A third instalment of notebook stories from my recent playwork practice at White City Adventure Playground, west London.
Shepherd’s Bush Scavenging
Wednesday morning. Hassan and I go on the hunt for free scrap material and cardboard tubes. We go down to Shepherd’s Bush market and Hassan is the type of man who knows lots of people, will stop and talk with those he knows and those he doesn’t. He goes about the morning in this fashion: calling out to a man on his bike, ‘Hey, where’s my money?’; to a woman and her baby in the market with a hug and a smile; with a man at the suitcase stall about how he bought a case and the stitches came out. He’s playful but there’s the whole Moroccan haggling feel to his interactions. We go in and out of stalls in the canopy-covered alley down the side of the Tube tracks to Hammersmith overhead. Hassan opens up conversations with stallholders, saying how we work with children on the local estate and has he, the stallholder, got any ‘spare loose parts, scrap, anything we can use; doesn’t matter if it’s ripped’? We come back out into the daylight empty-handed on plenty of occasions, but Hassan never gives up. He’s making a mental map, I suspect, of places to come back to (some stallholders say to come back when the boss is around; some, Hassan thinks, are possibles for giving). He and I talk of coming back here, or here. I say to Hassan, as we come out onto the colourful streets of Shepherd’s Bush, that these stallholders and shopkeepers probably have no idea what he means by ‘loose parts’. He laughs.
He goes into a shop that’s being re-fitted by builders, looking for scraps of timber that the children can use to saw up, hammer and nail into, build things with. ‘Hello, my friend,’ he says. ‘Where’s the boss?’ Hassan isn’t put off by the builder’s grumpy disposition. He talks to the boss, who’s up the ladder and doesn’t come down. We go into shops manned by Indian shopkeepers, amidst piles and piles of beautiful shiny material for saris, lace and muslin. Indian women stand at the top of steps at the back of these places. Eventually, Hassan convinces one of the shopkeepers to scavenge around in the back for scraps of material and he comes out with a bagful. ‘Thank you,’ says Hassan. ‘You’re a gentleman’, (which he says to every shopkeeper anyway, as a courtesy, whether we come out with material or not). A little later, I say to Hassan how I’ve noticed that shopkeepers are more open to giving when they see we’ve already been given to by others. We seem to have formed a working partnership in this scavenge hunt: Hassan talks to the shopkeeper, and I sidle up to the man’s counter and place the heaving bag of material we’ve already collected gently on the surface. It’s a small insinuation! The shopkeeper ducks down under the counter and immediately comes up with another bagful for us.
Early on, we manage to secure a number of long cardboard tubes from a shop (used to wrap the lengths of cloth around) and Hassan asks to collect them later, which we do, and he hauls them on his shoulder as we go around the other shops, propping them up outside every other place we go into. We find just the one shop that’s manned by someone who smiles, a young man, and we tell him, ‘Thank you for smiling; it’s a beautiful day.’ He’d already agreed to give us some scraps of material for free so it wasn’t a means on our part to butter him up! The material scraps come from a rummage box on the shop floor and they’re already priced up to sell. ‘Don’t tell the boss,’ the young man says. ‘Thank you. You’re a gentleman!’ Hassan says.
Stones and Flowers
Every day on the playground I have a conversation with one of the children’s mother. She’s an amazing woman. She’s dressed in a long black jilbab robe and wears a hijab to cover her hair and neck. She’s eloquent, intelligent and humble. She starts off by praising the feel of the playground as it starts to transform, daily, from bare wooden structures to being powder-painted on, chalked on, stapled on, tied with fabric and other bits and pieces woven between the chains of the platform railings, the tall bamboo flags bending in the wind. It’s a festival feel, she says.
We get to talking about her son, who’s about 8, I guess. She says he and the family are bullied by some of the local children: these children throw stones at and through her window. Recently, the mother and her son were at the park and the older children were throwing stones at the ducklings. She says, when this group of children got bored of doing this, and when they noticed her and her son just watching on, they turned and threw stones at them instead. She says they push dog excrement through her door.
As I talk with her I just feel a wave of grace come off her. I am truly inspired as she tells me: ‘They throw stones at us, but we just throw flowers back.’
Over the Top
On Thursday, a handful of children are clammering to get in at 1pm, opening time. We can’t find the key so I rattle the gates and say they just have to climb over instead. I don’t expect them to actually try! One child gets to the top of the gate, and Hassan says, ‘Go on then, over the top.’ So the child does. He signs himself in (this clammering is part of the children’s urge to be first on the list, apparently; it’s something they’ve been trying to do for a couple of days). Rich finds the key and opens up.
The mother I’ve been talking with all week comes into the playground with two new children as well as her own son (some parents drop the children off before coming back again at 4pm). In the conversation of this moment, I find out that these new children, brother and sister, are two of the group who’ve been attacking her and her son. They’d knocked on her door the previous night and apologised. She’d told them that that must have taken a lot of courage. The children had asked her if they could come to the playground with her the next day. So they do. I really am amazed by this woman.