Thursday, 27 April 2017

Just playing.

"The right to play is the child's first claim on the community. Play is nature's training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens" - David Lloyd George, 1926.

The Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury is a charming place and something of a hidden gem amongst London's museums. It tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, Britain's first home for abandoned children, founded by the mariner turned philanthropist Thomas Coram. A statue to Coram stands in front of the museum but greater testament to him is nearby Coram's Fields, a large open space comprising playgrounds, sand pits, duck ponds etc; and not admissible to any adult without a child in tow. I spent a magical afternoon with my ex-partner and her four year old son there some years ago and it truly is a wonderful place.

In the museum itself you can see billet books, wristwatches given to resident foundlings for good conduct, Hogarth prints, paintings by Canaletto and Gainsborough, and more modern art contributed by both David Shrigley and Grayson Perry. There's a room given over to George Frideric Handel where you can listen to his Messiah whilst inspecting his last will and testament. Both Handel and Hogarth were major benefactors to the institution. They've also got a rather good deal on with the Art Fund that meant I was able to use my National Art Pass to gain entry for just £2.

I was there, specifically, to see Child's Play, an art exhibition, a symposium, and a book project initiated by artist Mark Neville with one aim:- to improve the conditions for children's play in Britain and, I'd say, globally. In this age of austerity both time and space for play are being gradually eroded. Neville, like most people surely, believes that it's not just a fundamental human right for children to have access to play but vital should we not wish the next generation of adults to be increasingly both physically and mentally unwell.

Neville's taken photographs around London and the UK and as far afield as the USA, Kenya, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. He's looked at how children adapt to conditions and how their environment not only affects how they play but what they play. Play, for kids, is often a serious business. The intense young boy below would often tell Neville to stop taking photographs with the line "No, Mark. Stop. This is serious".

Boy with rope at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, London (2016)

Historical associations can affect the play of children too. Corby in Northamptonshire has a tradition of steel making and attracted many skilled workers from Glasgow. The strong Scottish identity this gave the town has resulted in it being the only town outside Scotland to have its own Highland Games and Highland Dance Competitions. You can see on the faces of these little girls how seriously they take it.

The faces of the kids from Nightingale Primary School tell a different story. There's genuine fun being had here. The children were asked to give out some 'New York, Lady Gaga attitude' and you can see, from their pouts, hands on hips, and nonchalance, that they took to their commission with some gusto.

Highland Dancers, Corby Highland Games (2010)

Nightingale Primary School, London (2012)

While the above are, on the whole, examples of structured play free play, too, is important in helping children to learn self-determination. Adventure playgrounds are great for this. Tree houses, swings, climbing frames etc; provide a safe environment for children to learn to evaluate risk and not to rely entirely on adults.

The little girl at the frog pond looks like she's just tried something she won't be trying again and the kids at Somerford Grove in Tottenham initially look like they're up to no good - until you realise they're simply extinguishing a barbeque. Photographs can be read in many different ways and sometimes a caption can change your understanding of one completely.

The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, London (2016)

Kids at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground, Tottenham, put out the barbeque fire (2011)

Kids in Braddock, Pittsburgh (2012)

Somerford Grove Adventure Playground in Tottenham (2011)
So play in the UK and the US, though sometimes under threat, is generally encouraged and provided for. But what of places where the problems are both more urgent and more dangerous? Play is resilience and even in war zones, refugee camps, or during bereavement and poverty (quite often all linked together) children will find a way to play.

There are currently 13,000,000 displaced children around the world. Forced out of their homes by various armed conflicts, demonised by the right wing media of Rupert Murdoch, and forced to live pretty much hand to mouth. Gideon Mendel's installation at the Autograph ABP Gallery earlier this year did a great, and important, job of correcting that false narrative in portraying refugees, first and foremost, as humans like you or I. Mark Neville's photographs continue the good fight.

Lashkar Gah Girls School had to be reached in a tank. The journey took several hours and on arrival the sound of explosions and gunfire could be heard clearly just over the wall of the compound. The children in Gereshk were as vulnerable as any soldier to being maimed or killed, at any given moment, should they step on a mine. Yet still they both played and played up to the camera. Play often takes the form of escapism but rarely can it be this imperative.    

