plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Archive for the ‘for dad’ Category

Letter to Dad: about my work

This weekend marks a year to the day since my father’s passing. I wanted to write to mark this very newest of first anniversaries and I’ve realised I’ve been writing to Dad in my head, as I’ve been working, all week. I have been thinking of what I do in my work, and I’ve been thinking of Dad as the day drew ever closer, and the two lines of thinking coincided at some small point I can’t fully pinpoint. So then, Dad, this is a letter to you, because I wanted to tell you things, have always wanted to tell you things, and for a long time now never could (except at the end when I didn’t know for sure if you could hear, but told myself you could, and because of the long slow deterioration that your illness was).

Dad, I think you always were a little confused at my decision not to go on and become an architect: I don’t think I ever took that as disappointment or annoyance, just a genuine inability to understand. We would have our conversations about what I was doing with my life and you’d say things like, ‘So, son, when are you going to get a proper job?’ I didn’t take it so harshly: it was just that you never got the idea of playwork. The truth is, nor did I, really, back then. Still, we talked about my work, in roundabout sorts of ways, and you told me your stories, and we both nodded and we moved on.

I’m in a much better position to be able to tell you what I do now. You know, you always said to me, ‘Son, work with your brain, not with your hands’ (because, I think you spent a lot of time doing the latter yourself). Well, I guess I do both. This is all one week in what I do: this week I’ve done the brain work and I’ve done the ‘grunt work’! I don’t expect you to get everything I’m going to tell you, but that’s fine, because frankly not everybody does anyway.

What I know you do get, because you’ve done it, is me shovelling a ton of sand, although you’d probably say, ‘Why do that yourself, son?’ Well, it was there, I was there, someone had to do it, and the children are basically who I work for, as it were. You know? You used to say, ‘Why have a dog and bark yourself?’ The way I see it, Dad, sometimes I’m there to do that grunt work because, strange as it might sound, I do get a buzz out of getting things sorted so the children can play. I reckon you kind of get that because, in your own way, you used to do some things like that for me . . .

So, I’ve shifted sand to the sandpit and I’ve done other things for the children’s play too: I’ve been noticing recently that there’s a lot of war play going on (you know, guns and swords and bombs and that sort of thing: you made a bombs game up when we were younger, I remember). I spent some time one day this week just strapping up old bits of foam with ‘duct tape’ and making them into foam bashers. I put these and a load of hockey sticks all in one place, slotted into upright pallets round by the fire pit (and in my head I called this the ‘arsenal’), and I hid a few bucket-loads of ‘bombs’ (plastic ball-pit balls) around the place. When the children came in that day, I went outside and saw they’d found the bashers and so on and one girl told another child she was the ‘weaponeer’ and that the stash was the ‘weaponry’, which made me smile. I didn’t tell her what was in my head, honest!

I’ve been bashed a fair amount this week, by various children with various lengths of basher (even your grandchildren, at home, seem to want to playfight lots too! Must be something in the air!) We’ve also had fires at the fire pit, and I’ve been in and out and around these with the children there. They can’t seem to get enough of it these early winter dark nights, especially when they see green flames, or when they see that the flames look pink if they look at them through the camera. There’s always plenty of play going on and I’m invited into it quite a lot by various children, or I’m just in it and the children seem fine with this. This week, apart from being bashed a lot, I’ve been in ‘parallel world’ play (those are the words the girl I was with used — she’s got a lot of imagination, as you can see! — we try to keep track of interesting quotes from children too, and I spent some time this week reading up on these and adding some more); I’ve been an artist with the camera and that same girl and another, on a different day; I’ve sat around with tea lights with a small group of children, floating them (the tea lights, that is, not the children!) in a pan of water on a cold evening; I’ve slopped out big bowls of watery powder paint so a child can make a giant sand volcano; I’ve tried to help an older child who was so upset by other footballers that he couldn’t speak straight because of the tears.

