Shrill calls echo through suburban streets. Follow your ears, and your eyes will find a Dickensian moonscape buzzing with half-sized humanity. An expanse of bare, dusty earth crowded with children with dirty hands and knees, huddled in feverish conversation or shuffling aimlessly through the throng. This was the marble pit at my primary school. It emerged every morning before school, at recess and at lunchtime. It was a place where plans were made, deals were done and innocence was weakened.
I cannot say how long this went on. It seemed like months, but it might have been days. This was, after all, a time when summers lasted for eons and eight-and-a-half was a world away from eight years old. I do, however, remember a distinct beginning and end to the marble pit.
Playing marbles is by no means unusual in a primary school, but the nuances of any particular marble competition or tradition are often unique. From time to time I find my mind drifting back to that strange moment in my childhood when the lure of the marble pit rendered the rest of the schoolyard all but empty. To the uninitiated, the pit was as exciting, confusing, strange and limitless as a Turkish bizarre. With commodities and competition, salespeople and charlatans, it was simultaneously a market place, a casino and a sideshow.
The colours and details are dimmer now, bleached by decades of synaptic activity, but I remember how the system worked and what the prizes were. There were several different types of marble. Here are the ones I remember.
- Marble: a faintly tinted glass sphere with a tongue of twisting multi-coloured glass in the middle.
- Cat’s Eye: colourless glass sphere with a tongue of a single coloured glass in the middle, most commonly this was green or yellow
- Red Barron: like a cats eye, but the central coloured tongue of glass was red
- Smasher: essentially a ball bearing, rather than a glass marble
- Crystal: glass sphere with no other coloured glass inside. These sometimes had a green, yellow or blue tint
- Peewee: opaque, with a dingle solid, but pale colour
- Coloured: opaque and white with feathers of pale colour here and there
There were also two sizes of marble, standard (about 1.5 centimetres) or “Tommy” (about 2.5 centimetres).
There were dozens of competition sites scattered across the marble pit. At each site there were two competitors: a spruiker and a shooter. The spruiker would place a marble on the ground in front of them and use their finger to draw a line in the dirt some distance away. The shooter would the roll a marble from this line, aiming for the spruiker’s marble. If they hit it, they would win the spruiker’s marble; if they did not hit it, they forfeited their marble to the spruiker. This is the simplest scenario, but the characteristics of the specific marbles involved in each game had a great influence. For example if the spruiker’s marble was a more valuable marble, for example a cat’s eye, the shooter’s line would be placed further away. If the shooter’s marble was more valuable than a normal marble, he or she would negotiate more than one shot.
All through this spontaneous barter yard there was a constant cacophony of spruiker’s calls, within which you would hear reflected every possible permutation of marble types.
“Win a tommy!”
“Win a red baron!”
“Win a marble”
“Win a tommy crystal!”
One would then need to carefully choose the game that would best meet your needs, based on the which marbles you were most interested in obtaining, which marbles you already had in your possession and the best chances of winning.
“Win a marble!”
“Win a tommy smasher!”
You would also need to consider the consistency of the shooting surface and try to avoid anyone with a reputation for unsporting or violent behaviour.
“Win a cat’s eye!”
Once you had selected a game, you would then begin the bartering process to determine how many shots you could have with your shooting marble of choice.
“Win a tommy!”
“How many for a coloured?”
“No way – four.”
“Can I have a test shot – not for keeps?”
“Alright - then three.”
Of course it wasn’t always as congenial as that. I mentioned earlier that I remember a distinct beginning and end to the marble era. My memory is that playing marbles was eventually banned by the school, because it was the root of too many fights. The odd thing is that I do not remember seeing any fights.
In theory the marble pit might have been a great opportunity for student development. It was a chance to learn about market forces, supply, demand and value. It was a chance for students to improve their arithmetic and numeracy, as well as honing valuable skills in communication and diplomacy. There was also the obvious motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Sadly it was also an environment that unleashed some of our less pleasant primal instincts - ‘Wall Street’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’. Perhaps this is the real reason it was banned, or maybe our teachers knew that we would have our whole adult lives to embrace greed, envy and materialism. Maybe they wanted to extend our childhoods for as long as possible.