Aidan Smith: Mollycoddled kids missing out on fun of life

With few cars and wide open spaces, the street was a perfect playground back in the day. Picture: Getty Images
With few cars and wide open spaces, the street was a perfect playground back in the day. Picture: Getty Images
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OUR playgrounds were never safe but we didn’t care and it didn’t really matter, writes survivor Aidan Smith

On the site of the building where these words are being written, two boys used to play. The waste ground – overgrown, sloping, lethal and brilliant – was behind the home of one of the lads and his best friend was always thrilled to get the chance to join him climbing trees and building dens, often without telling his mother where he was. One boy was Keith Taylor, who grew up to be a helicopter pilot and so stayed wild and free. The other was me and ever so slightly I suppose I’ve contributed to the death of my fantastic playground.

The Tip, as it was called, was better than playing in the street but of course we also had the street. There were fewer cars, much less parental anxiety, no computer games or mobile phones and no TV until that swotty girl on the testcard got bored standing by her blackboard and the programmes resumed with Fireball XL5. No-one knew this at the time, or attached any great importance to it, but playing in the street helped make my generation.

It doesn’t happen now, for some very good reasons of course, but as a result this generation of children are less robust, less independent, less resourceful – and in every sense less streetwise. We’re paying for the world outside being more risky, but also for our over-protectiveness, in obesity, in timidity and kids not really knowing what fun is.

Realising this, community groups in Edinburgh and Glasgow want to reclaim streets for play. Trials where roads were cleared of traffic to allow youngsters the run of them were declared a great success. But attempts to take the experiment further are being thwarted by red tape and prohibitive costs, with campaigners being told closing a small street for even just a few hours would cost almost £2,000. Listen to Anna Bambridge of Glasgow’s Battlefield Community Project enthuse about the having her street filled with kids again: “Once the cars disappeared and the children took over, everything changed dramatically. The whole community came together and the street came alive. The children had a ball and the adults loved the nostalgia of being able to pass on games they enjoyed when they were young.”

Now, much as I’d like to claim I was a feral urchin, living on my wits and what I could pinch from passing milk floats and bread lorries, outfoxing dubious Fagin-types on every corner, this was not quite the case. Aged seven or eight, life outside my front door did not resemble the blightedness of the street kids photographed by Oscar Marzaroli or painted by Joan Eardley. Nor could I be said to resemble the description offered by that other chronicler of urban youth, Cilla Black: “Oh you are a mucky kid, dirty as a dustbin lid.”

I lived in Great King Street, for goodness sake. If you don’t know this boulevard, it’s one of the grandest in Edinburgh’s New Town, wider than many, with the houses seeming to reach higher. Nevertheless, our version of the great outdoors rewarded inventiveness and junior levels of courage and we loved it.

It seemed to have nothing going for it as a playground and yet it had everything. The pavements either side of the cobbled thoroughfare were wide enough for games. They retained the steps once used by ladies disembarking from horse-drawn carriages, while doorways still had their boot-scrapers. In our imagination, balconies became mountain crevices. Basements were for the real daredevils: you circled them from the other side of the ornate railings – then jumped. Gutters with their ornate gratings only existed to be dammed.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the New Town wasn’t completely gentrified and Cumberland Street, one down from us, was edgy. Daunder there and you’d come back without your Aztec chocolate bar, or so we strongly believed. But Cumbie Street always put on a terrific bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Night. With worker-ant discipline, its waifs would lug ever-heavier items on to the pyre, and you hoped those armchairs weren’t missed.

Round another corner was Madame Doubtfire’s second-hand clothes emporium (and round another one was where Anne Fine, future author of the book of the Robin Williams film, Mrs Doubtfire, lived). We loved to scare ourselves by challenging each other to walk past the shop where the proprietress with her leathery complexion and clay pipe was sat outside in all weathers, cats at her feet. The resolutely unsmiling Madame was a street-legend who fired our imaginations and our games, as did the woman who promenaded flamboyantly in cape and scarlet lipstick believing herself the reincarnation of King James IV.

Aged ten I decided my younger siblings were too silly and immature and would present myself at the Edinburgh Photographic Society, explain that my father was a member (true) – and could I please peruse the fine collection of magazines in their library? Specifically, I was looking for Amateur Photographer. More specifically still, the issues given over to detailed analysis of how to take pictures of women in the nude.

I would hope my own son will display similar ingenuity when the time is right (though I’d rather he didn’t retrieve discarded bubblegum from the pavements, as I used to do). But when will his father give him the chance? The parenting I had – with scant concern given to where I was, when I’d return, because I’d probably be in the street and that was fine – now seems like neglect. We protect for good reasons but we also mollycoddle. And out on the streets now the car is king and just beyond them the open spaces keep disappearing.

I wish the play projects well. The charges involved are a joke. Meanwhile from the office window I can look down on my children’s school where the concept of “loose parts play” is in full swing. Tyres and planks of wood offer them many possibilities, with nails and other hazards removed, of course.

The big jessies.