Growing up is horrible. They say all you want to do when you're young is to be older, and then, when you get to adulthood, you want to be a child again. I mean, that's not strictly true – for example, pubs – but still: tax, the job market, small-talk, the slow decay of your body, not being able to play football in the park without feeling weird, having to dance in public, everything. It sucks. It's horrible.
Childhood was good and I enjoyed it, and then I revisited it, and everything turned from beauty to turds. Example: my family used to drive around England for summer holidays, and we once stopped in Morecambe for the day. It was beautifully warm, with a beach that seemed to exist forever and an immense Polo mint tower you could get up and see the whole landscape from. For some reason, I remembered the smell of fried chicken and the chorus of "Born to Be Wild" playing on repeat from an arcade game. Anyway, we drove through it years later and the Polo tower was closed, a theme park came and went and there was a man pissing in what seemed to be his own garden. Time isn't always a healer. I didn't expect my return to more familiar territory to be much different.
It was with trepidation, then, that I decided to revisit Storybook Glen – or, as it's now known, The Den and Glen – near Aberdeen. Once the staple of my childhood, The Den and Glen of my memory is a spacious, exciting place, where effigies of my idols and fairytale favourites stood, as tall as an adult, beckoning me motionlessly to play. The kind of play area you go to as a treat: expansive, well-maintained swings, fields beyond fields surrounding the border of a lush park, a sort of pub car park Disneyland, brilliant and never ending, the kind of place you cry at when your mum says you have to leave to go home for tea.
Then I went back there, and:
I don't know what happened to Wallace, but clearly the years haven't been kind. His expression is desperate, his hands look sanded to the sinew. Screaming eyes that suggest the wrong life more than the wrong trousers.
Lisa, here, has realised that not even music can stop the inevitable march to the grave, the pointless suffering of existence. Her crumpled face representing the collective years lost to learning saxophone pointlessly, for who can afford to be creative in 2015? Her closed eyes aren't those of passion; instead, they're rueful of memories of being used as a session musician for a Tropical House track that peaked at number 36.
I should probably mention here that I wasn't alone, just hanging around a children's park taking photos of what appears to be an aubergine that got trodden on so hard it learned magic.
Having decided that going solo would result in being questioned by police, I went with my friend Stephen and his two qualified, actual children, who have lives devoid of subtext. You don't have subtext when you're a child. I needed people there who could take The Glen at face value, not weary 20-somethings who'd stare into Cinderella's worn visage and think about monthly phone bills or dying.
Shrek here, with a mouth that says, "Come on, guys, stay round! We can do a few more lines and wait for the pubs to open!" But eyes that say: "Why can't I die?"
His mate Donkey seems to be struggling, too – note the water that's pooled within his suffering mouth, water that's impossibly collected in a space that seems impossible to reach. That's how long he has been screaming. So long the rain learned how to fall in him from the side.
Either there weren't live animals when I used to come here, or I'd forgotten them. Chickens seem to walk around now, among the not-yet-cynical kids and the parents who yearn for the serenity of the car park. There were lambs in shit-packed enclosures, a pony or two meandering melancholically in a pen, and this guy who exists as a metaphor for giving up:
"It's shite being Scottish."
TripAdvisor has some pretty brutal reviews for The Den and Glen. "Avoid this place," says one. "A place of nightmares and neglect," says another. Most beautifully, one "terrible" review is titled: "Highly recommended if your [sic] love disappointment, insults & want to hurt your kids!" Which I don't think is a real recommendation. While there are a substantial number on the website who seemed to have enjoyed their time, there are about as many decrying the decline of what was an Aberdeenshire institution.
Yet, my pal's daughters – two and four years old, respectively – were loving it. They were dead excited to see Cinderella and Snow White, wanted to play on every swing, roundabout or anything with springs. The mock castles and three bears' house stood proud, striking conduits for imagination. Other groups of kids seemed to run around, ignoring the relentless misery of the statuettes, the colour-drained monuments to childhood.
They don't see a little girl locked behind bars. There's nothing weird about this to them at all.
Maybe that's how we should be in adulthood. Maybe we should take absolutely everything at face value. "Lighten up," your mate says. "It'll be fun," they say, always the precursor to exclusively negative experiences. Maybe these worn figures of childhood innocence are hopelessly decayed because the place is just too busy with smiling kids almost every day of the year and there's no time to give them a fresh coat of paint, or whatever extensive work it would take to remove existential dread from Gromit's eyes.
Yet, as much as I wanted to be positive, it was almost impossible. Take a look at Postman Pat for fuck's sake.
Ignoring his deeply unsettling fingers and bizarre body proportions, Pat's a sign of the times. In the era of FedEx, Pat is a relic of the past. Pat's from a time when you knew your postie and you knew your neighbours. A bygone era where the doorbell ringing was something musical instead of a threatening siren, a time when you didn't have to pretend to the surprised Amazon delivery person that you were at home during the middle of the day because you're freelance, or you work nights or something. A throwback to a happier time. A purer time.
But then: does anyone remember the episode of TMNT where Michelangelo was beheaded for forgetting the Dominos voucher code? Because I don't. But there it is, recaptured in resplendent glory.
What did I learn from The Glen and Den? First off, that it's very petty – easy, even – to make fun of, and that's because a lot of it looks irredeemably shitty. Yet, having my friend's daughters there reminded me that we inherently look for the bad in everything as we grow older. I came looking for meagre-looking statuettes and I found them. But the kids found physical manifestations of the stories read to them before sleep, the reassuring characters that portray important lessons, e.g: don't sit on a wall and rely on the army to make futile attempts to fix you; don't enslave dwarfs for your benefit; it's inadvisable to raid the homes of bears.
I went to try to find some kind of nostalgic reassurance, but in that fruitless pursuit I found that it's meaningless to pass on that negative energy to kids and make fun of their park. They'll grow up and do it themselves. They'll find the place in their virtual reality headsets as they scour the radiated, post-President Trump nuclear wasteland for something to eat. But, for now, Shrek with too many teeth: a good thing.
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