Graham Scott on the miracles lurking behind ‘Can you play?’
Last weekend I sat down and played a toy battle with my son. We must have looked slightly incongruous. My son is 10, I’m 55. He’s blonde, bright and full of life. In some lights I look like a grownup greying into deep middle age. In others I look like what the police divers finally find after a couple of days dredging the bottom of the lake.
It’s been decades since I sat on the floor and played with my toys, which were all delightfully non-PC: cowboys and Indians, knights, Confederate and Union troopers and of course Action Men. When I played with them as a boy there were no peace missions in my games, no soldiers on R&R making friends with the locals. Usually everyone died apart from one stunned survivor.
I spent many quiet, fruitful hours in my room under the benevolent gaze of my parents, destroying villages, massacring kampfgruppe and finding new ways for soldiers to die. Happy days, and my parents were untroubled by doubts over whether I should be allowed military toys at all or whether I should be given some dolls to play with for relativism.
Somehow, the better part of half a century later, my toys have largely survived although, like their owner, they’re showing some signs of severe wear and tear. The Action Men in particular have aged even worse than me, although at least I haven’t suffered from one leg becoming completely detached yet. My son plays with them happily and, as far as I can tell, he commits them to combat missions every bit as bloodthirsty and dangerous as the ones I sent them on.
So, the other morning, he asked me if I would play with them with him. I nearly said no, because I thought I didn’t know how to or would do it wrong or I would feel silly or something. Maybe you’re better at this than me, and more likely you’re closer in age to your children than me, but I found it hard to say yes. But then I thought that it won’t be long before he won’t want to do this with me, and already some of his friends think it’s ‘lame’ to do any kind of play that doesn’t involve a screen and a keyboard or thumb toggles. So I said yes.
Once he’d got over the surprise at this turn of events, my boy quickly rushed upstairs and started getting the Action Men into suitable battledress. Then he loaded them down with a variety of weapons, from bolt-action rifles to SA-80s as well as grenades, bazookas and Javelin missile launchers – we allow a certain amount of latitude which would horrify re-enactors.
He then provided the enemy in the form of some HM Armed Forces figures, complete with tank and armoured car. Both sides had air cover, operating from the bed in his room and the one in mine. Lancasters and Spitfires were up against ME109s and Stukas. He looked up with a big grin. He was ready. He’d worked so hard while I’d just wandered about the place. I actually felt a little tense and not a little self-conscious. It was time to play.
So, do you remember how to do that? Do you remember how to play with toys like that? Do you remember the exact sounds you had in your personal sound library for, say, aircraft? Remember how important it was to differentiate between a fighter and a bomber? (I was never happy with my Stuka sound. It clearly bothers me still.) And the sound of a rifle against a machine gun? And the sound of a big artillery round exploding? Are you making those sounds now, trying to get them right again?
It was me who started it off, taking a Spitfire on a first recce and shoot-up of the enemy positions, flying fast and low from his bedroom, across the landing to my bedroom where the enemy had, carelessly, parked their aircraft in a tight group. I had to make Spitfire noises, the sound of a Stuka blowing up on the ground and then anti-aircraft fire as I returned to base. I found it really rather strange.
Within ten minutes we’d committed ground troops and were giving each other covering fire as his top soldier sprinted for the cover of the bathroom door on the landing while I hosed everything down with a machine gun I couldn’t name. I stopped worrying about whether I looked stupid or whether I should be fretting over infantry tactics and the likely blast radius for the grenades. My son and I just played, leaping about, then down on the ground, discussing our tactics, laughing and making lots of noise.
I was like some creaky old horse let out of the dark mine into the sunlit field to roll on the green grass. It was wonderful. I was actually playing. I was having simple, carefree fun. There are days when I can barely spell that word. And it was with my son which doubled my pleasure. (The only downside was that, after the battle as I went downstairs to prepare lunch, the sole survivor didn’t look as though he was going to make it.)
It occurred to me how seldom this playtime happens with us grownup men. ‘But when I became a man, I put away childish things’, as it says in the Bible. We put away not only the toys but also the way of thinking, the imagination, the made-up worlds. Sometimes that’s what needs to happen—taking your old Action Man into the next board meeting probably isn’t a good career move—but maybe we go too far. Maybe we need to keep in occasional touch with that limitless, imaginative way of thinking that the young have, that we had. It’s what the Americans say is one of the prime movers in Silicon Valley, that ignoring of limits and current reality.
I’ve got used to seeing my son just spontaneously decide he’s going to draw something with whatever’s to hand—pen, pencil, crayons—or to write a story or just go out and play in the woods outside, being everything from a sniper to a fallow deer. And I’ve hardly ever done the same.
So this evening I’ve promised myself that I’m going to get some paper and pen or pencil and I’m going to simply draw something. Doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter how good it is. I’m going to let my imagination go and stop being so rational and sensible. Are you going to try it too? There’s a danger it could be fun.
—originally posted at Fellow HQ