Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Hooptedoodle #354 - The Obstacle Course Game

This is rather a whimsical post - I wasn't sure whether to publish it. Maybe I'll delete it later.

Recently I've been corresponding with a friend about memories of childhood - especially about family get-togethers, in an age when it seemed everyone lived locally, and almost the entire family could be assembled from a small area. My friend and I had some laughs about social rituals, things that our families always did (and said, and sang), and about how the roles of various family members have changed. Since he and I come from different parts of the UK, it has been interesting to note the similarities and the regional differences.

Terraced street in Aigburth, some 10 years later than my tale
I got to thinking about the New Year parties at my grandparents' house, when I was a kid (that's my dad's parents, in Aigburth, South Liverpool). I think we only attended a few times, mostly because my dad would normally have fallen out with one or other of his siblings during the previous year!

The gatherings were large - a lot of people crammed into a small terraced house. They were good-hearted folk, in a tough, noisy sort of way. We must have been at that itchy post-war period when the working class had a bit more money, and everyone was becoming keen on what they saw as middle-class status symbols and values. It was all a bit competitive, and all of it was loud and in-your-face. My posh Auntie May had definitely "rose up", and she had married the boss/owner at her work, developed a new Hyacinth Bucket accent (see clip, below), sent her kids to private school and moved to the Wirral. In a strange, ambivalent way, the family were proud of her, yet envied her, and really hated it when she drove over for New Year in the new Vauxhall, even though they bragged about it when she wasn't there, and stood in the freezing cold to watch it drive away when she left.

Vauxhall Wyvern

At this time, everyone still had their feet and their roots in traditions that were, at the very least, Victorian. The family would come on various buses (only May had a car), some would walk, bearing biscuit tins filled with sandwiches, home baking, even bowls of trifle. When people arrived, all the big winter coats would be piled on the bed in the upstairs room at the front of the house (the smell of moth-balls was stifling), and everyone was issued with the regulation cup of tea to warm them up.

And, I guess, a good time was had by all. Occasional neighbours would appear (though the family was not noted for being very open to strangers), and eventually there were boyfriends of my various cousins (my cousins were legion, and they were all girls, now I think of it). If there were enough newcomers to the family throng, the inevitable party games in the kitchen after the tea-party would include a game called The Obstacle Course. I think my participation in this game came when I was about seven, after a number of years of non-attendance (politics). It was a game you could only play once, but when you could no longer take part you could be involved in the organisation and, of course, spectating.

Even by the prevailing standards, this was an unusually noisy game - it must have been audible a good way up the street. It was necessary to have a minimum number of first-time visitors to play - maybe 3 or 4. There was an element of initiation in it, to be sure. The family's taste in jokes and fun activities was always dominated by practical jokes, some humiliation, just a whiff of sadism, and giving a newcomer the opportunity to demonstrate that they were a "good sport", prepared to laugh at themselves - certainly to be laughed at by others. Maybe this was a test to see if they were going to fit in...

The Obstacle Course game required the identification of suitable (first-time) participants, and then my Uncle Harold and Cousin Joyce (who were the loudest of all) would take charge. The players would be led into the hall by Joyce, where they would be prepared for what was to follow, and while the course was set up. When everything was ready, they would all be admitted to the kitchen (living room), and would be shown an improvised obstacle course, which they had to memorise as best they could; then they would be taken out into the hallway again, and would be given some additional instruction on rules and so on. All the non-playing family members would be seated around the walls of the room - they would be the spectators, and later would vote for the best performer.

1950s clothes horse - we used to call ours a "maiden"
The course itself featured all sorts of household items, arranged in time-honoured constructions that you had to crawl under, step over, wriggle in-between - there was a horizontal broom handle, supported on boxes, to be stepped over without touching it, there were all sorts of cunning arrangements of sofa cushions, the wooden clothes horse, covered in rugs, a step-ladder, stacks of food tins - a lot of ingenuity came into play. And, of course, you would have to negotiate the course blindfolded, with plenty of instruction from Harold - and the spectators, obviously.

The participants (or "explorers" as they were termed) were solemnly blindfolded, and led into the room one at a time. Others went in ahead of me, and the noise was indescribable - the main object of the game was that everybody shouted at the same time - support, conflicting instructions, occasional sympathy, lots of banter. My turn came - I was completely blacked-out. I could hardly breathe, in fact.

The door closed behind me, and Harold said, "righto, Tony - come forward two steps - that's good - a little further - very good. Now, the first obstacle is you have to walk under the step-ladder without touching it, so stoop down a bit - right a bit - no not so much - good. Now edge forward slowly - good - a bit lower - right a bit more..."

And from the onlookers came a deafening uproar of "lower - not so low, turn left a bit - keep your elbows in" and so on.

After the step-ladder I was sweating profusely, but was pleased to have got past it. There was loud applause. Harold shouted, "OK - now you have to step over the bucket of water, so you need to turn left, where you are - righto - stop when I tell you - now - stop - two little steps forward - stop - now - you're going to have to turn sideways for this one..."

And so it went on. In spite of all the conflicting shouting from the sidelines, I did remarkably well, wriggling through sofa-cushion tunnels, tiptoeing through little mazes of tins, stepping over things, all without touching anything. At last, clear so far, I had to jump right across a little hearth-rug, without touching it. In a blaze of glory, I managed to do this. The applause was fantastic - I was as pleased as I could be. Then I was allowed to take off the blindfold, and I realised that the room had been completely cleared, apart from the spectator gallery around the walls. All my gyrations and extreme high-stepping and wriggling had been in an empty room. Of course I was embarrassed, but I got to join the audience and watch the last competitor in action, and I have to say it still seems to be one of the funniest things I have ever experienced. Cousin Pauline's new boyfriend, in his fashionable new shoes, keen to make a good impression, earnestly stretching his legs to impossible angles to avoid a broom-handle which was no longer there, all to the accompaniment of riotous approval.

