It's a Guy Thing

Imagine that…

What a goal! Off the upright, into the bottom corner! A Les Bradd piledriver from
just outside the box with only minutes remaining! I couldn’t contain my
excitement and did a lap of the garage in celebration. My Notts County Subbuteo
table football team were invincible! Each plastic figure, hand painted in the
famous black and white stripes, were numbered too. And even if Eric Probert
had a blob of brown paint over the side of his face it didn’t matter. These pieces
of plastic, which were flicked to kick, had been elevated to a near reality by my
imagination. A beautiful side of humanity that allowed me to create a fantasy
world anywhere I chose to use it.

Although I managed the best team at school I played in front of some woeful
crowds. Ten thousand. Pitiful. Our league rules dictated that each person
represented five thousand fans. Any subsequent people, such as parents or
siblings, would be an extra quota, multiplied every time they walked back into
the vicinity of play. Pets carried an additional value. Andrew Whittard, the
manager of frequent league runners-up Tottenham Hotspur had his pitch in an
open plan dining room. With a menagerie of animals too he regularly drew
crowds of over one hundred thousand! Even with that home advantage Notts
never lost at White Hart Lane! I never imagined losing.
Then a magical event occurred, and my dad flipped my pitch, mounted on
chipboard, and built me a speedway track on the other side! Although Subbuteo
had finished producing this variation, he wrote to the head office and received
some bases and cardboard inserts. With four riders in each heat, I had only red,
blue, white, and yellow bases. Each race contained the same four pieces,
propelled around one lap by a ball bearing rolled down a steel tube which, as an
engineer, dad had modified at work. The first heat would have the number one
riders at the tapes. The elite performers. Heat two, the reserves race, always
good for a faller. The same pieces every time. Only my imagination made them
real. For those in the know when a speedway team is trailing by six points the
manager can bring in a tactical substitute. You guessed it, the same figure but
endowed with the extra speed and track craft of my imagination!
Recently, whilst watching the acclaimed documentary 56-Up, a fascinating
insight into the lives of a group of Britons born in 1964 reviewed at seven-year
intervals created by the late Canadian director Paul Almond, I was struck by a
young boy who was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up. He joyfully

replied, “an astronaut!” Then followed with a more matter of fact statement, “if
this doesn’t happen, a bus driver.”
Was this what real life was all about? Spirit snuffed out almost immediately by
pragmatism. Why had my imagination been so important as a kid? Had I lost it?
Was this inevitable? Had I managed to realise any of my childhood dreams? In
an instant I felt the need to explore whether my imagination had been a
constant in my life and if adulthood should necessarily steal our dreams. Had my
Subbuteo playing days created a destiny and if it had, where was the evidence?
And what about the encyclopaedias that I had wondered at, taking me to far off
mystical places which as a child caused my mouth to open in awe? So many
questions. Then I read a quote – funny how when you are looking stuff can
suddenly appear as if by magic. “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will
take you anywhere.” I couldn’t argue with the judgement of Albert Einstein,
could I?
At sixteen, a tad older than me when I had skilfully managed my imaginary Notts
team to a league and cup double, Einstein imagined pursing a beam of light,
shaping his development of special relativity. He engaged with many thought
experiments underpinned by his enduring imagination – relativity of
simultaneity, the notion that it is impossible to conclude that two distinct events
occur at the same time if they are separated in space was explained when he
imagined an everyday scene at the railway station.
He imagined a stationary commuter witnessing two lightning bolts
simultaneously striking both ends of a moving train, concluding that a passenger
standing on the train would see the bolts striking at different times. If it helps,
visualise two simultaneous games of Subbuteo, one in Nottingham, the other in
Turin, Italy. They appear to an observer on earth to kick off at the same time,
but to a different observer flying between the two cities they will appear to have
kicked off at slightly different times. Why Turin? In 1903 the now mighty
Juventus needed a new kit and Tom Savage, one of the founding players, was
born in Nottingham. He pursued his dream, leading to Juventus adopting the
Notts County strip in which they still proudly play in today.
In all honesty at aged sixteen the theory of relativity was the last thing on my
mind as I tried to grapple with the most complex of theories: relationships with
the opposite sex. I reluctantly boxed up my Subbuteo team and placed my
imaginary sports arena against the wall, at the far end of the garage. I kind of
assumed that any reference to my flicking skills would have been a serious let-

