girls roller-skating, but there again, roller-skates are a comparatively sophisticated and expensive item.
I do not think I have seen a child trundle a hoop since before the war and it is a long time since I saw one whipping or throwing a top either. I have seen boys playing just one or two of the several forms of marbles, but with sophisticated coloured glass ones of course – none of your old, wobbly painted clay taws or allys for today’s children!
But what about squat-can, duck-stone, cherry-ripe, relieve-o. Butter-milk and barley corn and that primitive form of knur-and-spell called tip-cat? At breaktimes at school we also used to play a rough-and-ready sort of rugger – a ball of old rags, about 25 a side, no offside, no touchline, no goals, no set scrums, no line-outs, just tries.
And played on a schoolyard that was just the clinkered floor of an old sandstone quarry!
Grown-ups joined in some of the games at Whitsun treats and that reminds me of something written by the later Mrs. Emily Fennemore, about old Whitsun activities at Fenny. Mrs. Fennemore was born and lived her life here. In 1949, when she was 76, she wrote some memoirs for her grand-children, extracts from which the Gazette was privileged to publish. One of these read:
“There were three clubs held in the town: two were at the Bull Hotel and one at the Bull and Butcher.
“Whit-week they had their dinners, on Monday at the Bull, Tuesday at the Bull and Butcher, and on Wednesday the wind-up at the Bull.
“Each day they had the band, and after the dinner they had Hammond’s field for the day.
“They used to have a greasy pole outside the Bull Hotel, with a big butcher’s scalding tub filled with water and the prize a leg of mutton.
“Several of the men used to go into Hammond’s field by the stile near Mr. Cook’s house and run through the canal to the Bridge and then used to go for the greasy pole to see who could get the prize.
“To finish up, they used to throw bags of flour all over anyone they came up to.
“At the corner against the church was a man cooking sausages for supper.
“That finished the Whitsun holiday but I can tell you that there wasn’t much more work done that week.”
Evidently Fenny – and no doubt other North Bucks townships and villages – were livelier places 80 and 90 years ago than they are today. Rustic the sports and games may have been and rustic the conditions in which they were held. But they indicated a strong sense of community which has been entirely eroded by what is called a higher standard of living.
There was an echo of the old days in 1946. The organisers of a local fete announced that the attractions were to include a competition with a pig as the prize. That inveterate writer of letters to the Gazette Fred French, wrote expressing the hope that the competition would not take the form of chasing a greasy pig, as had been done formerly.
It took my mind back to my childhood in a Yorkshire village when such a chase had been held and in which I had taken part.
The chase took place in a field bounded by dry-stone walls. A crowd of adults and children bunched at one end. A piglet was released from a sack at the other end. There was a general charge in its direction. But that pig had been well and truly greased. For a good while it slid out of everybody’s grasp. I myself dived in and got my hand on its little curly tail. But that was its greasiest part of all. It slithered out of hand with ease and left me lying face-down on a cowpat.
Nemesis came for the pig in the person of the village fat-woman. She was so fat that it was rumoured she had to put her outside necessary backwards. She was at the sports as a spectator but she captured the pig without budging an inch. In the course of eluding all its would-be captors, the pig arrived at her end of the field and made straight for her. Instantly she sat on it and held it grunting and squealing in clouts so voluminous that it could find no way out.
To return to Fred French. The fete organisers assured him that the pig competition would not take that form. He replied that he was glad to hear it, though, as a vegetarian, he still regretted that ultimately the pig would suffer the same fate.
In due course, a Gazette heading reported “Even the pig enjoyed itself at the fete.”
But talking also about that fat woman. She had a voice as loud and clear as a tenor bell. On all but the most inclement mornings she would peel potatoes or some such chore at her cottage door and burst into song.
Other housewives would join in, if they had not already started a song of their own, until you couldn’t be anywhere in the village without hearing women singing at their work. I guess that used to happen at Fenny, too.
Alas, it doesn’t happen today. Stay-at-home housewives switch on their transistors and let themselves be entertained instead, if indeed they really pay any attention at all to the background drivel that incessantly emanates therefrom. A poverty in worldly goods has become a poverty in heavenly ones.