A personal tribute to Professor Perry Else, who died on 1st June 2014
When my daughter, Anushka, died suddenly in 2012, it was a long time before I felt able to resume work properly. I certainly did not want a public profile and this blog lay dormant for many months.
When I picked it up again, it was with a short tribute to Nush. Somehow this felt right – but I hesitated, unsure how it would come across to talk about something so personal and painful on what is a professional site.
Among the warmest, most generous messages of support after I posted my memorial came from Perry Else, who has himself now passed away.
‘All too often in this world’, Perry said, ‘people have separated self, family and livelihood, and it results in odd behavior, where people compromise their values on a daily basis. I think being open and authentic about ourselves is a better way to be’.
It was typical of the man that Perry demonstrated his own authenticity not just in the eloquence of his words – in which he was second to none (just read the Value of Play, for example) – but also in reaching out to a colleague at a difficult time. It meant a lot to me, coming not long after I was forced by circumstance to forge a different and more lonely career path, where contact with my old networks was not something I could any longer take for granted.
The playwork field has lost one of its true pioneers: an original thinker, an innovative theorist, a clear and accessible writer, an inspiring teacher, and as my anecdote illustrates, a warm and generous colleague.
Perry was a passionate advocate for children’s play and the kind of leader that we need: inclusive, supportive and empowering. His work has helped to define playwork and made a big contribution to how we understand play itself.
I didn’t know Perry as well as I would have liked. Our paths, after similar beginnings in playwork and play service management, were different: mine into campaigning and development work, London-based; his into teaching, writing and academia, in the North, where he reached the dizzy heights of being awarded a Professorship of Play Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, a rare achievement in our field. We were never in the same place together long enough to see much of each other socially, but I valued our association as much as I admired his work over many years.
Engaging, supportive and collegiate by nature, Perry was the perfect colleague and peer. Our sector, like many, can sometimes be riven by infighting, ego resentments and professional factions. Perry always seemed willing to work for unity, to bring people together and to celebrate what we have in common – without ever compromising on his hard-won principles.
During my time at Play England, when my role was largely about securing policy commitments from government, there were many times when mistrust seemed the overriding reaction to what we were doing, not least from some of the play movement’s theorists and academics.
Perry didn’t always agree with me, but he was always direct and honest enough to say so in a constructive way, whilst remaining personally supportive. He knew how important it was to create a more favourable policy context for play provision and playable space, but his experience in local authorities seemed to have left him also with a good understanding of the pressures of the public sector and the compromises that are inevitable in politics. Or perhaps he was just instinctively loyal. Whatever the reason, you always felt that Perry was in your corner.
There were times when I should probably have listened to him more. Early in the development of the national training and qualifications framework for playwork, I flounced out of a meeting where I was representing the London region, frustrated at what I saw as a lack of transparency and a dismissive attitude to dissenting voices. Perry followed me out and, whilst sharing my frustrations, urged me to reconsider, arguing that I could help to make the structures work better by staying.
I declined and never returned to those meetings, but had cause to regret this some years later when, with Perry now engaged as a Play England associate, the Playwork Possible Futures project that we worked on together did not make the progress it might have done towards building a new practitioner body. Rifts in the playwork sector had widened – and my lack of humility had probably not helped.
It was no accident that Perry, on each occasion, was the voice of reason and collective endeavor. He passionately believed in the power of dialogue, inclusive engagement and in working together as a field. So it was that, with Bob Hughes, he called a summit of playwork folk in Sheffield last year to attempt to rally a collective response to the devastation being wrought on play services by the cuts in government spending; to remake the Argument for Playwork, as the meeting was called.
Fittingly – with Perry, the playwork manager turned theorist, as our host – the meeting divided into two groups. One considered the latest research and evidence to support playwork theory and practice (or not!); the other, how the field might best reorganise itself to more effectively campaign for playwork and represent practitioners in the struggles ahead.
This was characteristic of the way Perry’s work straddled brilliant theory and inspiring education on the one hand; the practical realities of securing funds, managing resources and protecting space for kids on the other. I hope that the new vehicle for playwork that he inspired, not just through the Sheffield summit, but by the nature of his whole career, will come to be worthy of his legacy. It is currently still in the workshop awaiting a crew of sufficient size, commitment and talent to get it on the road – a task somehow more daunting with Perry gone.
There are better-qualified people than me to write Perry’s full obituary and to appraise his immense contribution to our field. He will be greatly missed by his many friends, colleagues and students, from whom there will, I am sure, be some warm and erudite tributes in the days ahead. I will read them all.
My deepest condolences go out to his family, who I never met, and to his closest friends.
Playwork has lost one its heroes. I would say that I have lost a comrade but, in his message to me about my daughter, he taught me that such ‘professional’ distinctions and boundaries are unnecessary. More than a comrade, he was a friend.
Thank you Perry. I never did make it to the Beauty of Play (another regret), but you embodied it for me anyway.