down once I showed any girl my pitch elevated upon my mums ironing board.
But was I alone in this transition from dreamer to doer? A little fieldwork with
folk of a similar age revealed a depressing theme. The wannabe ballerina, actor,
singer, cowboy, superwoman, novelist, and astronaut somehow didn’t check-in
during adulthood. Although I was a keen youthful imagineer I somewhat
surprisingly didn’t dream about what I wanted to do as a vocation.
But if it’s good enough for Einstein, one of the cleverest human brains ever, can
the more ordinary of us recapture the fundamentals? Although aspects of the
human brain stillremain a mystery, there is a significant groundswell of scientific
opinion that holds that the mechanics of imagination involve a network of
connections which share information across separate regions of the brain. These
cerebral zones harmonise to create mental images. When you use your
imagination, you are firing up the engine in your head and giving it the best
possible tune up ever! Arguably we can all do it, yet what is the disconnect
between childhood dreams and adult reality? Then I remembered my initial
introduction to eBay – principally buying back all my childhood sports
memorabilia that I eagerly disposed of as a shy teenager. The prevailing culture
of dating, gaining employment and ‘growing up’ just didn’t seem to fit with a
bedroom full of football scarves, speedway pennants and posters, with the
space below my bed crammed full of Subbuteo. And with those decisions to
declutter I lost my imagination, and unwittingly succumbed to Lamarckism.
Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Chevalier de Lamarck (no doubt known
to his close chums as ‘Lamy’) was a French naturalist, born in 1744. He theorised
that the organs you use the most, over time, get stronger. Equally, those we
underuse suffer the opposite affliction. Poke around any gym and this
hypothesis is tangible to both the eyes and the nose (the not so wonderful whiff
of the body odour of the person next to you). Strong arms and legs allow us to
carry heavy weights and often the burdens of others, some of whom think the
more whacky thoughts and often drive around in top of the range Ferraris and
live in a Beverley Hills mansion. Like any other organ your brain needs exercise,
and those disparate regions of the grey matter don’t connect by accident. The
onset of adultness had, amongst other things, furloughed my imagination.
The majority of my cohort of reminiscers were rather more blunt. Posing the
question, ‘Is imagination more important than knowledge?’ these replies
summed up the tone: “No, as imagination won’t get you through life”; “I believe
that imagination, most of the time, is an innocent part of life, harmless in that,
it is an individual, at a certain time, making things up in his or her mind, a safe

pastime.” The rebel in the room replied, “There is so much pleasure to be gained
from letting your mind run wild …” But would all the grown-ups in the room
uphold the general assertion?
I wonder how Martin Cooper, the hugely successful American inventor and
entrepreneur would view such perceptions. He imagined the Motorola flip
phone, based on inspiration drawn from the wristwatch worn by Dick Tracy, the
1930s stateside comic strip detective. Launched in 1996 I couldn’t wait to buy
one. There existed at the time an urban myth that it had been born out of the
Star Trek communicator, although Gene Roddenberry’s epic science fiction
creation and the emanations that followed must surely have had some sway on
the development of virtual reality? I can’t wait for science fact to eventually
catch up with science fiction so that I can order my own Holodeck.
I have a hunch that Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Richard Branson rarely missed an
opportunity to rev up the brain cells that collectively charge the superhuman
power that is imagination. To the contrary, one of my learned friends exclaimed,
“I firmly believe that becoming an adult really kicks the shit out of any
imagination or dreams you had a child.” Our discovery of ‘facts’ often supported
by data reminds me of the quote, the origin of which is somewhat sketchy but
no less instructive, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and
As Paul King, visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley Redwood
Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, puts it, “As people become ‘good at life’,
they develop habits of thought that serve them well. These habits are thought
styles that ‘work’ (get results, impress people, carry us through difficult
situations).” However, these learnt strategies come at a cost. We become good
at going through the motions, adapt more readily to social norms, and become
hostages of our own success. By sticking to the ‘facts’ (that can often be untrue)
success, within the context of human socialisation, becomes easier to achieve,
albeit a victim of this apparent victory is our imagination. According to our
learned friend, “Why be random when you can be right? Unfortunately, what
works is what worked in the past and misses the enigmatic paths that lead to
unexpected surprises.”
I have to say that this logical convention, which I unwittingly signed up to when
I closed my Subbuteo box for the last time, made me somewhat melancholy for
the chances I may have missed during adulthood. And had I, without thinking,
suppressed the imaginations of my own children? Asking my adult only cohort,

‘If you have children, did you encourage them to use their imagination and
dream big?’ unsurprisingly every parent championed this vision with fireworks,
big bass drums and foghorns. I hate to rain on your parade, but I agree with
Jessie Potter uncompromising words, uttered in Wisconsin in 1981, “If you
always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.”

No parent should be surprised if their kids end up following the already well-
trodden path, confirmed by the phlegmatic observation of a friend, “I’m a realist

and I think they’ve picked that up from me.”
This observation was amplified by one of my chirpy contributors who piped up,
“Between childhood and retirement, my imagination took a long hiatus.” This
resonated with me since it accurately described my reconnection with my
imagination which had been in hibernation for far too long.
On April 23rd, 2016, I met and shook hands with the real Les Bradd on the
Meadow Lane pitch. Shortly afterwards, as a trainee Speedway referee, I walked
the track at Plymouth. In between, I touched the encyclopaedia images: The
Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal, to name just a couple. The only thing in
the way of setting foot on Antarctica is COVID-19. My dreams have started to
come true even if I still don’t know what I want to be!
If you are lucky enough to have kids, or have any influence over them, my advice
is don’t pack all of their toys away too soon. How different would my life have
been if I had kept on flicking for a little longer and not consigned the very tools
of my active imagination to the back of the garage, the attic or worst still the
bin. If you are still unconvinced then maybe the sage words of the English poet
William Blake will move you towards the light, “What is now proved was once
only imagined.”

© Ian Kirke 2022 / @ianjkirke