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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?