Leisure Anarchies


By David Crouch (University of Derby)


Leisure policy and management, and its ideas journal Leisure Studies are rarely thought of in relation with notion of anarchy. When they have done, it has been in association with chaos, even neo-liberalism. I researched and wrote my first book with a prominent British anarchist, the late Colin Ward. The book and articles that flowed from it were never regarded as chaos, or indeed neo-liberal! Nor was my colleague and good friend over many years. Ward was a former editor of the journal Anarchy for over a decade, to which he brought excellent writing and gave a wider media engagement with excellent and inspiring, creative artwork.

Colin’s anarchy championed human life, supported the post-war development of new towns and wrote two classics (amongst many others) The Child and the City; the Child and the Country. He was deeply aware, having grown up in London’s northeast end, of the importance of opportunity particularly amongst the underprivileged. Yet he was never embittered; nor did he feel against anyone, yet he was quick to identify the absurdity of renaming human beings as consumers long before the ESRC major project on consumption. He frowned at the loss of diversity and variety in their associated richness and potential amongst which children could play as ‘free space’ dwindled in the name of efficiency, not always so efficient for the development of rich lives amongst the poor. Freedom and creativity in leisure were at the roots of what Colin felt were routes to a rich life, the adjective not to be confused with meaning financial.

Leisure studies generally had its emergence through intervention in the interests of the wider population; it has always been inclusive in its thinking and acting. Many of its especially earlier recruits come from experience in or with local councils and their leisure provision and tended to nominate a statist or institutional perspective. Now, our concern mounts in response to austerity measures that close local youth halls, privatise once public spaces such as shopping malls and select public open spaces for commercial development.

Perhaps Colin’s support for new towns had hoped that they would yield opportunity more diverse, and sites more publicly available for diversity, that often has been lost or never ‘built in’. His support was certainly not for a top down corporation detached from direct local democracy. I often called him, and introduced him as a social anarchist. I feel sure that he was. Amongst his later books was Sociable Cities, that he wrote, surprisingly, with the Enterprise Zone and London 2000 author Peter Hall. Another was Thinking Green, in which he drew threads that had grown through his life, concern for pollution and green leisure space.

Around the time we met Colin had written that in places like allotments, community gardens, there was a mutuality amongst cultivators and other users of these places that offered seeds for possibility and social progress, a new way of social organisation in the sharing of what is grown and mutual reliance in the gift relationship between these leisure users. But for him, allotments provided significant degrees of freedom and creativity too.  In this we found great mutuality of ideas and approach. For him, the child in the city needed free leisure space. He was concerned for working class culture and saw freedom as central to its release from poverty; acknowledged the rich diversity that immigrant people bring to invention in unpredictive freeplay. In similar ways the town or city child was also a country child, desirous of greenspace too.

The Child in the City was a book full of illustrations by the photographer Ann Golzen, in whose photographs Colin Ward an intensity, variety and ingenuity of urban childhood. Photography that does not objectify the human being but lets them speak in an image. He was clear that they more effective than the text, and were certainly not mere ‘illustrations’. In many of the images there is a sense of loss and of unattainability as children look out of a torn net curtain to a world of lost outside freedoms; others make a fire to enjoy the burning, recycle simple cheap material into an imagined toy; images of children in poor, crowded cities across the world add further impromptu, serendipitous character and insights to the potential of recycling, colonising spaces where people are planned out. These are not messages of nostalgia, but an alert as to what can be but isn’t: blocked but imagined opportunity, possibility, hope and despite all this strands of determined invention. In play he found protest and exploration, but also identity, with place as a significant source of what that identity means or feels like. His influence was felt in the adventure playground movement as well as the housing self-build movement, although alas the latter tends to be of more use to those with wealth to employ others to do the work. in the intended value for those needing to save for a house, the DIY home surely could be a leisure activity too.

Typically of Colin Ward, his streets of anarchy were not for barricades, but for opportunity and potential. Understanding children, for example, provided a means to go further in working out ways of enabling them to reach those possibilities, and beyond the limits of finance, though he never pretended that may be involved. Leisure cannot deliver all of this, but can do much more than often realised. The challenge lies in an approach to enable but also to learn from children, from any leisure makers, through which better to enable possibility, but not to think in terms of ‘achievement’, but to have choice of what to do and how to use, just like the allotment plotholder. The allotment site is an alternative to the street that became a car channel; it is also an alternative to barren fields, supermarkets and their carparks that speak of airmile fuel.

Freedoms, expression, mutual aid and reciprocity unhindered by institutional ordering and controls. Colin died in 2010 and survives in his numerous literatures of expressions of his concerns that he felt deeply, and left me with refreshed ideas and a richer approach to research, one that has become increasingly prevalent in leisure studies and across many disciplines ever since. This I identify in the richer mixture of acknowledgment of human life and values.



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