Nowadays, there is no way the death slide in Mrs Boucher’s back garden would be seen as an appropriate plaything for children. Even back then it was edgy. The term ‘death slide’ was slightly hyperbolic: falling off it didn’t actually result in death. It hurt and, apparently, it could break your arm, as Ken Harris (8) discovered at my brothers birthday party.
It was, in retrospect, rather an auspicious event. This was because one of the guests became the current chancellor of the exchequer (we were at a super posh school) and because Ken Harris fell from about ten feet up, like a big bit of fruit, and broke his arm.
In my opinion he should have held firm in the face of peer pressure, and accepted his limitations. But he caved in and with shaking legs, climbed the rope ladder. To his credit, he gave it a go. He did things that several of the Bayswater dwelling posse my brother hung with found challenging. They’d been transplanted from the circumscribed world of Central London into the Lord of the Flies savagery of our back garden. It wasn’t a comfortable space for them. I think he came unstuck at the bit where you had to turn, balanced on a sawn off branch, using some leaves for extra stability. Either he relied on the leaves too much, or his legs just gave way. Watching him go up the ladder, I kind of think it was the legs.
I don’t think there was any recrimination. He just left in an ambulance and the party wound itself up. Nowadays, someone might perhaps have queried their child left in the care of others, returned injured. They might have asked about the safety of the play furniture, or parental supervision, of which there was none. They might have wondered about the death slide; as they might have about the games of long distance darts, the flamethrower, the petrol, breaking into building sites and everybody being tooled up with ‘black widow’ slingshots.
This was, after all, the seventies. The seventies were dangerous, in a word. You only had to look at the sanctioned play ground equipment.
I’m currently quite involved with playgrounds with my daughter. Playgrounds in the seventies had some quite excessively dangerous things in them. ‘The Witches Hat’ springs straight to the fore here. For those unfamiliar with it; it was a large cone shaped structure of supports and a wooden skirt you stood on. A group of kids would spin it and all hang on, as it both rotated around a central pole and bucked up and down. Practically speaking, depending on the size and fearlessness of your co-riders, you could be thrown around quite a lot. The whole apparatus on the move weighed a great deal and could move unpredictably, suddenly rearing up and knocking you off your feet/smacking you in the teeth/throwing another child into you. Naturally, because it was the seventies, it was mounted on a playground surface that was either paving slabs with a skim of treacherous gravel, or Tarmac.
A similarly unpredictable ride was the heavy seesaw rocking horse-style things which, with an appropriately fearless group of riders, could become something that reared and bucked like a tethered steel bullock. True the linear trajectory was more predictable, but these things had a mass and forward impetus like a battering ram. It made them quite challenging as either a passenger or innocent bystander.
Swings were similarly robustly fashioned, meaning that they swung with the force of a blunt executioners axe at young, delicate heads. There was a lighter swing, popular in back gardens, which would suddenly pop out of the ground when you swung too high; ‘too high’ being something you could only gauge after the event.
Slides were narrow, high and minimalist. The steel steps were unforgiving and slippery. When descending, you could easily fall out of them, again onto Tarmac.
A special mention should be made here of the ‘flumes’ or water slides at Richmond pool. Fictional scare stories went round about people putting razor blades in them. More prosaically the ‘black hole’ (a black coloured water slide) dropped you about nine feet onto your coccyx. This was actually closed for being too dangerous after some Stoke Mandeville accident occurred to a heavier adult.
Another special mention should be made of the lighter (but NOT safer) garden slide with the rail that I caught two of my toes the other side of when going at maximum speed.
Not good. Bad.
There was the roundabout that could trap young legs or hurl you bodily across the playground, various random climbing frames, thoughtfully set into concrete, one of which I remember lulled me into falling throat first onto a horizontal bar.
Then there was the have-a-go-how-hard-can-it-be freeform madness of the adventure playground. I suppose the addition of the suffix ‘adventure’ euphemistically underlined the extreme danger of, say, the swing at Holland park which dropped you a distance through empty space before any actual swinging went on. Or some of the vertiginous, hand rail-free walkways, made of rickety planks stolen from building sites by criminal adolescents. The only good thing was that falling tended to be onto mud.
I survived. Most of us did. I have some scars, one from the rusty nail, one from the axe: and a dot on my head which only really revealed itself when I went bald and which I’ve now identified as the place my brother threw the dart; deliberately he recently admitted.
