The play's the thing

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Childrens Games with Things Iona and Peter Opie Oxford University Press, #163;18.99

Two generations have grown to adulthood since Iona and Peter Opie published their Lore and Language of School Children in 1959. Even then the authors were conscious of recording information that wouldn't normally be written down until after the year 2000 - when those children who were so energetically embodying "the new Elizabethan age" might be more inclined to reminisce.

The Lore and Language... is regularly dubbed "seminal", and so it has proved to be - for its authors as well as the many readers whose attitudes have been shaped by its distinctive achievement. A sibling volume, Children's Games in Street and Playground, followed in 1969, by which time their research had been in progress for almost 20 years and they still had "not met a child who was unable to tell us something interesting and who did not unwittingly increase the size of our files". (They estimated 10,000 children had contributed.)

Once again the preface to one volume promised the next; "It is intended that the intricacies of ball-bouncing and other ball games, of skipping, marbles, fivestones, hopscotch, tipcat and gambling shall be described in a further volume... together with the singing games."

Peter Opie died in 1982 and obituarists tended to assume that this meant mission aborted. Not so. Iona's determination to prove them wrong produced The Singing Game in 1985, and now we have the promised "intricacies of ball-bouncing" in Children's Games with Things.

The material for this volume is mainly gleaned from information amassed by the partnership from the 1950s to 1970s. Iona considered making a new national survey but was daunted by the task. (Imagine the pile there must be of post-Opie doctoral theses.) Her dextrous un-picking of the mid-90s "Pogs" phenomenon included here may lead some readers to regret that decision. It does, however, preserve the unity of the opus by continuing to work from the observed behaviour of the mid-century child.

Born in 1954, I found myself initially sceptical of the detail and complexity of the pastimes in which I had allegedly participat ed. Then the terminology began to trickle back and I remembered my brothers shouting "bombsie!" as they dropped a "foursie" marble on a "twosie". I mourned again my lack of skill at "jacks" and felt the skipping rope tangling hopelessly around my white cotton ankle socks as I failed to master backwards "pepper" skipping. Yes, I'd been there - even if I was culturally impoverished in playground terms by prosperous living in the south.

There is a danger that the existence of this volume and its companions may serve to make us "new Elizabethans" even more self-congratulatory than Iona Opie says all adult generations regularly are: "just look at the fun we used to have. ..", "children don't know how to play any more ..." - an attitude she cites in Pepys but which she leaves us in no doubt is a permanent fixture of the human psyche. We provided 146 pages about skipping - match that, you late 20th-century couch-potato kids!

But did we really skip that much? I don't think so. On the other hand we did play many other Games with Things - hoops and yo-yos and pieces of string - that are not included in this volume. But Children's Games with Things is not a list. There is an artistic aspect to the Opie method which can easily be overlooked when praising them for the thoroughness of their research or their rigorous refusal to re-interpret children's activity in adult terms.

By choosing to focus on certain touchstone games and piling geographical upon historical variation with minimal analysis, they hoped to remain true to "the zest, variety, contradictions and disorderliness" of play. This is admirable, but there are moments when the reader may feel a hankering for just a little more explanatory comment. When Iona Opie does take an overview (as in her chapter on seasons), it is very interesting indeed. I could not help wishing she had allowed herself to speculate as to why my generation so resolutely refused to play with the whipping-tops enjoyed for generations before us. This book does not offer conclusions. One chapter ends with glorious simplicity - "but that is probably enough about fivestones".

So is that it? Have the players finally fallen down, exhausted? Whatever Iona Opie decides to study in the future, she and her husband have ensured that it will never again be possible to look at a playground game, as did one deputy headmaster, and say "Oh, I shouldn't think that's anything".

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