There’s a lot of just watching on too, though (I do try not to get so involved it stops being about the children’s play): for a couple of days running, some of the children played with some rubber gloves that they filled with water and stretched out the fingers in shapes that made them laugh. They say things like, ‘Man, that’s sick!’ and they mean, ‘That’s good,’ or something like that, I think. I think I gave up trying to know exactly what children’s language actually was a short while after getting looks like ‘What is this weirdo trying to say?’ (when I tried to use that language back at them!). I’ve seen plenty of other play and it’ll come back to me after a while, but there’s so much there that if I don’t write it all down, or take a mental picture of it, you know, it kind of blurs. It comes back again, after a while, but sometimes I have to be standing there in the mud to see it.

So, that’s all that, but I’ve also had a few conversations about something I’m writing for a book, and I’ve been doing plenty of reading for that too: there are so many books in the world and not enough time. I spend time every week on the computer, reading stuff, and there’s always time on the train to open a book. When I find I’m in London with a spare couple of hours (which isn’t often, but does happen some weeks), I try to make good use of my time. I’ve been going to the art gallery along the Thames (the Tate Modern): there’s a room I find myself at every time I go there and I went there this week again too — I sit there and just think about the paintings and about how I’m thinking and about how it all links in to my writing, and that sort of thing.

I’ve got some students too. I’ve been teaching them and seeing how they work, where they work, and holding tutorials and writing up plans for them. In between all this I talk about play with people I work with: this week I talked about my play as a child and where we lived and about how that little bit of land that was the estate where we lived was our territory, and how it had pretty much all we needed in it — trees, lakes, grass, slopes, secret places . . . I sometimes wonder who I’d have been if we’d moved somewhere else when I was young.

Maybe where I grew up and how I grew up contributed in some way to what I do today. Of course it does, somehow, but I mean that maybe I’d have been a different type of playworker if I’d grown up somewhere else. I don’t know. Anyway, what I do know is that what I’ve done this week is about everything I’ve said so far and it’s also about a couple of days of mopping out the toilets after the rubber gloves split, about making food for the children on the day that it was my turn, about going out with a colleague to scavenge for wood from builders doing up a house, about dealing with (or, actually, really, not dealing with!) a bunch of older children who’d come to tease us, gate-crashing at the end of the session at the end of the week when we were all tired, climbing over the fence and wanting to run rings round us before we just decided to ignore them! I wash up, tidy up, talk with parents, talk with anyone who pops in about play, and then I write about it all . . .

So, Dad, being an architect never worked out for me, but I’ll tell you what (‘I’ll tell you what’ is what you always used to say when I was younger and it always got me going, ‘What? What?’), I’ll tell you what . . . being a playworker is alright. I’m working with my brain, sure, like you said, but also a bit with my hands, and that’s all OK as long as my knees and back hold out!

Over and out, for now, Old Man. Wish we could have done this more; hey, let’s do it more.

My sister’s reading: for Dad

There are further words for my late father, following the recent surreal day of his funeral. We knew that my youngest sister would stand up to present a reading and I knew it would offer some insights into her and Dad: a time when she was a child, when I was away at College or University or away in my head, when their times and play together were different to my play with him some years earlier. Being the youngest, perhaps the most protected, had an interpretation of a down-side; though being the youngest also seems to have had its up-side too.

I was genuinely struck with the beauty of this reading, as my sister read it: other people relate intensely to those we also relate to ourselves, but they relate in shifted arrangements. I was struck by ‘seeing’ Dad, in his play, in their play for those few minutes. So I asked my sister’s permission to publish those words here.

I appreciate that these writings of my father are of an intensely personal nature (my own and my sister’s and any more that may come to be), but I trust that the element of play that this blog is primarily focused on is all good for you, this readership. In writing there is healing. In writing there is the hope that others can also see their times of shared play and, ultimately, of love. This post is shorter than I normally publish up, but for me — today — there are no words more I can add.

These are my sister’s words:

I remember Dad as being a man who did things his way. When I think of Dad, I think of Monty Python, his love of Cornwall, watching the old Cowboy and Indian films with him.

