Why can't I come out to play?

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE THINKING of buying a BMW, don't, because if you do I shall come round and slam your head repeatedly in the door until it is nothing but a squashed gory pulp like some vile fruit or ... anyway, that's the deal. Take it or leave it. Why? Because three separate BMWs have had car-alarm failure outside my window in the last few days, and there's a fourth yelping away like a foolish virgin as I write, pausing only for breath before starting off again, yip-yip-yip-yip-yip ad nauseam, that's why. All clear? Right. The bad yellow-eyed woman wants to know why Lulu is being so bitey at the moment. Telephone calls in the middle of the night. "Just got up to go to the loo and she bit my ankles." "I woke up and she was biting my head." "Can't talk now, she's biting me."

Lulu is a little dog. A terrier, only been on the planet a few weeks but already taking her place, knowing her way around, recognising members of her multi-species pack. Biting is what they do, also tug-of-war, pointless growling, falling downstairs, prancing about, fighting, playing. It's how they learn to be dogs. Little dogs are all over their owners like a cheap suit until a bigger dog comes into view and then off they go, the cold shoulder. Going to do dog stuff, now. Hey! We're going to lie by the door and bark! Now we're going to stare into empty space! Pee by the lamp-posts. Dog stuff.

Do you remember when you were little? Doing bitey stuff? Doing dog stuff? Of course you did. Occasionally there were people who never did dog stuff - Fennimore, Hale and Milroy spring to mind, always preternaturally neat, socks pulled up, an air of implausible dignity about them from the word go. I wonder what they're like now, thickened by age and dulled by the erosion of time. Probably the same, although there's always a chance that one or all of them went ape, cut loose, spun vertigiously downwards into a bad life, on the lam, eating lotus, running a high-class brothel in a mansion in the embassy district of Manila but I can't imagine it. No.

But the rest of us: dog stuff. It was officially sanctioned, called "coming out to play". The tremendous gulf between then and now is that at some point, someone sneaks into your life under cover, without asking, and takes away the right to say that. We have to have excuses. Game of golf. Sales conference. Dinner. Sex. (Sex is the best one, because they can stay the night, which was always the ultima Thule of coming-out-to-play: food and biting and scampering and frenzied licking and wagging and rolling over, all that wonderful dog stuff; and then the category transition into the occulted afterwards, the night-world of whispers and lights-out and secrets and giggling.)

So Lulu is learning to be a dog and we all learned to be people and then they stopped us playing. "They?" I wish I knew, but They want us to stop playing and take life seriously. And They succeed; otherwise you'd get surgeons playing hide-and-seek in the scrub room, admirals scuffling in Horse Guards Parade and bailiffs playing fighter-pilots ("Wheeeee! Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack!") with the whey-faced improvidents they've come to dispossess.

And the BBC, well, this is personal, slightly, but a woman I've worked with before, a clever and imaginative and well-thought-of producer, rang me a few weeks ago with a wonderful idea which she was nice enough to ask me to present, if it got commissioned. The working title was "Without Which ... ", and the idea was to do a series of short programmes for Radio 4 looking at how the world would be different if some discovery or commodity had not existed. It's What If ... history, if you like; how things would be had Constantine never existed or the Battle of Salamanca gone the other way, and even more interesting to speculate on minutiae: what if there had been no rubber? What if nobody had discovered that the sap of the frankincense bush smelt good when burned (no incense route, for a start, and no Arabia Felix, and thus no ... but, hell, why should I give it away?)

Which would have been fun and perfect for the sort of thing you can do on radio ... and the only reason anyone does radio is because it's fun; there's no money in it at all, all being spent on executive air-conditioning and digital stuff and, for all I know, stainless-steel dilators. And I say "would have been" because they turned it down on the grounds that they're not sure that "counterfactual history is helpful or informative".

So there we are, and that's what they think of us. We need to be helped and informed. Good. Let's pass over the corollary of this idea - that there's something called "factual history", a sort of NVQ in Dates - and let's not, either, fret over the odd truth that people who think they're being intellectually rigorous would, if they really knew the truth, realise with horror that they're actually on the side of the fence occupied by bigots and traffic wardens. What really upsets me is that the country - of which the BBC is a microcosm - is increasingly run from top to bottom by people who have no notion of what play is all about. The absurdities of earnest self-importance are all too clear but somehow seem to escape the managerial classes, who miss the point that play, in its broadest sense, is our function in life. We play games, learn to think, gradually construct a coherent narrative of our lives, and there is not a single significant discovery in the entire history of human endeavour that has not arisen because somebody said "What if ...?"

In other words, because somebody was playing. Let's pretend we're gladiators. Let's pretend this stuffed fabric blowfish is real, and bite it with our teeth and kill it. Let's pretend this greenish mould is a medicine. Let's pretend the postman's outside the door, and bark at him. Let's pretend that successive changes in velocity are infinitesimal.

Human history is the story of dog stuff, the story of people who wouldn't stop playing. The alternative is ... what? Owning a BMW and not noticing the alarm is broken, because you're never there to hear it. Ignorance is bliss, but annoys the hell out of everyone else.