Lashkar Gah Girls School, Helmland Province, Afghanistan (2011

On Patrol in Gereshk, Afghanistan (2011)

Serenading Masha at Zhytomir Special Boarding School for Deaf Children, Ukraine (2016)
Zhytomir Special Boarding School for Deaf Children, Ukraine (2016)

Family in Shamattawa Aboriginal Reserve, Manitoba, Canada (2012)
In Ukraine 2,500,000 people have been displaced by Putin's ongoing aggression. Zhytomir Special Boarding School cares for both deaf children and Down syndrome kids, giving them friendship and love at a time when Russian tanks wreak destruction elsewhere in their country. This is what it's come to mean to celebrate 'strength' in our leaders. I can't help thinking it'd be a far stronger leader that doesn't imperil the life and wellbeing of infants.

Adrenalin Alley, Northampton (2010)

London Fields Primary School (2016)
Neville joined the International Rescue Committee on a trip to Kakuma which, with a population of over 200,000, is Kenya's second largest refugee camp. Most have fled conflicts in Ethiopia, Rwanda, or Sudan. The International Rescue Committee provide health care but Neville saw that the children themselves had hand-made hoops and wheels which they used sticks and branches to propel forward.
Footballs and crude Frisbees were utilised as elsewhere in the world but the most shocking, upsetting, and powerful image of all is one of a group of very young children gathered round a hole, taking turns to stick their heads into it, sucking up the dirty water, and spitting it out, over and over again, until pure water gathers at the bottom which they can drink. They've made a game of it but it's a game of life and death.

If the next generation of children are to have a better lot than we, as a planet, have given this current generation we really need to think about, and do something about, our skewed sense of priorities. We need to stop voting in powerful leaders who'll put their own people first (and screw everyone else) and remember that we all share this planet and it's the only one we've got. I've often heard adults telling their children how important it is to learn to share. Maybe it's time we led by example.

If you'd like to donate to Save the Children here's a link:-

With hoops, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Boy with ball, stick and Frisbee, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Football match at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Hairdressers in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Sucking Water from the Earth, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya (2016)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

TADS #10:Around Blenheim Palace (or El Decimo under the April skies).

How apt that the 10th blogged TADS walk should also be the first of any TADS events in which the number of walkers entered double figures. I was so proud that this silly idea that started in 2011 and then grew organically from 2014 had been adopted, and hopefully enjoyed, by so many of my friends.

Having gotten over the fact that the blog TADS #9 had somehow been deleted I woke early (before 5am for some stupid reason) so was in Paddington station in good time to meet Kathy, Rachael (whose name I'm now spelling correctly), and Pam (who was enjoying, in her own words, "the worlds crumbliest croissant"). Neil, Bee, and Eamon boarded the train at Slough (they're old friends (literally in Neil's case) but new TADS) and Shep, Adam, and Teresa joined us at Reading.

We were all on the same train so we were all in Hanborough station for half-11 and ready to go. A stroll along the A4095 took us into Tory heartlands (boo!) and to Winston Churchill's grave in Bladon's churchyard. It was a modest family plot (though when Nicholas Soames dies they'll probably need to clear some room) with floral tributes from appreciative Europeans. Neil claimed he was pleased to be able to finally respect to the dog who brought us cheap car insurance.

The light of life may be extinguished for Winston and his wife Clementine but the sun was coming up for us. We cut through a field full of camper vans. My parents are avid camper van enthusiasts and it looked like their kind of set up. I rang my dad on the off-chance he was there. He wasn't. He was in Bucklebury.

