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Portraits of our playgrounds

A stash of undeveloped negatives, around 40 years old, provide a window on adventure playgrounds past

11 May, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

MANY of these pictures lay in film form, undeveloped for the best part of 40 years. Taken by play leader Abdul Chowdry in 1978 and 1979, they feature the youngsters and adults involved with the Camden Square play scheme – an adventure playground that was open to all throughout the year, and all for free.

They are now part of an exhibition of work curated by landscape architect and writer Maisie Rowe. Hosted in the foyer of Holborn library in Theobalds Road, they offer both a beautiful glimpse of a less risk-averse world – the cobbled-together climbing frames where skinny children in worn clothes played out their youths.

“My brother and I played with our friends at The Square around 1980, when I was around nine,” remembers Maisie.

Maisie has been working on the history and the landscapes of the adventure play movement. Abdul worked there between 1973 and 1985, and had taken photographs – many of which had never been developed. Drawing on a tradition of British social realist photography, Abdul recalled he took them to show the children what they were like together and so they could look at them communally.

“I’d been to speak with Abdul about the playground and as I was leaving he said wait a minute, I have something,” she says. “He brought me this rather worn folder and in it were the negatives. It was absolutely thrilling. They really jumped off the page. When I began scanning and archiving these images, the artistic strength and integrity of Abdul’s remarkable pictures was instantly striking.

“The lost playground, messy and archaic, came alive again. You could see the spirit of the kids in every shot.”

Maisie tracked down others who recalled the playground and the times they had, and sought out to find what had happened. Some of the stories of the children who shared this communal space are tinged with tragedies – lives blighted by drugs, crime, accidents – while others happier: what strikes Maisie is how many of the children have become play leaders, teachers or, like her, involved in landscape, gardening and architecture.

“It was immensely influential on me,” she says. “It was an environment you can make in your own image. You could paint it, burn it, cover it with cement, nail it, fix it – you could do whatever you wanted with it and there were cool adults on hand to help you.”

And it is strikingly different to the experience she sees young people having today.

“At that time there was real political will from Camden to give children their own space they needed in the city, it was seen as a deep-seated social service. Children are not given such space any more. Childhood today is so closed down, managed. We had a sense of self-help, communal help – you could call them Victorian values.

“There was a sense of faith in the child, an almost benign neglect of letting children get on with it themselves. There was an informality, overseen in a gentle way by very cool adults. Today, middle-class parents lament the loss of this so they send their children at £28 a time to structured schemes to climb trees at a specifically designed areas, like Go Ape in Battersea. It is like a weird perversion of the adventure playground ideal.”

The Playground exhibition, in the lobby of Holborn Library, Theobalds Road, ends on May 12. Open 10am-7pm Thursday, 10am-5pm Friday.


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