I had to put myself out a couple of times when covered in petrol and I very nearly died falling off the half-built Ealing Broadway Shopping Centre.
Danger entered the home in the guise of toys. We survived crazy straws: fun but food poisoning was almost unavoidable; home balloon kits: not so much fun blowing bubbles of murky green toxic waste, if you sucked: hallucinations. We survived parents smoking, and paint stripping Dungeons and Dragons figures with Nitromors creating some kind of hyper-dodgy lead oxide. ‘I wonder why there’s always always a bright orange undercoat on these…..’
In some ways the Kensington kids were the harbingers of another future time. A time where kids don’t get to play unsupervised, and certainly don’t get to play with a can of petrol and a box of matches with a few close friends round the corner, in a conveniently L-shaped garden. They were lardy and physically uncertain, they had fear, which for me only kicks in now looking back at some of it. Particularly the flamethrower.
Having my daughter has brought these issues into sharp focus. It’s been a journey. My younger, childless friends look at me with horror and disbelief as I regale them with stories of getting up at five in the morning as a regular waking time, or never going out at night, ever. My reply has become simply that you can’t cheat life. That at some stage they will do this, or go through whatever process they have to go through to not do it, but that as healthy heterosexuals they will probably experience raising a child. Sooner or later, with some inevitability.
You can’t cheat life, but equally, despite our fond imaginings, you can’t cheat death.
Now it is pleasant to be able to take your young daughter to an environment in which she can play and return without bone deep lacerations, concussion, or the kind of bruises that ache when it’s damp for the rest of your life. At the same time, I do not wish to make her life risk free, nor do I think I can. If I do that then I starve her of something that she as an individual seems to crave, as we did, scrambling over the half-built roof of the shopping centre.
The debate on vaccination is very interesting in this regard. The one thing that both sides of the debate, such as it is, agree on is the sanctity of the life of the child. Not an unreasonable fear one might say, and I concur, it’s very important children don’t become ill or die. The tone of the debate though is based around fear: the horrors of the individual’s loss and pain. That we must at all cost prevent this.
The unfortunate bottom line is that kids die. This is an awful truth, but they do. How far are we prepared to go to try to prevent this, what are our motivations and at what point is this too far?
Recently my friend Diana died. She wasn’t a kid. She’d lived a lot of life and passed away in her fifties. She died in quite significant discomfort of cancers of the brain, lung and breast. To my mind she was too young to die, but I didn’t get a say.
There was something very special about Diana.
After her death I found out that she had had the diagnosis before she met me and that for the two years of our friendship she was dying of cancer. I treasure those years, not just because I loved hanging about with her talking about Chinese medicine, but also because she was someone facing her imminent death second by second. Every twinge and pain, and increased lump size. Every morning she had to look in the mirror at a face that was dying. She held what she had at bay for the two years with nei gong and Chinese herbs. Then it rose up, crippled her and killed her.
When I heard that she had privately lived with a terminal diagnosis I realised what the special thing about her was. I had seen who she really was, when the lies and evasions are stripped away, because you know you may not have long.
According to her friends in these last years her Buddhist practice matured, she took great strides forward. These were incredibly valuable years for her. I would love to ask her if she felt she had done the right thing in delaying treatment, but she’s dead. I’m left with what I saw there.
One of the prevailing dreams of science fiction and medicine is of immortality. Aside from the gritty likelihood that this would, nay will, be prohibitively expensive and only for the very few, this poses some interesting questions. What age would you like to stay at? I mean physically probably your twenties, but can a twenty year old body be a twenty year old body and hold five hundred year old emotions? What would it be like not changing physically? Nice, no degeneration, but no change either, always the same. A bit like living in California, which is very pleasant, but without seasons it apparently does get boring.
What would the position be with your own children? When would you have them, would they be the same age as you and what would your relationship be with them when you’re both in your twenties? Why would you strive for anything? A career would be effectively of infinite length. If you worked in a business organisation then with no one dying or retiring you couldn’t be promoted. Working for yourself, say as an acupuncturist, how good are you going to get before you’re as good as you’re going to get? Then what? Relationships? All of eternity with one person? Yeah, sure. How many until you just don’t want to go there anymore? Ten, twenty, fifty? What then?
What happens when you run out of ideas for new things, in short what happens when you’ve done it all? When does the boredom get you as you stare into eternity? It’s already bad enough in the leafy suburbs in Surrey where middle aged people are sitting the lap of material comfort, drinking themselves to death in front of sky tv.
