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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 June 2021

Malcolm Guite’s daily walk leads to a reflection on the relationship between work and play

“I LIKE work; it fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.” Jerome K. Jerome’s famous aphorism is more than just a lazy man’s bravado: sometimes, it really is true.

It has certainly been true for me on my morning walks over this past week. George and I start our walk with a long slow ramble round the Linton Recreation Ground, which gives me a chance to wake up gradually, and gives him a chance to follow his nose and catch up with the scents and trails of all the other Linton dogs, “reading” the lampposts, as it were, and occasionally leaving comments of his own; for dogs invented “Nosebook” long before we ever came up with Facebook.

But the walks this week have had the added fascination of watching Linton’s new skateboard park gradually, skilfully, magically take shape. It started with some construction-site fencing round an old bit of weedy concreted wasteland, and the arrival of several lorry loads of earth and clunch, together with three very skilled men. It has, indeed, been fascinating to watch them.

After clearing the space, they fashioned a series of wooden templates marking the height and shape and flow of the various runs and swoops and humps and bumps for the skateboarders to enjoy, and on which to hone their skills. Then, with a series of splendid yellow diggers, dump trucks, and rollers, they built up and “landscaped” the park to match the template. This included fabricating various reinforcing iron grids and meshes, all of which they did on site.

They seemed to have a remarkable panoply of skills between the three of them. The youngest of them was, I think, an apprentice, and, occasionally, in between the songs on their classic-rock playlist, one would hear the master, a middle-aged man with a full beard, instructing the apprentice, in the best way, to draw a template curve with a compass, and to saw and plane it smooth.

The work is not quite finished yet, but, morning by morning, I have been watching something beautiful take shape, something that certainly matches the tagline of their playground construction company: “Artistic Engineering”.

But I’ve enjoyed more than the fascination of watching other people work. It has been wonderful to see grown-ups working solely so that children should play, and it’s good to live in a society that agrees that adult skills and resources should sometimes be deployed just so that young people can have fun.

But there’s something more in the playful relationship between work and play which has been unfolding this week. I can see that the men enjoy their work: there are big grins when they are driving the diggers, and a smile of quiet satisfaction when they see the curve of the track perfectly following the template. I wondered whether these same men played with toy diggers and toy hammers and saws when they were boys; whether, for them, play itself had become work, just that kind of work which enables others to play.

Maybe it’s the same with me. “You’re only playing at work,” my stern teacher used to say when she caught me doodling rhymes in the margins of my school exercise book; but now that playing with words is my work. I only hope that I can make something as appealing and beautiful as the Linton skateboard park.

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