All this time we'd been circling the outer wall of the Blenheim estate. Signs advertising the forthcoming triathlon reminded me of how rubbish my training for that has been this year and when we finally reached the Hensington Gate we had our first logistical decision to make. The price of entrance to the gardens has gone from about £2.50 to £15.30 in the last 7-8 years, which is frankly ridiculous and prohibitively expensive too.
We'd investigated the local public footpaths with little joy but a book I'd seen in WH Smiths in Paddington station had suggested a 'cheat'. So we carried on through Woodstock. Woodstock is a delightful market town overwhelmingly constructed in local limestone with pubs scattered around the place. It feels like, and is, the kind of place you'd take a holiday.
Hampers deli promised organic bread, local cheeses, and bottled beer so some of us who hadn't brought a packed lunch stocked up. I took a falafel and hummus baguette with extra jalapeno peppers and some Fentiman's ginger beer.
With the sun now beating down the quiet network of streets that made up old Woodstock resembled a Tuscan hill town. There was a riverside pub that looked very very inviting indeed. We declined. Mainly on the basis that it looked too good and we'd struggle to leave. It's not often you don't go into a pub because it looks too nice.

Almost immediately we spotted the public footpath into the grounds of Blenheim. If you're ever visiting and don't want to see the palace itself take this option and save yourself untold amounts of money. We sat on the bank overlooking the lake taking photos and eating our packed lunches. All felt well with the world.
The reflection of April sunlight sparkled on the lake in a way that reminded me of the sublime beauty of the Hood Canal in Washington state. Who knew such pulchritude was so easily accessed? It wasn't just the views that made it a truly wonderful moment but the company too. As we hugged the edge of the lake vista after vista revealed itself. The silhouettes of trees framed the water, Capability's bridge, and John Vanbrugh's palace itself. I felt genuinely privileged to be witnessing it.

It was certainly nice not be swimming in that lake, and not doing a triathlon too. A swan sat atop the ripples and fallen leaves posing as if for a pre-Raphaelite painting. I shared its smugness and I felt as tall as the Column of Victory that oversaw our ramble. We exited via the Combe Gate on to a country lane, another country lane, and then through a meadow heading for the village of Combe and, hopefully, a pub.

A wrong turn through the meadow caused heated debate but eventually we found our way into Combe. Another beautiful village, amazingly rustic and rural when you consider its actual location. At The Cock Inn some sampled the local ale but I tried a Cotswold lager (in the Chilterns, I'm bonkers me) and we played a fun game on Pam's phone called Heads Up.
The inevitable 'two pint mistake' meant that the next stretch was jollier than usual. Hotter too. Pam and Rachael had to cover up so as not to get burnt. The rest of us simply enjoyed the meander of the Glyme (which empties in to the Evenlode, a tributary of the Thames) and chatted to a couple od dog walkers and an elderly lady who was sponging down her Skoda.

We took another wrong turn but it didn't seem to matter. The views were still great, the two pint buzz in the sunshine was still working, and none of us were that bothered about seeing the remains of the North Leigh Roman Villa anyway. A road took us up and into the village of East End. Yet more handsome limestone houses serenaded us. You could probably get bored of them in time but not in one day - and certainly not this day.
A few fields on we reached the outskirts of Long Hanborough and the Three Horseshoes pub came into view. There was an FA Cup semi-final on between Chelsea and Tottenham and as it was the sort of pub young men go into to drink strong lager and call other young men who play for football teams they don't support wankers very vociferously (seemingly unaware they can't hear them through the TV) it was quite busy.
I'm not knocking that kind of pub. I've used them myself. But there's a time and a place for it and we weren't on that kind of 'vibe' at all. We sat in the garden and Kathy drank a goldfish bowl full of gin!

Normally on a TADS walk we like to end up in an Indian restaurant but neither Hanborough nor Long Hanborough (pretty much the same place really) had one so Kathy booked a table for 10 (yes, TEN, did I not already mention that!?) at The George and Dragon. How apt the day before St.George's Day and only a few hours after visiting Churchill's final resting place.
It was a lovely pub. I had a vegan chili. Pam did too. Many of the others had either veggie or meat burgers. The food was great. The service was great. The company was best of all. So nice to spend a day with such good friends in such stunning surroundings. I consider myself to be a very lucky man indeed.
We walked back to the station. We took some daft photos. We got on the train. It was much much emptier than on the way up. Some bought gin'n'tonic from the buffet car. Shep and I cracked open the bottles of Waggledance we'd procured at The George & Dragon. As we played games and chatted, both seriously and daftly, I genuinely felt a moment of sadness that this memorable day was coming to an end. Still, we're doing it all in again in two weeks. Take heed Hastings and be warned Winchelsea.