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9:33am on Sunday, 2nd February, 2020:

Paper Aeroplanes


This is about the last of the three paracosms that my brother and I created together: Paper Aeroplanes. These occupied us for days at a time.

As the name suggests, this game, world, whatever, involved the manufacture of paper aeroplanes. We used to make them just for fun, throwing them around and seeing how far they'd go, experimenting with different designs, that kind of thing, but one summer we added a new dimension that changed everything: pilots.

So, back in the day, people used to write letters rather than communicate over computers. You could buy these pads of paper roughly 5½ inches wide and 7 inches long quite cheaply. The price changed, as did the number of sheets, but as a guide I remember once paying 9p for a standard pad of 140 sheets manufactured by Lions and feeling ripped off. We used these sheets for all our games (they were a major feature of the Football Game, too); they were central for the universe of paper aeroplanes. At first, we just made the planes from them, but for pilots we folded and cut them into 32 smaller pieces. On these (before cutting), we drew little stick men — the pilots. Every plane had to have at least one of these inside, otherwise it couldn't fly. Most had two. On rare occasions, when we got hold of some A4 or foolscap paper, we'd make transporters that could carry 20 or so men.

From simple beginnings, our game evolved. The men got serial numbers. They were arranged into regiments and given a rank of private. If they did something brave, they were promoted (or got a medal, or both). My brother started to give the highest-ranking ones names. We also named and numbered the planes, sometimes sticking transfers on them for decoration.

They all started in our back garden (which was civilisation), and the game concerned the goings-on in the wilder lands outside our back garden (such as the side garden). If the pilots wanted to go anywhere, they had to fly over the shed roof. Because we had a rule that if they came out of their planes during flight they were dead, it was always a worry when a plane didn't make it and got stuck in a gutter or something. The same applied to roads: if a plane wanted to cross a road (for example to get to the grounds of the scout hut that was at the time opposite our house), then it had to make it in a single flight. Otherwise, it had to be left until it made it within reach next to a path naturally. Anyone in it was still alive; anyone not in it was dead.

Outside of our back garden, we had bases represented by a single sheet of paper with a number on. We'd fly the planes to the bases, where the men were allowed to leave their planes (although most of the time they stayed in them). A lot of these bases were in drains, because then other kids wouldn't see them so easily. More than once, snail attacks devastated a base and left planes barely able to fly, their pilots lucky to be alive.

The main drama of this game centred around battles. Some of the men were ambitious or jealous and tried to take over. Battles involved collecting all the planes that were in combat into a single pile onto the grass, mixing them up, then stabbing at the result wildly with a sheath knife. We both had such knives, which had 3½-inch handles and 5-inch blades (I know, because I still have my last one). After our frenzy abated, we'd look at the planes that had been cut near the front (where the men were) and see if the knife had gone through either the body or the head of any of the plane's occupants. If it had done, those men were dead. We took them out, awarded a kill mark to a plane of the opposing side (randomly-selected unless there was a story behind a particular dogfight), then resumed our mad stabbing until either all of one side was dead or there were so few of them left that they surrendered.

Yes, this does sound dangerous, but no, we never accidentally stabbed ourselves.

Surviving pilots whose planes were hit multiple times might get a promotion; pilots who themselves were hit and survived would almost certainly get one; pilots who shot down several opposing planes were also in line for a promotion. If their promotion took them to officer level, they'd be rewarded with an accessory (a hat, a sword, a plume in the hat) and given a (unique) name. Needless to say, they had to be quite lucky to make it that far.

After a battle, planes that couldn't fly were retired, which in most cases meant they were destroyed. We didn't repair them, because we found that sticky tape acts like knife armour and is therefore unfair. Some of the planes were still capable of flight despite participating in multiple battles and costing the lives of several pilots, and these became famous — as did ones that had been used for particularly difficult flights.

My brother and I played this game together, but separately. Our paracosms had the same rules and overlapped in physical space (I couldn't put a base in a location he had claimed, for example), but they never interacted. We'd usually watch each other's battles and complain if there was favouritism. The longest-lived character (one of my brother's, called Alain) must have survived 20 battles before my brothery, fearful that his number would soon be up, kept him at home base rather than send him out to risk death. He did occasionally do base inspections, though, which meant having to get over the shed roof.

The rule about getting to the (uncivilised) other side of the garden was not that a plane would have to fly over the shed roof: it was that it had to fly wherever it went from the back garden without going round the shed. This left open another possible route: flying from our back garden over the garden of the house behind ours and landing on the path at the other side. Clearly, this was extremely dangerous, because if a plane landed in Mr Bolton's garden it was gone forever. One of Roy's characters, Tufty, managed to achieve this feat, though, and from then on we called it "doing a Tufty". Doing a Tufty was such a risk that the pilot got a special medal. Flying the other way (into our back garden from the street round the corner) was even harder, because it offered less of a target and the winds were unfavourable. It was possible, though, and those who did it were also awarded a medal for "doing a reverse Tufty".

I've written a lot here, but I've barely scratched the surface. We had royal families, rebels, civil wars, regiments with special duties (including bandsmen and military police), foot battles, tombs, female characters, attempts to fly over the house — oh, and cycle rides (rather than throw a plane all the way to the next village, it could travel in a saddlebag IF its pilot was stuck to the ground-facing side of the bike's front wheel).

The last time we played paper aeroplanes was probably around the autumn of 1975. I had exams the following summer, so that put an end to it. My brother stopped playing as well: although our paracosms were separate, we did regard them as the same game and it did need two players so we could give each other updates about their respective dramas and could watch major battles taking place. I thought at the time that we might play it again when we got older, but sadly society frowns on such activities when undertaken by grown men. I did once write a computer simulation of the weather round our garden, but it wasn't the same.

Playing alone wouldn't have been the same, either.

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