The residential area of Cowpen Newtown, where I lived as a child, consisted of three rows of terraced houses. The back lane of the westernmost of these, John Street, looked onto a cemetery that was in a state of some decay. The partly-demolished perimeter wall of this broken-down bone garden acted as a gateway to a huge playground for my friends and me. While we respected the actual graves, we couldn’t resist the other temptations that lay within. There were trees to climb, walls to scale and fires to set among the leaning headstones..
Our little gang would gather beneath the huge stone cross that stood (and still stands) in the centre of the cemetery. From here we would decide what we were going to play, be it hide and seek, a go on the rope swing, or perhaps a shootout between the gravestones with our Sekiden guns. There was always some adventure or other to be had.
My friend, David, and I once tried to make a mini-treehouse by securing an old zinc bath to a bough with a length of rope. The entire structure slid off the supporting branch with both of us sitting in it, but the rope held and we managed to hang on without either of us falling to the ground.
One Saturday afternoon, four of us were playing among the gravestones, when we were accosted by one of the ‘big lads’ from the street, who would have been about thirteen. He carried an air pistol and he corralled us at gunpoint with the intention of taking us to the priest, who lived on the other side of a busy road. Our captor marched us toward the main road, waving the gun about and telling us that we would be punished for playing in the cemetery. He lined us up on the kerb and, as he watched for a gap in the traffic, my fellow prisoners and I simultaneously made a bolt for it. Our escape was entirely successful, although I did spend the rest of that weekend in dread of a visit from the priest.
When I was about five-years-old, someone dumped an old mattress in a corner of the cemetery a few feet from the wall, and a new game of paratroopers was devised. I enviously watched, as a queue of older children leaped from the wall onto the mattress, doing various dramatic rolls on landing. I declined their invitation to join in, but later on, when I was alone, I drummed up the courage to have a go myself.
I climbed the wall, and took up my position by the battered mattress. A thick bed of nettles stood between me and my target but, undeterred, I stood on the edge of the wall and prepared to jump. I kept getting a powerful urge to leap, but this was quickly stifled as caution regained control of my mind. Finally, after a lot of dithering, I went for it.
I didn’t make it. I fell short and the nettles stung my bare legs but my momentum carried me forward, and I stumbled onto the damp mattress. It hurt like the devil, but I was satisfied that I had made the jump.
I also learned something very important that day, and on many other occasions when I attempted similar feats; I learned my own limitations. Through my mishap on the mattress I had given myself a better indication of how far I could jump. Via a similar process of trial and error, I identified other boundaries, such as whether a tree branch was too high to drop from safely, or the stick that acted as a seat on a rope swing would bear my weight.
For this is how it goes throughout the animal kingdom. A small kitten may fail in its attempt to leap between settee and armchair, but it will know better next time. Polar bear cubs will frolic as they explore snow for the first time, but they are familiarising themselves with the environment in which they will have to survive. And, in a dilapidated graveyard, a young boy leaping onto an old mattress learned that next time he must go an extra foot. Discovering our limitations is not something that can be taught indoors on a games console.
There was an article on the radio recently about so-called cotton-wool kids, these being children who are kept indoors because their parents fear they might get hurt while playing outside. In a recent survey, over 40% of adults suggested fourteen as the minimum age for children to be allowed out on their own, while only 17% said this freedom should be given to children under ten..
I learned several hard lessons as a child, and my mother would have had kittens if she’d known everything I got up to. But I came through it all relatively unscathed, and those scrapes and bumps and nettle stings I picked up taught me at an early age that life does not always run as smoothly I’d like it to.
I’m no child psychologist, but perhaps a lot of the entitlement we see in young adults these days stems from them not learning that lesson as children