Entry 68: Counting Game– Skinny Malink Malogen legs/Big banana feet,/Went to the pictures and couldn’t get a seat/When she got a seat/She fell fast asleep/Skinny Malink Malogen legs/Big banana feet. This is one of a dozen or more Belfast skipping songs that my wife has related to our children over the years, remembered from her own childhood in the late fifties.
The world of children’s games exists alongside that of adult lives and concerns: magical, colourful, rhythmical and musical- it needs few props to make it come alive. A length of rope, a ball, a hoop and a spinning top combined with the energy and agility of young bodies not yet jaded and twisted by sophisticated pursuits in the pub or club that await their later years, can create a parallel universe where fears and uncertainties fall away in the shamanism created by the chanting and dancing in the street, or by the gable wall, or up an urban alley as the swaying, stamping, intertwining shadows cast their spells that have run, no doubt, across the years back to the time before time immemorial.
Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, there is an actual date for “time immemorial”, in 1275, by the first Statute of Westminster, the time of memory was limited to the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), beginning 6 July 1189, the date of the King’s accession. But, sticklers and pedants, notwithstanding, I think that children’s games extend much further into the past than this. We know from archaeological artefacts that children in the cities of the ancient world played games.
Unfortunately, we have no video evidence from those times, but I’m sure if technology is ever able to re-create childhood play scenes from the misty past, there will be a real resemblance to a 24-minute documentary entitled Dusty Bluebells recorded by BBC Northern Ireland in 1971 that I accessed on YouTube today. The city streets I recognised with a jolt- the British soldiers on street corners armed with SLRs, the Saracen armoured cars, the rusty delivery vans, old clunkers and drab terraces of the lower Falls Road- but above all, the Dystopian nightmare of the Divis Flats complex, one of the 1960s high-rise developments that, within a couple of decades, were demolished.
The children, from St Mary’s Primary School, transform that blasted cityscape with their energy and innocence. A poem by E. E. Cummings recreates, in his inimitable way, the sounds and sights of a child’s world,
in Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful the queer old balloonman whistles far and wee and bettyandisbel come dancing from hop-scotch and jump-rope and it’s spring and the goat-footed balloonMan whistles far and wee.
In Australia, across an ocean of water and poetics, James McAuley recorded an early memory in, Childhood Morning-homebush,
The half-moon is a muted lamp/ Motionless behind a veil./As the eastern sky grows pale,/I hear the slow-train’s puffing stamp//Gathering speed. A bulbul sings,/Raiding persimmon and fig./The rooster in full glossy rig/Crows triumph at the state of things.//I make no comment; I don’t know;/I don’t know what there is to know./I hear that every answer’s No,/But can’t believe it can be so.
And so, to the counting games of kids One for sorrow/two for joy/three for a kiss/four for a boy/five for silver/ six for gold/seven for a secret, never to be told. There are a myriad counting games and systems of notation that children use to master the complexity of numbers. One of the most ubiquitous is the use of the tally, to keep track of an unfolding sequence- you know what I mean, four vertical strokes and one diagonal across them to indicate the number five. Prisoners can keep tally of their durance vile on the walls of their cells by scratching an ongoing record of their incarceration.
One of the most striking uses of the tally system is that found at Hanakapiai Beach, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai where a sign warns, do not go near the water, unseen currents have killed-what follows is a tally in chalk on the board and you can see the most recent death toll by counting the tally. As of August 2014 there were 83 tally marks. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but I’m pretty sure that I would forego a swim there, despite the heat of the day.
Have you ever heard the expression- you can count on me? Or more negatively, count on you to stuff things up! How do you keep track of the items in your existence? Skilful at balancing your budget, are you? Or do you, like Prufrock, measure out your life with coffee spoons?
No matter, there is one indubitable fact. No matter what systems you use to navigate and comprehend this world or to what level of proficiency: You count.