Office Archaeology

Last July, I discussed my notation system of thousands of piece of paper jammed into unlabeled notebooks.  As you may know, I’m now helping my parents pack up to move house and coming across boxes of mine that span the last three decades.  Moving around so much myself, I’ve left a LOT of boxes here – all ominously marked “Morgan’s Stuff”.

So I suppose this was inevitable:

Behold – my collection of notebooks and paper scraps, all about play.  This doesn’t include my collection of readings that I really will get to soon, or the memory sticks full of images, or even the two additional notebooks that I’m writing in at the moment.

There is no organizational system, very few dates, and no index.  There are some whole pieces in there, drafted and ready for review, ideas for projects that got shelved, and some cryptic phrases jotted down during busy play sessions.

Here’s a sample:

Opening site, fabric.  The invitation of deliberate shorthand, open-ended suggestion?

New place feels cold, like we’re warming it up.  We are so blind in a new place, so vulnerable.  Hi-Vis jackets, sacks of glitter and cloth.  We do not know the reception we’ll have, the open hand of no defense.  We do not know if anyone will come.

Nonces day.  Children who stared and stared.

Angry Mums shouting at chalk.

After a few minutes it all comes back to me, the ranging sessions with the PATH Playtimes project when we’d go to a place where we thought children might play, places we thought could be made safe and attractive for children.  Sometimes these places were already active – at one, children came and asked us who we were, whether we wanted to join in the game of hide and seek they were running behind some dumpsters.  Sometimes these places were empty but we could feel people watching us from the apartment windows above.  Sometimes we’d look up and see children at the windows, staring down.  We’d wave and dance at them, and some waved and danced right back.  I remember one just pressed his palm against the glass.

These were the places that felt cold, the public spaces that had been avoided by local residents for so long that they had become ghost places, used only at night by adults training fighting dogs.  These were the sessions where we would decorate an open space, play in it, hope that by allowing ourselves to be observed and approached we would begin to collapse some of the barriers of suspicion that had silted up over time.  We did this, in part, by being obviously defenseless.  We made half-dens that suggested what they might become but weren’t yet anything much.  We were grown-ups in public, wearing bird masks, inviting play, questions and ridicule.

It was at one of these that some children shouted down to us, from the apartment catwalk above.

“You lot nonces?” A girl called down, her friend beside her watching.

“No!” I shouted back. There was a pause when they conferred.  The first held onto the railing with one hand and leaned away from it, while her friend put her hands on her hips and shook her head.

“What are you here for then?” They asked.  We team-of-three playworkers looked at each other.

“We thought this might be a good place for playing in,” we said.

“Can’t play here,” said the friend.  “There’s a nonce about.  We’ve been told.”

We weren’t sure what to say to this.  By coming into this little open space we were uninvited guests on the estate – the residents didn’t know who we were or what we were about.  We knew it would take time to establish any kind of relationship, and it wasn’t for us to tell them how to feel about their home, how to judge the possibilities and dangers it offered.  While we were thinking about this, the first girl had been leaning over the railing to inspect us.

“What have you got there?” she asked, pointing to our kit bags.

“Beads,” we said.  “And glitter and cardboard and chalks.  String.  Stuff like that.”

“Hmmm.  Can’t come down for it.”  Inspiration struck.

“What if we sent some up to you?” I asked.  She nodded.

We finished a large water bottle between us and began filling it with beads, bits of string and small chips of coloured paper.  Then I threw a ball of string up to her and she threaded it over the railing and tossed it back down, where I tied the end around the empty bottle.  Pretty soon we had a funicular of loose parts, sending up a small plastic carriage of sparkly junk to the girls on the catwalk above.  They chalked the bricks on the wall beside them, and shouted down for what they needed.  We sent them up supplies, and they giggled and sent down notes and drawings in reply.

Eventually it was 6 o’clock.

“We have to go,” we called up.  “It’s dinner time.”  One girl peeked through the railings at us, waving.

“One more minute!” called the other, hidden from view.  We tidied away our bits and pieces, then she called out “SENDING, final one!”

“RECEIVING,” we called back, holding onto the string as the water bottle began its final descent.  Instead was a bracelet for each of us.  She untied the string and it spooled down on top of us.

“Thank you!  We’ll be back same time next week!” we called up, and started to walk away.  After we’d gone a few steps we heard a shout of joy, and turned to see a paper airplane fly from the balcony and soar across the empty tarmac square.  Then doors slammed, and everyone headed towards their dinner, and home.

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