One of my first jobs in play involved interviewing elderly residents of Islington about their childhood memories. It was so easy to make these appointments, so smooth and sad to call ahead and hear the housing coordinator say “oooh, they’d love a visit”. She’d meet me at the gate and escort me through the doors and hallways, into a parlour that smelt of bleach and starchy food. A circle of eight or nine women, and one or two men, would be waiting for me.
“Why do you want to hear about this old stuff for?” they asked, once the tea and biscuits were laid out.
“It’s interesting,” I said. “I’m curious about what children get up to… especially when they’re on their own. I’m curious whether it’s changing.” Someone laughed, someone else nudged her friend. Harold, a rogueish older gentleman suggested that his memories would make my hair curl, and the ladies teased him gently for being “all talk and no trousers”. They pushed one forward and said “you ought to ask Elsie, she’s the oldest here! Ninety-five, isn’t that right, Elsie?” Slowly, slowly, they began to tell of boats they’d crafted out of twigs, of jacks and skipping games played during school break, of trips down to the river.
“We’d pile everyone into a pram,” Doris told me. “We packed sandwiches and lemonade around the babies and push off to the Heath for the day. There was another playground halfway, where we’d stop for a bit and play.” This was a trip of five miles or so each way, a whole day out led by children, for children, without any adults at all. “Everyone but Millie would come. She had a Mum who was ever so strict.” They talked of evacuation from this very neighborhood, when they’d been labeled like parcels and shipped to live with strangers in the countryside. Enid said “I thought it was a holiday, till I realized I wasn’t going home and then I cried and cried. But when the end came I didn’t want to go home again.” Others, some of whom had stayed in the city for the duration, held their silence.
Many of the residents were from abroad, their accents seemingly undimmed by decades spent in the rain and mist of London. One man from Southern Ireland told of wild horses he caught and raced, of his years spent as a jockey before he “got tired of earning for everyone but meself”. One woman from Greece smiled serenely and said “as small, I was bully.”
“You were bullied?” I asked. She shook one clawed hand at me while the other clenched her arm rest.
“No, no. I bully. From the little ones, I take. Oranges favorite.” Behind her two other woman looked at each other, rolled their eyes in unison as if to suggest she hadn’t changed much.
Sometimes I would explain that children today didn’t have the sorts of freedoms they had enjoyed. Those with grandchildren shook their heads sadly, and those without were astonished.
“No breaks at school? That’s the only reason I ever went to school, to see my friends there,” one woman said. Another was more philosophical.
“When my girls came along I was that nervous,” she said. “I think I kept them too close. It was my own fear, really, but now they keep their girls even closer, and I wonder sometimes if we didn’t ruin it for all of them.”
Mary had been silent my whole visit, saying that she’d gone “into service at twelve, and that was that”, until suddenly her face changed and opened like a flower. “We did have one place, before Mam died. We’d go to my neighbours house around the corner and play for hours, in her wild, wild garden. I haven’t thought of that place in years.”
After an hour or two, the conversation fell silent. They told me about Bingo night, visits from grandchildren and their new karaoke machine. The coordinator arrived to escort me out, and they thanked me for coming. Mary touched my sleeve gently.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “It’s nice to talk a little bubble now and then.”