PsychoGeography #52: I'm the king of the bouncy castle

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The Independent Online

In the early medieval period the lives of countless peasants were defined by their relation to the castle.

In the early medieval period the lives of countless peasants were defined by their relation to the castle. From the stern keep of the Norman overlord issued forth decrees and exactions; in a world of wood, wheat and water, its high stone walls were the most adamantine confirmation of the temporal order, just as the acuminate spire of the church pricked the oppressive heavens. Writing, then, as a descendant of peasants, it seems only meet that I should testify to the manner in which my own life has revolved around and been shaped by the lineal descendant of these bastions; I refer, of course, to the bouncy castle.

I first went on a bouncy castle in the early 1960s. It was a wholly enclosed, striped, latex structure positioned on Brighton's West Pier. Moon-walking around its interior, which whined with the ultrasonic echoes of other screeching children, I felt oddly empowered, ready to leap in my stockinged feet through some mystic portal and into the very future itself. How right I was. It seems to me that throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as the influence of Windsor Castle has waned, so that of the bouncy castle has waxed. Could the two phenomena be related? After all, it's impossible to retain any faith in the monarchical principle if you've grown up leaping around on a rubber simulacrum of their hallowed halls.

In 1980 I got a vacation job for the old Greater London Council's recreation department. Together with a handful of other bohemian types I was responsible for the "inflatable project". This involved constructing freeform inflatable structures and then transporting them around London parks during the school holidays. In charge of the inflatables was James, a one-time organiser - together with Brian Eno - of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. This avant-garde ensemble comprised scores of unlearned instrumentalists who would gather together to hack spontaneously - and unmercifully - away at classical music standards. The Sinfonia had a Top 30 hit in September 1981 with their "Classical Muddley" - I was much impressed.

James, who also tutored at the Slade, brought a certain brio to the construction of bouncy castles. There was "The Child Psychologist's Nightmare", a bizarre maze of black and red tubes; the "The Big H", which was just that; and there were assorted giant spheres and rhomboids which we, the soi-disant "playleaders" could climb inside and be pushed about by hundreds of squealing kids. I tell you it was a fine sight when all the blowers were working properly and some urban veld was scattered with these humungous playthings. We would get anything up to 500 kids a session, supervised by just four adults; and often, when 10 or so sprogs leapt on to the cross piece of the "H", another 40 would be thrown high into the air off of its uprights. None of the structures was enclosed and yet injuries were far from common.

In those days the GLC had suzerainty over a number of open spaces unincorporated by the London boroughs. These were scattered as far afield as Thamesmead in the east, Eltham in the deep south, Shepherd's Bush in the west and Alexandra Park in the north. So it was that I came to an adult consciousness of the geography of my natal city through the praxis of bouncy castles. For me London is neither the moneyed bulk of the City, nor the bright lights of the West End; rather, it is an endless realm of boating lakes, bowling greens, football pitches and adventure playgrounds, all scarified by the summer heat and populated by a strange race of yammering gnomes, faces coated with sucrose.

The second summer I worked on the inflatables, we were joined by Phil, and he and I split off into a subsidiary team. Phil had a strange phobia about driving through tunnels, which had something to do with a coach trip and LSD. Needless to say, cruelly, we tricked him into driving the van full of inflatables through the Rotherhithe tunnel. We all survived, but years later Phil has become an academic specialising in contemporary British fiction. I blame myself.

When Ken Livingstone returned to power in London I felt certain that he'd resurrect the inflatables project. After all, what could be more suited to modern London, with its ludicrous insubstantiality? I waited and waited for the call to come but to no avail. Then, walking along the Embankment, it struck me that, far from being a thing of the past, the inflatables had in fact been fully incorporated into the London skyline: the Gherkin, the Greater London Assembly, countless other new buildings throughout the city, all have a curvilinear form suggestive of inflated latex. No wonder we walk with a wholly unjustified bounce in our step - we're living in a bouncy metropolis.

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