I’m not sure whether I can remember going to the park in Ferry Hill at all. I do know that I have been there. I have sat coyly at the base of a column of children extending up the park’s enormous slide, a shy face fronting a tower of smiles. I know this because I have seen a photograph of it.
Looking back at the slide in that image now, it’s perhaps not as imposing as I once thought, nor as steep. Still, it must have been fairly long to accommodate all twenty-something of my Aberdeen playgroup chums along its length. The photo was taken on the day I attended my last session of blubloup – as I affectionately called it – before leaving the Granite City and upping sticks to the Midlands. There I am, perched at the bottom of the slide, nervously looking down at my tan-coloured Clarks buckle-ups and gripping the cool metal of the slide for dear life. Meg and Wilma, my marvellous playgroup ladies are waving down at the camera from the top, while alongside the slide, on its raised cement mount, steps jut out from the hillside like concrete teeth.
Meg and Wilma are the stuff of legends, the names that kick-started my education, that tried to coax me out of my shyness with too-strong orange squash and a ready supply of Digestive biscuits. Again I’m not sure whether I truly remember them or even being at playgroup itself, but those ladies are penned in our family’s narrative as much as the sting of Aberdeen’s bitter North Sea blast or the dead grey of its housing stock. I can recall a hit of sadness when a few years ago, my mum told me about Wilma’s untimely death to cancer. This lady who remains deep in my memory banks and a seminal part of my childhood, gone but living on in a cheerful snapshot.
Whether or not this picture is painted from my own pallet of memories, or from the ‘proof’ of a photograph in front of me, the sense of nostalgia is the same: nearly forty years on, I can taste the lip-curling sharpness of that sugary squash and feel the hot burn on my cheeks when, on that same last say at blubloup, I was asked to stand up and hand round the biscuits.
But are these genuine recollections or would the pages of my memory be embarrassingly blank without some photographic prompt? Fortunately much of what I can’t remember, my Mother can. She tells me that I loved playgroup, I loved Meg and Wilma, and I loved going to that park, although a glance at my pained ‘stop looking at me’ expression in every photograph might make it appear otherwise. The fondness of Mum’s appraisal of these two staff members perhaps colours my memories of them, after all, I was three at the time. These were playgroup ladies of a traditional mould and Mum trusted them. I think she felt the same about Meg and Wilma as I did about the wondrous staff at Stepping Stones, my own children’s playgroup. Leaving your most prized possession in someone else’s care is no small thing, since those are the people who will feature in future stories and memory fragments, the perceptions and the pictures that shape childhoods.
The park in Ferry Hill is a long streak, the sort of green space planners bung in to break the stranglehold of so much sameness. I have another photograph of that Aberdeen park, one in which my school-uniformed brother and I stand by the sash window in our Albury Road house overlooking the green space opposite. Look higher out of the same window and you can glimpse a prim row of granite houses, their grey seeping into the sky. My parents must have been grateful to live opposite that flash of green: a playground and a pause, right there on their doorstep.
The change from black and white to colour photography predates me, but the earliest snapshots in which I appear are almost always printed out three by five inches and feature the round corners that were fashionable at the time. My childhood memories have round corners too. Aberdeen’s harsh light is softened with curves and any hard edges are smoothed out for posterity.
Perhaps after all there is nothing new about the Instagram generation’s need to apply filters to everything they view. Some of the best memories are a little blurred at the edges anyway.