Saturday, January 29, 2011

Build 'em high,

I was passing a building site the other day and it reminded me of my long past childhood, when we had a different name for them;


Even today, that ferrous tang of dust at the back of the throat you get as you pass a construction site flips me back thirty years to the excitement of sneaking in after school, exploring a maze of corridors lined with naked breeze blocks, each gaping doorway a porthole into another dimension of possibilities.

Of course, War (with a capital wuh) was the game of choice, if one had a willing cadre of tiny Nazis (nine year-olds), and the latest in offensive hardware (sticks). Occasionally you might turn up on your own, but the chances were some other like-minded individuals intent on having an adventure of their own would quickly arrive, and everyone would happily get caught up in everybody else's games..

You couldn't go past a building site after 5.30 pm without the echoey sounds of "DAGGADAGGADAGGA-EEEEOOOOOWWWWW-BOOSH-AIEEEEEE-SCHNELL-DAGGADAGGADAGGA!" rebounding off the brickwork, patiently ignored by nearby adults everywhere.

If you were on your own, there was a simple joy to be had in wandering around, seeing what a house looked like before it was fleshed out by bricks and plasterboard, exploring the labyrinthine intestines of wall spaces and airing cupboards without boilers in, no-one to tell you what to do, or what not to do, the master of all you could survey. You can forget Narnia. This was real magic.

And then there was scaffolding.

Oh man, how great was scaffolding?

Such was our monkey-like climbing ability at that age, we could scale the outside of a half-built three-storey edifice in about the same time we could walk a similar distance on the ground. A wet day made the slippery planks all the more exciting.

Even in the seventies though, society had noticed the youthful penchant for invading building sites, and dutifully put on safety videos at school.

These were invariably made by someone who believed the only way children would learn was by using realistic special effects, so cue scenes of unlucky children being absorbed by silage, the camera lingering on their (worryingly well-acted) looks of terror as the gloop closed over their faces. Then the kid would be shown as a ghost saying he wished he hadn't gone into the silage pit on the farm*.

Or there would be one warning of the dangers of playing on railway tracks, with a once sporty kid getting his leg trapped in a set of points, before an unconcerned Intercity 125 zoomed past, it's engine drowning out  a high pitched scream. The next scene would involve the boy looking wistfully at his football boots, before the camera pulled back to show him in a wheelchair, stubby legs ending at the ankles, and therefore revealing the reason he was looking at his football boots, and also why he was a bit sad, was because now HE HAD NO FEET!


The building site film contained walls of mortarless bricks falling without warning onto pint-sized dummies, discarded hammers on scaffolding being dislodged  by a wayward child and landing on the head of his friend down below, or the whole shoddily fastened scaffolding giving way and collapsing in a heap of Meccano-like death on a gawping crowd of interlopers. It was all done with appropriate realness, including after shots of children lying in pools of blood, or in hospital with drips and casts in situ, or looking horror-stricken at the mangled remains of their friends.

It was practically an advert.

Any nine year old who hadn't previously thought of going before definitely wanted to now, especially if there was the chance of finding randomly discarded hammers or walls that toppled like cards at the merest touch.

So, after a seventies tea of fish fingers and proper chips done in a deep fat fryer like the one that destroyed that house near the park that time, we would set off from our various homes with the express intention of meeting up at the new estate, breaking in using the time honoured technique of stepping over the foot-high single strand of wire that demarcated the boundary between boring reality and our adventure playground.

Things are a Little different these days:

Six-foot fences, metal gates, padlocks, floodlights, warning signs and orange flashing strobes mean that anyone caught inside the perimeter is properly trespassing and not simply out for a wander, like in my day, when it was perfectly possible to find yourself in a construction site without realising you'd walked in.

So, the health and safety brigade denies an entire generation of children the imaginary delights of adventure, the stimulating process of exploration, and the bonding camaraderie that running around an unattended building site can give, but at what price?

Oh, yeah, all those child injuries and deaths.


* Splashing about in a silage pit was obviously something all children were desperate to do in the seventies, judging by the effort displayed by the authorities in preventing us diving head first into them.


  1. You left out the sweet smell of cement not quite dry. And if you found a freshly laid section, the interesting and creative writing that could be done.

    My generation were the ones who set the examples for those movies. We never got them.

  2. So right..all one had to do was walk in through the open doorway (no doors) and into adventure land. Did we do so much harm that it all had to be fenced off like a concentration camp? Looking back I cant think of a single time we did any damage at all...Theres one house here in town with my name written on a block in the underfloor supports. Wow, big deal!

  3. And TOYS these days, they are so specific, robbing young 'uns of their development of imagination... Take 'LEGO' brand for example, (I'm not shouting by the way, that's just the way they spell it) they have little people and motors and things that are supposed to create just one thing. It's too specific even in a creative toy. In my day, we just had 4x4's, 2x2's and 10x1's and we liked it!
    *shakes hand like a crochety old man would*

  4. Douglas - Very true, and often with some paw-prints leading to a bemused looking cat in the middle.

    Tempo - Ooh, I think I've touched a nerve there mate!

    Eric - Why don't they just buy a toy car? Eh? EH? And I think whenever you ask for LEGO you should say it as it's spelled. Loudly.

  5. I grew up in a small mining town high up in the mountains. Or adventures included breaking into old abandoned mines and walking across the rotting planks that covered the thousand foot drops.

    What could possibly have gone wrong there?

  6. Playgrounds were places to pick fights. At least they were for me. And I used to love playing in building sites. Just like playing at house.

  7. SkylersDad - My jaw is agape with retrospective envy.

    Mdme DeF - True. There was more chaos in a building site, but less of that Lord Of The Flies feeling that you got in playgrounds.

  8. I have lamented before that the "well-meaning" authorites have succesfully robbed generations of kids the absolute delight of being... well, kids. For us it was the council works yard at the end of our street, the old custodian never could catch us, and there was always a swim afterward in the creek at the back after a game of war on the mountainous shingle heaps; sliding down them when you were "shot" guaranteed a walk home with blood dripping from your knee into your socks. It was like a medal for bravery.


  9. AV - Did you have competitions to see who could perform the most outrageous, elaborate deaths, perhaps involving much writhing around, tongue sticking out and plaintive laments worthy of Wagner at his most drawn out?


  10. Jules, sorry about the delay. Oh, yes, we had those. Our minds worked overtime with imagination, not like kids today at all. Some of the things we got up to... mother would not have been pleased.



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