When I was at school, unless the weather was positively arctic (which didn’t happen that often in Oxford), our morning and lunch breaks were spent outdoors playing the same sort of games that had entertained our parents and grandparents. There was precious little in the way of regulation – we were mostly just left to get on with it, and the heavy hand of Government had yet to step in and ban such competitive fun as conkers.
There were running around games – tig and such. Sitting down games – marbles. And jumping and skipping games. Now I hadn’t thought about any of these for years until I was chatting away with a friend, here in the north-east of Scotland about how we used to pass the time in the playground.
There we were, we’d talked about the chasing games – we called it Touch-tig down south, up here it was “Join the captain or walk the plank”, but it was the same game.
Then we talked about various crazes that we’d both known: clackers was one (those two balls on strings that you had to make hit each other in a violent way), and the ankle hoop game – a round circle of brightly coloured plastic (mine was yellow) went round your foot. Attached to it by a piece of plastic string was a bell-shaped item and the idea was that you rotated the ring and jumped over the string until you finally got your other foot well and truly hit by the bell. Not particularly skilful though a certain amount of co-ordination was required, but good exercise.
Suddenly, at the same time, we both went: “Remember what we used to do with knicker elastic?”
Now some might see that as a call for memories of a furtive and fumbling nature, but my friend and I were thinking of exactly the same playground game. Our minds froze, then out of nowhere the term “French Skipping” popped into my head. Before any of you leap to conclusions, this is the official name of the activity and is not scurrilous or suggestive in any way, though I don’t know why it would have been called “French”.
All you needed were three players and the requisite length of knicker elastic tied in a loop. Two girls (and as I went to a girls’ school, it was always girls, though I’d love to know if boys played this too – I doubt it somewhat) stood a few yards apart with the elastic hoop encircling both pairs of ankles. The third girl was the jumper – her task was to perform various moves and cause the elastic to become crossed up in more and more complicated ways. When all jumps were completed the girls at each end would move the “hoop” up. The jumper would then be challenged with completing the moves at “kneesies, thighsies and waisties”. Should she be up to these supreme endeavours, she would then face performing the jumps at “chesties”. Seldom could this be achieved and so after a failure at any level, another girl would get a go.
Aah memories, memories.
I wonder how many of the games we used to play are still current? Almost without exception, an over-active imagination could imbue our pastimes with an element of risk or danger – hence “stop doing [whatever] you could take someone’s eye out with that” was the warning cry that over-anxious teachers and parents would emit. But no-one ever banned our fun and I’ve never come across anyone who had an eye taken out by a playground game.
The closest I’ve heard is from my friend whose dad was playing on the beach one day as a young loon, with all his friends, and they found an unexploded World War II mine. It didn’t stay unexploded for long, and one poor chap, now an old man, carries a deep scar close to his eye from a bit of the shrapnel. But it didn’t happen at school!