I’ve been spending five gloriously happy days in Ibiza with a very pretty two-year old girl called Alice. Her parents occasionally showed some mild interest in her at feeding and changing and bath times but otherwise we were more or less constant companions.Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor for New Humanist July/August 2007

We both particularly enjoyed a game called Ready or Not. This is loosely based on Hide and Seek but reverses the protagonists in rather an eccentric fashion. It goes like this. Alice gives an indication that the game is about to start by covering her eyes with her fingers. This is a sign to me that I should begin counting aloud as quickly as I can. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven. Then at some indeterminate moment in the counting, but always well before thirty, Alice suddenly takes her tiny fingers away from her eyes, sticks out her stomach, and flings her arms out as wide as she is able. At which point I immediately have to stop counting and shout “Ready or Not”. Then Alice screams and screams with laughter and the game begins again. One-two-three-four … Ready or Not.

There are no rules about the length of the game. It can go on for the best part of an hour and be played in almost any location. We once had a thoroughly good game while Alice covered her face with her fingers on a balcony while I counted as quickly as I could in the garden below. Neither is there any change in the level of excitement it generates. Her screams of delight and my happy shouts of “Ready or Not” are as loud after an hour of playing as they were in the first five minutes.

My blissfully happy days with Alice are further confirmation that I now get along extremely well with very small children. That’s not always been the case. My own son once told me that he’d only provided me with two grandchildren so that I had one more chance to show the type of solicitude and concern for the very young that had been so lacking during his own years of infancy.

I have developed two separate theories to account for my new-found delight. One is purely physiological. Perhaps my enjoyment is due to some psychical version of the Babinski reflex. This reflex accounts for the peculiar fact that when very young children are tickled their toes splay out away from the foot (the actual Babinski reflex) but with age this effect is reversed and tickling causes us to curl our toes up under our feet. In old age, however, and this is the critical medical point, the Babinski reflex kicks in again and the infantile splaying of the toes returns. (Try it at home with a friend.) Could it be that the pleasure I find with Alice and other little playmates is due to the return in my advanced age of some equivalent but as yet undiscovered mental reflex?

But there is another more sophisticated possibility. Perhaps my enjoyment is related to the pleasurable reassurance derived from the type of mere repetition that Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle called the “Fort/Da game”. You’ll remember that he derived this concept from watching a game favoured by his own one-and-a-half-year-old grandson, who loved to throw small objects away from him and then have others retrieve them for him. When he threw them away he’d say “fort” (German for “gone”) and when they were replaced he’d burble “da” (there). Freud theorised that this game allowed the boy to manage his absences from his mother. By controlling the actual presence and absence of an object he was able to manage the virtual presence of his mother.

This nicely fits with the game of Ready or Not in which I am made to appear and disappear depending upon Alice’s call. But my own enjoyment of it can also be explained, rather ingeniously I think, as an attempt to retrieve my own childhood. In this formulation my counting becomes a symbolic representation of my ageing and her decision to stop me counting provides the psychological reassurance I need that ageing can be magically halted.

Obviously more research is needed and I’m looking forward to meeting up with Alice back in London in the next two weeks so that the work can go forward. In the meantime I’m working on an explanation for our other favourite game, which involves her repetitively slapping me as hard across the face as she can with one of her hands and roaring with laughter. That one could take a little more time to theorise.■