Vague ramblings

The garden window

Posted in Musing by Ian Cundell on 12 October, 2004

Shortly after moving back to the house in which I grew up I found myself looking out of the back bedroom window wondering what to do about the garden.

It is a big garden of the kind that they do not give to council houses anymore and, but for Margaret Thatcher, it would not now be mine. Twelve years ago I worked out that mortgage repayments would be lower than council rents and my parents exercised their right to buy. In due course, I inherited the house.

As I leaned on the window sill of the room I had shared with my brother nearly thirty years ago Nihal, my next door neighbour’s 7-year old, kicked a football around with some of his friends in their garden.

Twice the ball came over the fence and Nihal looked up at the window to ask permission to climb the fence and fetch it. The third time I was not there, but in the garden picking up the ball. I carried it to Nihal and said: “Good footballers play with the ball on the ground and pass to the feet.” It is a useful trick, which I recommend. The ball did not come over again that weekend. I returned to the bedroom window to ponder how a single man could maintain a 70ft by 30ft garden.

Two gardens further down from Nihal, another family group was playing in their back garden. I could not see anything because some privet hedges, of the kind that are the hallmark of a certain era’s council estates, obscure this garden. It was loud and joyous and I could hear the father fully engaged in the play, managing shrieks of delight and at least one major tantrum with equal ease. I listened, enjoying the scene for ages. I was mourning my mum and it made me feel better. But I could not work out what was wrong with what I was seeing and hearing.

I little while later – perhaps the same day, perhaps a few days after – I recalled a conversation that mum had related to me. She had been waiting at the bus-stop chatting with some of the other old folk who populate the mid-morning bus services. Damilola Taylor cropped up in conversation and one of the group had wondered out loud what a 10-year old was doing out that late. “Ian, it was barely going dark,” said my mum. She did not need to explain the full meaning of her statement. What should be wrong with a 10-year old heading for home just as the night is falling?

This is what niggled me about the idyllic back garden scene. When I had been a 10-year old in this house there were sixteen similarly aged kids in my road. I would guess there is a similar number now, maybe a few less. But we very rarely played in the back garden, and generally were not allowed to for fear of ruining the flowerbeds. We were not allowed out to play, we were sent out to play.

I started to pay a little more attention when I strolled up to the Co-op or tried to clear the front garden borders.

A few days later, the woman opposite was cleaning her car. Her son – I would guess around 12 or 13 years old – weaved around on an expensive looking bike. And never went more than 50 yards from the house.

I never saw a kid younger than around 12 without an adult nearby.

On the various playing fields that came with the estate, only occasionally did I see groups kicking a football around. One Sunday, when I wandered up to my old primary school a group of early-teens eyed me suspiciously, assuming that I was about to throw them out of the teacher’s car park, which they had shanghaied for a kick about. It was already obvious that kicking a ball about in the street was out of the question, because there were too many parked cars and a lot more traffic than when I was ten.

Over the full summer school holiday I did not see a single game of hide-and-seek, tag, hopscotch, French cricket, cricket, Wembley, Follow-The-Arrows or skipping. There were no cops-and-robbers, much less cowboys and Indians. I saw no evidence of willow branches being stripped to make a bow and arrow set.

I could see little evidence that one of these three things was being used creatively:

*A ball or ball substitute (tin can, stone)

*A piece of chalk

*A toy gun, or appropriately shaped twig.

A friend with kids assures me that all that I have described above still happens in school playgrounds. The evidence of my own eyes and ears tells me that at least some of it happens in back gardens. The private – or at least supervised – realm seems full of joy. But the public realm is empty.

More, another time.

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