You can’t cheat life. Equally you can’t cheat death. The two define one another. Somehow we’ve wandered down a road in western culture where the fear and prevention of death has been confused with the promotion of life. A negative confused with a positive.
Life hailed as some kind of poorly defined absolute, rather than a process of change.
When my father died twenty years ago, one of the most shocking things about it was the extent to which you were on your own with it. Now this is always true to an extent; death is a path that everyone, both the dying and the bereaved ultimately, walks alone. The contrast between the inner experience of loss and the upbeat, coca cola, western consumer culture was shocking; when I least needed a shock. There was simply no context for grief. There was and is no place in British ‘life’ for it. Shortly after he died, I went to India where black is worn by the bereaved to signify their state until they are no longer bereaved and ready to don normal clothes again. This may take years, as I know. Do you ever ‘get over’ the loss of another, so much as come to terms with their passing and live a life which is a different shape? Would you want to ‘get over’ the loss of one you love. In Mexico they celebrate the day of the dead and this day is a day for that remembrance.
Of course people die in India and Mexico more than they do here. They die younger, children die, women die in child birth. They are, depending on your position within the economic hierarchy, dirty and dangerous countries.
When would you like to die? I think the answers a bit like your average Brighton thirty-something man contemplating having children, ‘a couple of years’ or ‘a time that’s remote enough for me to not worry about it just yet, shall I get the next one’. So not now; but when?
Sixty is obviously too early, seventy seems good, eighty not so sure and ninety plus is all a bit end of the bell curve. Most ninety year olds seem somewhat pissed off with it all. Over a hundred and whatever state you’re in, you’re a bit of an anachronism. One factor is seeing your kids right in the world, although I’m really not sure quite where that cut off point actually is. Another is all your friends being dead. Who wants to be the last?
Also, what if you’re stuck with a load of people who have been over cautious all their lives. Boring timid people, and you, all in an old people’s home, being patronised by twenty something’s with three GCSE’s. Ask someone in their seventies, and ninety seems ok with the fit-and-well-still-got-your-marbles caveat. No one wants to go just yet. It’s always something to put off, something in the future that is inevitable. Like an income tax payment, but much worse. Except of course that, for most people, there is a definite decreasing returns thing happening as time goes on, and the vague future date of imagined acceptably ideal circumstances is far, far from the reality of deaths calling.
Here we’ve ended up with a culture where we can’t even engage with death, yet we fear it at every turn. Who, honestly, gets through a day without some thoughts, however fleeting, about their own death? Yet narcissistically, we struggle to insulate ourselves from it, and because in our fear we fail to understand the equation, do we equally fail to live?
Sometimes it is ok to die; to go and leave it all behind. It was ok for Dianna, it’s ok for kids, because that quite simply is how it is. Watching my daughter running around I am acutely aware that we’re anything to happen to her, it would break me. Yet at the same time I want her to be able to safely balance on a sawn off branch, ten feet up, using some leaves for stability.
I’m not advocating a return to seventies playgrounds, nor railing against ‘health and safety’. I’m not really advocating anything, other than observing that we have become so locked up in the drive towards the eternal supremacy of the individual that we’ve completely lost sight of the wider context. We shore up our defences against fear of death with fantasies that have replaced the idea of going to heaven; it’ll be alright in the end, we’ll live forever, advances in medical science well… they’ll continue to advance won’t they? When the truth of it is, it won’t be alright in the end, particularly. You’re going to die, it’s probably going to hurt, you’ll likely lose your dignity and you’ll probably smell. The death bit isn’t important, the important part of the equation is life and living as fully as you can. Now.
My working hypothesis, which is partly derived from water method Taoism, is that your whole life is defined by your experience of dying. When you are finally dying, you have reached a point where there is nowhere to run and hide. You have to watch your life play out before your eyes and if you have regrets then you have to sit with them, whatever they may be. This, depending on the regret, may be a truly terrible experience when the possibility of evasion and dishonest narrative is removed and you truly have to sit with what you have done and the person that you are. The worst case scenarios are best avoided by living a full life, head on and with the minimum of regret and emotional dishonesty. The way one really avoids regret is to try very hard not to kid oneself. Tricky and painful, but ultimately easier. Trying to negate the fear of or avoid death is kidding yourself. Trying to live for as long as possible is missing the point. The truth of the situation is that an open heart is an experience of timelessness.
The real sadness in someone’s passing isn’t that they died, but that they might never really have lived.