The Park

If your parents never had children, chances are you won't, either - Dick Cavett

This afternoon I took my two children over to the local park. What I like about this one compared to the previous park we used not to visit where we lived in West Belfast is that kids can actually use it. No broken glass, beer bottles or discarded condoms, kids can get the use out of it that a park was intended for rather than thinking it is a post-modern museum showing how delinquents and thugs spent their time. The best efforts of local community activists and politicians were often insufficient to thwart those indifferent to the happiness and wellbeing of children in West Belfast.

When I was growing up the park was not the first venue of choice for parents making decisions for their kids. Chapel was. They were only inflicting on us what had in their own childhood been inflicted on them. We had to tramp off to Alfred Street to be bored stupid; the price of saving our mortal souls from the devil and his lot. I felt sorry for my Protestant friends. They had to go to Sunday School as well. Sunday, despite the obligatory rigours of mass-going, was a day off and that anybody should have to tramp off to school on it seemed pretty unfair.

Once mass was either suffered or mitched – an hour spent rummaging on a disused railway line – the day was our own. Yet even if we made it to the park, the swings were chained up because religious bigots successfully made their opinion carry the day in the spheres where decisions were made about parks and such things. That religious opinions were often the daftest of all opinions doing the rounds seemed not to matter. Why let reason and intelligence get in the way of a determined bigot?

My children don’t go to chapel. Religion is a virus they have been inoculated against from an early age. A park is a better place for them on a Sunday. They see other children with different skin colours and yet manage to remain colour blind. It is the only thing I want them to remain blind to as they grow up. I don’t want them to be subject to the racism of religion where it is commonplace to think that women are not fully paid up members of the human race and therefore should not have the same opportunities as other human beings. I could never contemplate telling my daughter that it would be acceptable within the Catholic Church for her brother to celebrate mass but not her; that she can be pauper and he can be pope. Even worse, that in the Islamic world she might have to wear a veil and know her place at home, behind the sink. For some reason in the house of god her status is as a child of a lesser god. Not in our house it isn't.

The outdoor park with children is very much a hands-on experience. It is not like going to an indoor fun park where the two of them can be sent off into the softball jungle and I can sit nose buried in a book; oblivious until I hear them scream or run up to me in a bid to be first in accusing each other of having done something terrible to them. In the park they want pushed on swings, lifted onto one apparatus after another or a path steered through bigger kids. And then in the middle of it all a blight for them and a bounty for me - a burst of rain - sent us scampering for the cover provided by a nearby bridge.

From the bridge Micky Donalds is visible which sent my three year old off in a flurry of demands to be taken there. It is his way of describing McDonald’s. He went to Subway instead. Not for any ideological reasons, it just does healthier food and is closer to the shops we wanted to call into.

Now they have been bathed and are getting ready to bed down for the night. They will end their day with a bedtime story rather than a prayer. I suppose we could tell them a story that the world was made 7,000 years ago and that it all happened in seven days, the type of thing Mervyn Storey might tell his children. No. We’ll opt for Nancy Drew; good fiction rather than bad.

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