It was with sadness that I learned of Gordon Sturrock’s passing, just a few weeks ago now, pretty much five years exactly since the passing of Perry Else. The two are inextricably connected with one another in my mind and studious experiences. Just as was the case with Perry, I knew that Gordon was unwell, but that his illness was terminal (he said as much a year or so ago at the PlayEd conference in Cambridge). I knew also, by this spring just gone, that Gordon had only a matter of a few months left to live. Even so, the inevitable news of such final events still has the potential to leave a recipient a little caught unawares. It is, therefore, all the more laudable that Gordon’s late flurry of writing and communications with other playwork writers and thinkers took place with such focus on his part.
I had spent the best part of last summer developing ideas with Gordon, via email, and writing those ideas into what became our joint paper, published in the autumn. I was acutely aware of the support he was providing, not just for myself, but for others engaged in study and development of their playwork writings. Gordon seemed to have a need to make use of what time he had left to succinct effect. He wrote at length to various groups, and to individuals; he sent books and other gifts. It was, in my reading of his focus, a way of saying to those he communicated with: keep it all going, think, keep thinking, take this all on further.
Around Christmas and the New Year, Gordon launched into an array of lengthy written communiques with a group of play and playwork thinkers and writers. He was passionate therein about an urgency in social and political constructs. He kept a keen eye, and also fed into his other various writings, the goings-on of the ‘gilets jaunes’, the yellow vests, and the mass protests taking place in France at that time. He sent a gift of a yellow vest, compelling that it be worn with pride. Gordon was seeing playwork and its reason for being having a place amongst the precariat. Those missive communiques, pamphlets reminiscent of tubthumping calls to arms of days gone by (I imagined they might be carefully typeset and nailed to telegraph poles, or illicitly pasted up somewhere, in alleys in bohemian quarters, maybe, in the deep of night), those pamphlets sit quietly awaiting my re-reading again, visible in my email intray.
Those who have read much of Gordon’s work would no doubt agree that his writing often required a great deal of concentration. Gordon was of the opinion that those who failed to understand the words he was using (and his vocabulary was extensive) should invest in a dictionary rather than him dumb it down. I readily admit that my vocabulary has improved significantly because of Gordon’s writing. In person, however, you seldom needed that dictionary.
I have an abiding memory of Gordon observing me as I was (what I now come to term more and more as) playworking. It was maybe a dozen years ago and we were at a small conference. There were maybe only a couple of children there, maybe only the one, the son of a delegate, and there was a break in proceedings. The boy played and, every now and then, cued me into the flow of things. I went with that flow. Gordon was nearby, quietly taking everything in. He later told me what I was doing, a level I was operating on, which I was conversant with as he explained what he’d seen but which, over the years of reflecting on this one play frame, I understand better and better as I replay recent playworking through that same lens. Gordon had explained to me his observation of a playworker witnessing their practice as they worked. As with other significant moments of appreciated feedback, I have never forgotten this or him taking the time to observe and see to it that it was worthwhile to tell me.
His explanation linked very much with certain aspects written into the Colorado Paper, which he co-authored with Perry Else. This remains, to this day, a seminal paper in the playwork field, even though many still haven’t read it, and few have understood it fully (suchlike as this was in one of Gordon’s final laments). I will not claim that I understand the Colorado Paper fully, but I become more astutely aware of its inner workings every time I consider it and every time I run it through my current reflections and practice. On more than a few occasions, Gordon used the idea of a paper or thinking process being ‘a North’. I read that as something akin to following the Pole Star. The Colorado Paper is a North.
Gordon’s background in psychoanalysis has taught me plenty, or set me off into trying to find out plenty, on the significant matters of potential neuroses, therapeutic (small ‘t’) interaction, and the sheer weight of what might be in our day-to-day experiences around children. Play, and the playworker (minus the possible manifestation of the ego), have great and graceful, small and significant affects that can, under conducive circumstances, make such difference. Gordon knew this. If we indulge in the slightly reductionist exercise, for a moment, of choosing which strand of playwork thinking suits our own experiences and worldviews best, mine has for a long time favoured Gordon and Perry’s psycholudic consideration, a little ahead of Bob Hughes’ evolutionary writings (as valued as they also are) or developmental schools.
What Gordon gave me, through his writings and other communications, was the gentle persuasion to explore deeper and deeper into concepts I thought I already knew well enough, but of course, didn’t quite. I am aware, currently, that a regular group of children can bring to this playworker, daily, all their play, all their stories and continued narratives, all their possibilities and all their tumbling agitations with one another, with where they are, with the adult world and so on, but they also bring all their projections and all their transference. One of the last things that Gordon wrote, deep down in a missive to be relocated, was about how we should, as I read it, examine the counter-transference in our practice.
Gordon had always engendered in me the desire to think, and he still does, just these few weeks after his passing. Peace be to you, Gordon: an Artisan-Erudite.