I think of his sense of humour, which was definitely unique to him: the way he would whistle to the tune of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, or the way he would sing ‘I’ve got a song that’ll get on your nerves’, which would always end up stuck in my head for days afterwards.

I think of when I was growing up: every Sunday evening we would sit as a family at the dining room table and have cakes, listening to the Top 40 on the radio, with Dad on my right-hand side. I think of silly little things like Dad letting me play snooker with him at the local Social Club, even though I could barely see over the side of the snooker table and it was against the club rules.

I think of Dad cutting the grass in the garden into a maze just so I could follow behind him; of Dad cutting my toast into the most awkward of shapes; of his fried egg sandwiches that he liked to eat on a Sunday morning whilst reading the paper. I think of his Freddie Mercury dancing, of our trips to the zoo, of toasting whole loaves of bread on the open fire while Mum was at work.

I think of hiding behind Dad’s newspaper when I didn’t want to go to school, of the ‘stranger danger’ bus he used to drive, of making bridges with him and flicking rubber bands around the house. I think of running around the living room with Dad, singing songs from the ‘Jungle Book’.

I think of our family holidays to Cornwall: looking in rock pools, clambering over the rocks to get out to sea with him; of Dad diving over the side of the dinghy we were in to get his sunglasses from the sea.

All of these little things and more, I remember, are to me the most important things about my Dad . . .

I would like to finish by reading a message from my four year-old daughter:

Dear Grandad Poorly Head, I love you today. Please look after Coober [my dog] and your dog from when you were little. Love K.

For Dad

After a long fight with Alzheimer’s dementia and then, finally, with other complications, my father died last Friday. How he did fight and fight too. This is the start of words, because words can help: where better than to start with what I know? I have been thinking of Dad and me when I was a child, and of his play, my play, our play. This is the start of words and I want to mark his passing in this sad surreal turmoil that we find ourselves in.

So I’m sitting here on the train as I write, heading for the playground, thinking of play and of that little hospital room and of lots of 1970-somethings, of some 1980-somewhens . . . in between places and times. Focus. Back and back through adult conversations we finally had; back through those awkward teenage years of mine when neither of us really knew how and what to do with one another; back to a time of play indelibly marking at least one of us (and who knows what remained, floating around in the depths of Dad’s memory during the disintegrating ravages of such awful disease as his).

Back and back. I won’t be able to capture everything here but this is just the start of words. There is no order — this is how it comes. Dad was a bricoleur: he often made things of just what he found lying around. His creations didn’t always stay up or stay stable but, once, I came home (maybe from school, I don’t fully remember for sure) and there he was, on the dining room floor, putting the finishing touches to a bike he’d made for me: cobbled together, bits grafted on from other bikes, painted black and white zebra fashion. I don’t remember what happened to the bike — I just remember that he made it for me. He cobbled together other contraptions and he made up games: board games from blocks of wood, and he was looking for a game he could sell, perhaps. He made up a simple game with cushions and hidden objects, which I passed on and on, it having stood the test of time.

On the beach, we dug the biggest hole I’ve ever been involved with! I got in and we poured the sand in and I was stuck. The sand pressed against my chest and it hurt. I remember Dad doing that calm sort of panic that I recognise now in myself sometimes: the one where you need to keep the finer details of how you feel away from the children! Dad dug me out and I can feel his relief here as I write. He gave to us children all those wide, high-skied beaches and secret coves of the far west of Cornwall: I have passed these on too.

Twice Dad managed to hide from me: maybe more in his play, but these particular times are most prominent here in me. Once, on a hot summer day when I must have been quite young, on a crowded beach promenade, when he was younger than I am now, he hid momentarily behind an advertising pillar. As I went round one way looking for him, panicking, he must have tracked me round out of sight. Another time, maybe when I was a little older, we were walking in the woods (me, one of my sisters, Dad, maybe my brother too). Dad played his hiding game behind a tree and I just kicked into big brother protection mode! I told my sister not to worry, I’d get her home. I don’t know if she remembers this! I have a vague recollection that I was blagging it. Dad jumped out and told me how proud he was of me.

