Famous old times in the playground

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Clare Dean reports on how a parent has tapped celebrities' memories to raise funds for his children's schools

A telephone call on a spring Sunday morning convinced parent Nick Gammage that the money-spinning idea he had for his children's two schools was a winner.

For on the other end of the line was that footballing legend Sir Stanley Matthews, who wanted to know exactly what he should do.

Mr Gammage's idea - to get sports personalities, politicians, entertainers and writers to commit playground memories to paper - has prompted some magical recollections from a cast list of contributors which reads like a who's who of the country's top people.

From the sporting field they came from the likes of Jack Charlton, Geoff Boycott, David Gower, Alan Shearer and Sally Gunnell.

John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown led the way for the politicians, while the world of literature was represented by, among others, Ted Hughes, P D James, Colin Dexter, Sue Townsend and Terry Pratchett.

And among the comedians willing to contribute were Norman Wisdom, Paul Daniels and Ken Dodd.

In all, more than 70 famous names submitted playground memories for a book which is likely to raise up to Pounds 25,000 for Elangeni Middle and Chestnut Lane First School in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.

They range from the one-liner favoured by Andi Peters, the children's television presenter - "My favourite play area was my back garden" - to the well-crafted prose of Allan Alhberg, the best-selling children's author, and Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld books.

And they disclose a host of favourite haunts: a beach-hut (astronomer Patrick Moore), an Anderson shelter (actor and comedian Roy Hudd) and an old family trunk (Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear).

Contributions from sports personalities predictably tell of an early love of sport. Alan Shearer, the top scorer in the 1996 European Championships, reveals that his love of striking was developed after spending hours kicking a ball about with his father.

"The 'goals' would be a pair of garage doors or two jackets laid out in the garden. I would spend hours kicking a ball about with my Dad learning how to control, dribble or kick it."

While Sir Stanley Matthews discloses that "it was playing with a tennis ball - not the big ball - that taught me how to control and master the football".

The early footballing exploits of Geoff Hurst, the 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero, however, landed him in trouble with the law.

"A young chap - one of our neighbours - wasn't particularly interested in football. In fact, he was much keener on model airplanes, and in those days we felt there was something funny about him. His parents eventually took us to court as we kept kicking the ball over his garden, and we were fined Pounds 1.

"I'm sorry to have to admit that, after all these years, I have a criminal record."

Life for General Sir Peter de la Billi re, the man who was to go on to command the British forces during the Gulf War, was never tame. Not even as a child.

"Spending the best part of my youth near Sittingbourne, which was the run-in for the German bombers striking at London, my favourite occupation used to be roving the countryside at night after an attack to collect empty cases and other relics from the skies.

"I had no idea what I was collecting and on several occasions brought back unexploded ammunition and small incendiary bombs which horrified my mother and were promptly confiscated."

The Antarctic explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes discloses some of the toughening up tactics he endured as a boy - an indoor noctural version of British Bulldog, countenanced by staff in which prisoners had to be taken.

"This vicious struggle in the dark produced an impressive crop of cuts, bruises and worse, and was intended to be character-building."

The book, Playground Memories, which costs Pounds 5, is being launched by Allan Ahlberg at the schools on Monday and already has made a pre-launch sale of Pounds 2,000.

Teachers throughout Buckinghamshire have asked for copies of the book to use in creative writing classes, and it is being cited as an example of the innovative ways schools can raise funds themselves. Sales will raise money for sports equipment for the two schools, which share the same site.

The book had an initial print run of 5,000 and is being underwritten by a local sponsor; there is already talk of a reprint.


Allan Ahlberg, award-winning children's author. "I remember: taking a lunch to eat at playtime, usually cold toast; playing marbles and conkers and some kind of game that involved large numbers of buttons. I remember the famous boys: Vincent Loveridge, who was best at football and cricket, Amos, who was best at beating people up, and Billy Harrold, who was best at spitting.

"I remember the terribly smelly outside lavatories, flies in summer, freezing winds in winter and, so it seems now, constant competitions to see who could pee highest up the wall.

"But, most of all, I remember the melodrama and romance of one particular game we played in the playground: tick and release. There were two gangs, one the chasers and one the chased. If you were caught, you were made to stand in a particular corner and be guarded while the rest of your gang was being chased, and there you stayed unless a member of your gang eluded the enemy and ticked and released you.

"I wasn't very big in those days, nor yet had I become the fine footballer, subtle cricketer and general all-round athlete of my later years, but I could run and I could dodge. And that was my best memory, my greatest pleasure - dodging this way and that, eluding the blundering chasers and guards, saving my gang when all seemed lost: coming to the rescue."


Terry Pratchett, novelist and author of the Discworld books. "My favourite play area was - it still IS - called Roundhead Wood, although it has fewer trees and more barbed wire now. And here four or five of us roared around like some screaming, multi-legged animal, building camps, climbing trees, riding bikes around the little chalk pit in the middle and growing up a little bit more every day. It stood for every woodland, every jungle and, eventually, the surface of alien worlds. And you could hear your mum if she called.

"One game involved climbing up a young beech tree, standing on a fork in the branches, and leaping across to another smooth-trunked tree about five feet away. The important thing was to hit that trunk full on and instantly wrap your arms around it, otherwise you dropped into the holly bushes ten feet below. And then, having successfully adhered to the tree, you slid down, getting your trousers all green. There would be this solemn procession of kids ... scramble LEAP splat slitherslither. Or LEAP grab panic ARGGGGHHH.

"Of course, we had to make our own entertainment in those days."

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