BOOK REVIEW / Maggie maggot scratcher: 'The People in the Playground' - Iona Opie: OUP, 15.95

The children greatly admired Iona Opie's stub-end of pencil. Only about three inches were left, but the wood was decorated with silver sealing wax. She had moulded it on when she was about 10. Now, here she was, Britain's greatest folklorist, in her mid-fifties, standing in her local primary school playground in Hampshire, and using it to write down children's jokes and games, in a shorthand of her own devising. Such a fancy item was still glamorous, 40 years on. 'I like your pencil,' the children around her kept saying. 'Where did you nick it?'

She, however, would never call them 'children', because that is not how they describe themselves: in the playground, they always say 'people'. Hence the title of this, the latest enthralling Opie front-line report from the battleground we emerge from into adulthood. Till 1982, Iona Opie worked with her husband, Peter. Since his death, she has continued what she calls 'the family firm' alone. This is perhaps the most personal of her books. It was always Iona who went out and about; Peter preferred bookshelves to people (of any age). When he died, she went back to this same playground, to remind herself 'that life went on. All that wonderful vitality.'

In deliberate homage to Gilbert White (whose village of Selbourne is only a few miles away), she has written the natural history of a playground. She wanted to portray the living context of the games, songs, riddles and jokes she and Peter chronicled with such scholarly care. In previous volumes, they are sifted out into categories: 'nicknames', 'topical rhymes', 'chasing games', 'racing games'. Here is an astonishing evocation of the hugger-mugger way they interweave in real life. The dramas recorded here take place in the quarter-hour outburst of energy which is coldly described on the school timetable as mid-morning break. Everyone comes alive for 15 minutes.

She turned up at playtime, once a week, for almost 14 years. She tucked herself in among the crowd of 7 to 11-year-olds. 'They took me on as another chore,' she says, self-deprecatingly, 'a more enjoyable duty than emptying the waste- paper baskets.' They would come across to tell her their latest joke, or describe a game.

But nothing could be less chore-like than this book. Iona Opie's technique is to set down in detail, like a naturalist, what she saw and heard on every visit made between 5 January l978 and 15 July 1979. In these five terms, you gradually get to know the professional jokesters, the skipping champions, the boy who quietly goes up the side of the school to read Alice in Wonderland, the plump little girl who looks like 'a morsel fit for an ogre to eat'.

Each entry begins, Gilbert White-like, with a calm note of the weather: 'china-blue sky' or 'wind strong enough to lean upon'. Then the furore breaks out. Boys go around with their new game, called 'Sorry, Sir', in which you just fold your arms and bump whoever you come across. Another boy treasures a stone which Mrs Opie suspects is special. And it is: it came from the middle of a bonfire. Girls quietly start playing 'Please, Mr Crocodile'. No political correctness here: girls are girls, and boys are boys, and they behave in very different ways.

Games stop and start, almost inconsequentially. Iona Opie speaks of the playground as a scene of Hobbesian conflict. More or less everyone is playing something at which they are trying to win. But this is not Wembley or Cardiff Arms Park. In these games, 'when it is finished it is finished, and nothing depends on the outcome'. You just move straight on to the next thing.

As you read, you are turned into an explorer yourself. Games are played, like 'Building Up Bricks' or 'Two-Balls', but you have to pin down the rules from successive hints. Meanwhile, there is the flood of jokes and riddles: the toast joke, the alphabet joke, the joke about the maggot and the piece of shit. 'Who didn't go into the Ark in pairs?' (Worms: they went in apples.) 'What part of a chicken has the most feathers?' (The outside.) 'What do you call a Stone Age bra?' (An over-the-shoulder boulder-holder.) Most jokes are either scatological or sexual: fucking and farting are the two best jokes of all. Anyone who thinks the children of Britain in 1993 have been corrupted by satellite television, or Viz, or Nintendo, or whatever the latest culprit is, should read what the foul-mouthed 'people in the playground' said a dozen years ago.

You realise, with surprise, that much of this is going on through the famous Winter of Discontent. A caretaker strike briefly closes the school. But the politics wash over the playground, barely noticed. Only one figure impinges: 'Maggie Scratcher, Maggie Maggots]' (9 May 1979). It is a left-handed accolade in a world of tremendous continuity. Iona Opie hears rhymes she remembers from the Thirties. If anyone followed in her footsteps, I am sure they would hear the same again. These Tracys and Lindas are now old enough to have children of their own.

Everyone wanting to recapture the feeling of childhood, or learning to teach children, should read this book. On the problem of child evidence, I pass on Mrs Opie's comment that when she heard children say 'I made it up' she came to realise that they did not mean they invented it (the game, the riddle, the story). They meant: 'It just came back into my mind.' To a child, she concludes, memory and creation are as close as twins. Who else can give us these insights?

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all