He used to have a motorbike that he parked just outside the kitchen window. I have no idea what type it was but I remember sitting pillion, flying across the Devon and Cornwall moors, clinging on for dear life and wearing an ill-fitting helmet! Risky play, perhaps. It was the Seventies, or sometime around then. We did things differently! There’s a certain amount of manning up that can be done at or around the age of double figures. We toured the back lanes of leafy little Hampshire villages on that bike. Dad introduced me to the mystical world of pubs, where adults resided in the dark spaces I wasn’t allowed to go into: the hoppy, sweet, warm smell wafting out to me as I sat in the beer garden with shandy and crisps.

He told me about girls, of course, but in his own way: his conversations on the matter were a way of softening the blow of moving from the house and town of my childhood, all I’d ever really known up till that point. My youngest sister arrived when I was just into secondary school. Dad’s cooking skills, whilst Mum was in hospital giving birth, are now family legend! How could we ever forget his creations? Spaghetti bolognaise and crisps followed by ‘crunchy jelly’ with a chocolate bar wedged into it (something he was claiming deliberate creation of, perhaps, having put it in the freezer to set!). We all survived though and, I’m told, he was the one to look after the baby me when my other sister was born. Apparently, Dad and me would go feed the ducks in Walpole Park, or walk to the shops, though he’d be frustrated at the slowness of my pace. Others’ stories are just as important as my own.

My own stories have their own punctuated significances: it’s 1981 and, a few weeks before my birthday, Dad had a surprise for me. On some long November evening, we travelled by coach to the old Wembley stadium. He took me to watch England versus Hungary. I remember standing on the terraces of the old stadium, behind the goal, surrounded by the sweaty press and noise of men. I watched Keegan, Hoddle, Coppell play, and Mariner scored the only goal at our end. The next year, I watched the football World Cup, Spain ’82, on TV with Dad. I lounged on the sofa and grunted my pre-adolescent acknowledgments to his continuing brief match analyses. A few years earlier, I’d laid on the sofa with him as we watched Borg and Connors and McEnroe at Wimbledon. Always, it seemed, of a Saturday night we watched the football on the TV. These little significances come back to me.

Dad was the only one to ever deliberately use a certain form of my name. I don’t take that from anyone else (though I tolerate mispronunciations, even from the children I work with now, though I always correct them). Dad used this form of my name when he was well, and I don’t know why it mattered but it mattered. When we were able to talk, he would ask me when I was going to get a ‘proper job’! He never got the hang of the fact that I didn’t ever own a Mazda sports car (it was a Toyota, Dad!). I put it down to some form of communication play, forms of relating. ‘Work with your brain, son, not with your hands; everyone else on the road is an idiot.’ The things you keep with you.

Once, twice now, we didn’t so much need words: I don’t remember for sure how old I was when I sliced a lump of flesh from my knee playing football on my own up against a wall. Again, the late 70s or early 80s? Dad had the motorbike and the stories had circulated amongst the local children on the estate of how I’d had a terrible accident and broken my leg. They’d mangled it all up and exaggerated it, as children can sometimes do. Dad had pulled up on his motorbike and been greeted by all this chaotic traumatic excitement. I hadn’t broken my leg: it was a hanging lump of flesh sliced by a piece of flint. Mum had patched me up after I’d limped home feeling sorry for myself and somewhat in shock, and then I was lying down, being stitched up by some doctor. It hurt and Dad held my hand as the stitches went in.

Thirty-odd years later, last week, in a small hospital room in a soulless little town I never want to set foot in again in my life, I held Dad’s hand as he lay in a drug-induced sleep. There, quietly, I told him the story I’ve just told you. Things then went quiet for a while.

This is not all there is: this is just the start of words. This is the sad surreal slow-motion state of things this side of last Friday. We think we have time, but we forget about time: he was just 65.

Dad and Toddler Joel

Goodbye, Dad x


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