Harold did a virtuoso performance as ring-master, no doubt. Fantastic noise, tears of laughter - it is sobering to realise that probably only about three or four of the people present are still alive - where did all that noise and camaraderie go? Of course, there are dozens of descendants, but they live in Australia, Singapore, Canada - even London. I have no idea at all about my extended family now - certainly it would be impossible to bus them all to my grannie's house - it might not even be possible to trace who they all are. Changed times.

I also remember that everyone that took part in the Obstacle Course that year got a prize. The bad news was that it was one of Auntie Laura's home-made rock cakes, left over from the festive tea, and quite rightly so, since anyone who had eaten one before would know to avoid them.


  1. Excellent recollection of one of your childhood Rights of Passage!

    1. Thanks Jon - these events no doubt shape us - this must be why I grew up bitter and twisted....

  2. Outstanding! I never saw that (the empties room) coming. But I guess that was the point. Being super-competitive at that sort of thing I would have made a right part of myself!

    I bet compared to previous periods of history when folk migrated from ancestral homes, it is a lot easier to track extended family members down now. And easier for them to come together.

    1. The game design is brilliant - no idea where that came from, or whether it was traditional. The final pinch is so subtle that it seems wildly out of character with the people who were staging the event!

  3. Splendid...
    I am sure there must be someone in the wings waiting to say this was all wrong... and cruel...

    Kids today...
    Just don’t know when they have been teased and been safe...
    A lovely memory indeed.

    All the best. Aly

    1. Cruelty was an important element of apprenticeship of any form - there was a (sort of) wisdom in that unkind practical jokes were designed to teach you not trust anyone, which sounds like a philosophy of despair to me. My granddad's great joke with little kids, when he was having a cup of tea in his armchair, was to get the child to come and stand in front of him, and watch how he could wag his ears. The child would stare (in vain) for this wonder, and the sting was that granddad would burn the back of their hand with his teaspoon, which had been in his boiling hot tea. Cue helpless laughter. Discuss.

      Some tough world, as I say. These traditions lasted - I was brought up to believe that the kids at school would pinch my possessions if I took any. Maybe they would. When my dad saw me off on the train, to go to university, his big life-message was "always try to do without people - they'll only let you down".

      Now, for sure, THAT is why I grew up bitter and twisted! The irony about trust here is that, when he saw me off to university, I was intending never to come back - that's one way to do without people.

  4. Great stuff, best ingested when moderately drunk and really nostalgic, which obviously I am. Probably why I don't talk to my family much, come to think of it.

    1. Posts like this are probably best written in the same state - unfortunately, for some reason, I seem to have stopped drinking for the moment. Don't know why - just don't fancy it. Usually I am driving anyway - if I'm at home, my wife hardly drinks at all, and the idea of drinking on my own gives me the horrors - obviously symptomatic of something unspeakable, and if I drink the entire bottle of wine myself after dinner (as at Xmas) then I regret it. I decided not to go to see the GP about this...

  5. I'm glad no one in my extended family didn't think something like this up, I could esp see my father's side enjoying this.

  6. Wonderful Tony, I think I did see it coming but probably only because the story mirrors my own childhood and family games at parties. May I share a couple of the 'highlights' here with you?

    You must imagine the scene, lots of barrels of Party 7 and gin going down, carpet rolled back and chairs assembled all around the room, all of the adults did a 'turn' and my fathers contribution was a popular favourite "The Old Man Had a Fiddle". I think you can guess the level of humour already, Dad would appear through the door (They all went into the hallway so they could make an entrance), wearing an overcoat with a false arm and waving a walking stick, the other arm was inside the coat from where at each chorus he would thrust out a large carrot towards the ladies faces to guffaws of laughter. The chorus went "The old man had a fiddle, the old man had a stick, the old man put his fiddle where he should have put his stick"

    Cultural highlight of the evening though was "Kissing the Blarney Stone" picture this:

    All of the ladies were sent into the hallway.One by one they would be led into the room blindfolded, one uncle would put out out both arms tight together and the lady would be asked to kiss the lucky blarney stone at which point my Uncle John would lower his trousers with arse slightly exposed, and as the blindfold was removed he would position himself in front of the lady in the act of pulling up his pants, you get the picture I'm sure, shrieks of laughter from the ladies as each in turn was led in. I'm sure my Uncle John got much pleasure from this. Best bit was seeing my Nan led in for the ritual! Obviously a one off form of entertainment, but every party they would come up with something new.

    There were many more but I won't bore you here. Working class family entertainment in an age before technology. Don't try this at home kids.

    Hope you don't mind me sharing, but it's very much on theme Tony!

    1. Excellent - I've noted down a few ideas for next time the Church Roof Fund Committee come round for sherry.

  7. Like your family we had a maiden, actually more than one as we were never lucky enough to have one of the clothes driers you winched up to the kitchen ceiling. My abiding memory is that you could have so much fun with a Maiden (steady down at the back there), they could be used to make a ridge tent or a castle wall by the simple addition of a couple of blankets and some imagination. Try doing that with a tumble drier.