The Games We Played by Susan Kelleher

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The Games We Played by Susan Kelleher

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Looking at the childhood games that involved little in the way of equipment, absolutely nothing in the way of adult interference, and kept us entertained for hours on end, English Heritage not only protect a bit more of our past, but ask us to think about what exactly is being lost and why. A short delightful read, that will provoke hours of after dinner conversation - both reminiscing and putting the modern world to rights. Definitely a Christmas stocking-filler book - one to be read and passed around and shared. Buy it, read it, share it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 129 Date: July 2007
Publisher: English Heritage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1905624461

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In March 2006 English Heritage published a request via its member magazine for recollections of the games played in childhood. Presumably by virtue of the age-range of members the resulting letters covered the 1920s to 1970s and these have been distilled into an utterly charming, totalling nostalgic, conversation piece of a book.

Only a hundred or so pages, with wonderfully evocative photographs from across the period, it consists of an A-Z of games children played in those days when what you did after tea was to go knock on a door not very far away to ask whoever answered it "Is Audrey coming out?" (or whoever your best friend was that week).

There was no question of 'could they' - nor long explanations of where you were going. "Out" is where you were expected to be, and you knew how far you were allowed to go. Probably a lot less far than your parents realistically expected you to go, and certainly a lot less far than you sometimes actually went - but the unspoken deal was if you were back within shouting distance by bath-time and you fibbed reasonably convincingly, the 'where have you been / what have you been up to' interrogation would be short.

Besides, the questions were redundant. As everyone knew everyone else, your folks probably knew where you were & what you were doing long before you called in.

All of the games listed - and there are some 85 of them, not counting regional variations - were played with minimal or no equipment.

And every single one them involves groups of children. One or two could possibly be played in pairs - and you could no doubt spin a top and play two-baller on your own (but that wasn't playing, it was practising!) - for the most part these games needed sizeable groups. Some of them indeed were best played in hoards. I remember British Bulldog being finally banned at school, because once it has escalated to involving the entire male population of the school every lunchtime - the yard had become pretty well out of bounds to anyone not playing.

Of course, that is the point about this book. The "I remember" factor... and believe me you will. Did you play hopscotch or skipping games? They're in there. Or laggies (which I now know is a variation on cat's cradle)? I defy you to say you never played marbles or hide'n'seek.

For each game, all we're given is a brief outline of the rules and how it played out... but that's enough to generate your own memories of precisely how you played it, and what you called it. For us it was never hide'n'seek... .it was hi-dee-bo. Presumably a corrupted derivation of hide-and-go-seek.

There are some examples I'd never come across: Queenie, Tile-off and Spuckle.

Many others I knew by a different name... or even no name. "Usky-bum Finger or Thumb" (aka Jimmy Knacker, Montykitty, Weak Horses & a host of other names) I never remember being called anything at all - it was played.

But then there is also Mother May I, What Time is it Mr Wolf, Grandmothers Footsteps. All of the skipping games.

They mention some of the street-variations of real games like football and cricket... but no mention of playing with a Russian goalkeeper or tip-and-run cricket. I'm sure this particular mine has only just been tapped.

Having grown out of the old Ministry of Works, English Heritage's primary mandate is the preservation and understanding of the historic environment, which is generally taken to mean the 'built environment' so it is good to see them taking the wider view of 'heritage'. A lot of these games are being lost and the nature of the modern built environment (by comparison) definitely plays a role in that.

ou simply couldn't play Kerb or Wall now - it literally involves playing in the road.

And where are the fields where you could build grass camps? Or the higgledy piggledy bits of wasteland for playing tiggy on high (or Off Ground Touch as they call it here)?

In his introduction, EH's Head of Publishing Rob Richardson expresses his concern that today's children are over-organised, that they may be being taught skills in sports or other activities, but the price is a loss of freedom.

What he doesn't say is that it's a loss of a lot more than that. Any animal-behaviouralist will tell you that all animal play has a purpose. It is teaching the cub something it will need in the wild. The point we miss is that the same actually applies to humans.

You might think that they're just a hoard of kids running around making noise... but when you read the very short synopsis of each game, you realise that actually some of them are quite complex.

They involve deciding upon leaders, agreeing the rules - remember none of these rules are written down, they were handed on brother to brother, sister to sister, and if you moved house or changed schools, you'd find they played differently and you had to renegotiate (or learn to adapt and play it their way).

There was a lot of activity and chasing about, but many of the games also required you to be able to keep still, to observe, to be strategic.

Listen into a group of quite young girls picking a rounders side (which still happens in some schools, if not so much on the back field) - generally the captains will have been nominated by the teacher or drawn out of the hat... but as soon as they've made their first choice a debate begins (quietly, so the other 'team' can't hear), the already-chosen assess the skills of the remaining players (she can't run, but she's a brilliant fielder... she can catch, great backstop... and so-on) - and they make sure they've got as many of the necessary skills on their side. This is team-building from scratch. It's not intuitive; it's learned behaviour from having played in unbalanced teams. Tell me this knowledge isn't a "management tool".

EH are promising later editions of this book and are still interested in receiving memories from anyone who wishes to contribute - write to Susan Keller c/o English Heritage (see their website for contact addresses) - not just about the games already listed, but more importantly about those that aren't.

Apart from updating(?) the information, I can foresee a number of spin-offs already coalescing, and I look forward to them.

For such a small book to be so inspiring is quite an achievement. The really impressive result however is that they have succeeded in making the reader think about what is being lost from society. Not just the carefree go-out-and-play days... but what we learned from doing so. How to find your way home, who to trust and who not. How to look after yourself. How to play by the rules... and how to adapt them to make the game more fun or work with less (or more) people.

They make the point that many of the games cannot be played now for safety reasons.

I dispute that 'many'. Certainly I wouldn't advocate kids play in the road the way we did thirty years ago... but grazed shins, bloodied knees and bruised egos should be part of growing up.

Yes, we got hurt: kids can be cruel (guess what that hasn't changed), but most of the time not very badly and generally there were enough of you for someone to be on your side if you had to 'fight back' or make a 'sharp exit' or even just grovel (military tactics and diplomacy anyone?).

We were taught what was really deadly - but were generally allowed to find out what getting hit by a swing, or falling out of a tree felt like. Getting lost was embarrassing and scary... and you'd be kept in for a week for being late home! You try not to let it happen again.

So, if you've got kids or grand-kids - go read this book. Have a good old wallow in your memories and as Rob Richardson puts it: tell your children toGo Out and play . I dare you.

Why not the full 5 stars? Only because I'm saving that for the second edition, which I hope will be longer and include even more of the half-forgotten joys: more songs, more variations, and all of the games that we must have played that don't get a mention yet.

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Sue Magee said:


You inspired me to go and get an old photograph album, Lesley. This was taken in the nineteen fifties. Seven children lived in our street and this is us all playing Oranges and Lemons - literally in the middle of the road. We had to move out of the way if the coalman came round with his horse and mind where you put your feet afterwards but it was there and in the surrounding fields that we were to be found unless the weather really was too bad to go out. That's me at the front of the queue.

Magda said:

I agree it's less to do with a change in environment and more to do with a change in attitudes; one of them being the loss of the communal responsibility, ie the idea that other adults would look out for and look after your children, all children - and would have parents' implicit mandate to do it, including chastising them.

Lesley said:

I totally agree with that. I also wondered whether the decrease in family size plays a part. Did previous generations, as well as having older siblings to watch over the younger ones...and was that also how the 'rules' got passed learned from your big sis?