Listening to the group this week as they recalled their tales of childhood toys and games, I was struck by how important and impactful play really is. Amongst other things, it has brought us joy, connection, freedom, learning, imagination and many precious memories.
I heard of stories of objects that are long lost, but still wistfully longed for, games where play became a serious business, the creation of quirky characters and whole inner worlds as well as daring deeds of daftness/ bravery (depending on how you look at it).
With every snippet of story shared, I found myself going back into my own past and reliving happy, exhilarating moments of learning and play. I hope you have the same experience as you read this and can take some time to add some of your recollections in the comments below.
Through the rippled window of the Lost Toy Shop, you see the tattered old sheep you called Dog. You see the blue stitches in her ear, the only thread your dad could find the day a real and much less cuddly dog got hold of her. You see the stains on her wool and the shine where love has worn her smooth. You turn the door handle and enter.
In a shop like this, you expect an old-fashioned bell that jingles merrily as the door shakes it. Instead, you hear the electronic beep of the shop on the corner that sold you Chipsticks and foam gliders until one weekend it turned into flats. You look around and see no counter, no till and no shopkeeper. Straight ahead is the teddy bear section, piled with soft animals of various species. Those that were once identical are now utterly distinctive, like the uncles you couldn’t believe were twins until you saw a photo of them as children. At intervals along the racks of dogs and dinosaurs and glove-puppet foxes are signs, written in permanent marker on fluorescent starbursts: ‘DROPPED FROM BAGS’; ‘LEFT ON TRAINS’; ‘STOLEN’; ‘BURNED’; ‘CHARITY SHOPPED’.
The other shelves are more haphazard, with toys slotted in wherever they will fit. A pull-back-and-go car that zoomed under the fridge, never to be seen again, even when the kitchen was ripped out. A brand-new ball stuck irretrievably in tree branches, like a round red bird’s nest. A watch with built-in video game, unwisely bartered in a playground swap. A felt finger-puppet that went into the washing machine but never came out again. Dozens of frisbees that sailed over dozens of fences; a crateful of all the most useful Lego bricks, carried off in the crevices of sofas and the pockets of cousins; a singular marble that, once swallowed, apparently passed unnoticed. You wonder why they are all here. Few of them are unusual; surely none were irreplaceable. None except for Dog, of course, the most special sheep who ever baa’d.
Like all the best shops, the Lost Toy Shop has a narrow staircase you might never notice, and an upstairs completely different from its downstairs. Here, you find all those toys you coveted but never owned. Too big, too expensive, too girly or not girly enough, too noisy or too dangerous, they are all on display, and free for all who visit. But even the magic of the Lost Toy Shop has its limits: not one of them is as fun as it promised to be. As compensation, a notice on the landing invites you to make a selection from a bucket of interesting sticks.
Back downstairs, you make your way past unidentifiable figurines and best-ever paper aeroplanes to the window display. Dog’s woolly coat is instantly familiar beneath your fingertips. Her smell, like always, is home. You take hold of the tag tied around her neck and read. ‘Borrowed by big sister when she left home, and subsequently lost in a house move.’ You had always wondered.
You place Dog gently back in the window and step out into the street. Next week, the building will be empty. Next year, it will be flats. But the Lost Toy Shop will be found again, on some other street or in some other town, and with new arrivals every day.
Toys “R” Us
This week, Jolene provided her usual thought-provoking introduction. She interestingly distinguished two sorts of toys, dividing them into those which are played with individually such as dolls and teddy-bears and jigsaws and those which are more communal like board games and sports equipment. It just so happened that the toy that I had dug out was this “Diddyman” à la Ken Dodd which for some reason I have kept hold of for 60 years or so.
The solitary toys I remembered were model plastic animals with which I would construct a farm yard or zoo using a set of dominoes for the pens etc. I also recalled a particular model soldier, a machine-gunner which I highly prized, which I lost one day on the way home from primary school; to this day I can’t pass the place in which I lost it without having the totally irrational thought, “I wonder if it is still there”. Otherwise, there were jigsaws a plenty and a rubberised head in which I could place my hand and make “gurn” faces which I thought was great fun.
Apart from cricket bats and footballs I can remember many games of Cluedo (I think I fancied myself as Sherlock Holmes as I had read some of Conan Doyle’s stories). For a time, we also possessed a miniature snooker table. Sometimes we would play cards and I vividly remember my grandmother teaching me how to play chess. I had a favourite cricket bat which I had for many years. The grip had been replaced and at some point, the whole handle was repaired: it was a Heath Robinson affair literally using nuts and bolts.
One long, hot summer (weren’t they all, back then?) we spent the whole holiday playing Risk.
For some reason – to keep us out of the way, I guess – we were allowed to use the dining room, only ever opened for special occasions like Christmas dinner. Dark oak furniture, the delicious smell of pine and beeswax, and the slightly musty tang of an unused space.
Every morning after breakfast we would spread a heavy cloth over the table to prevent scratches (I still have that table, I’m writing on it now!) Then we’d unpack the enormous board, with a map of the entire world, and the army symbols with which we planned to conquer it.
I remember nothing about the complicated rules; I guess it was a strategy game with some kind of risk involved. I recall long debates about alliances and enmities, attacks and defences. It was a highly competitive game, but somehow not aggressive.
Most of all I remember the bright colours of he opposing armies and the countries on the map. And the exotic and beautiful names – Irkutsk, Madagascar, Kamchatka. We’d never heard such words before, and hadn’t a clue where these places were, but that was the glamour and the mystery of the game. A million miles from Monopoly.
There were four of us – my brother, myself, our two cousins – and we didn’t play together very often. We were at an age where boys and girls played separately: boys wouldn’t be caught dead skipping, and girls were excluded from the rough and sometimes dangerous games boys engaged in, like Split the Kipper, where a knife was thrown between your toes! Gone were the childish games of Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, which we’d loved so much. I suppose Risk was a grown up, sophisticated version of those early childhood games.
Every year around Christmas, I got the Argos catalogue (RIP) and circled Lights Alive, Mr. Frosty and Hungry Hippos. I never got any of them. Lights Alive I’m not sure why. Mum didn’t want Mr. Frosty messing with the aesthetic of her 80s kitchen (I completely understand this now, Mum). Dad didn’t want me losing balls and making too much noise with Hungry Hippos, fair enough!
My brother got me Hungry Hippos when I was about 25 for my birthday. It’s honestly one of the most thoughtful presents I’ve ever received, because Matt had seen me circling it every year and come Christmas Day, receiving other gifts instead. I was always grateful, but they weren’t on the list.
I’m incredibly competitive (sorry to everyone who has been on the receiving end of me snapping closed various board games over the years or me exclaiming ‘this is the stupidest game ever’). My poor brother experienced this in the 80s and 90s playing Guess Who? and Snakes and Ladders. He didn’t have to play Hungry Hippos with me, so it was perfect for him. (Sorry for all the times I was a sore loser Matt). After going out in the city centre one night, we continued the party back at my flat for a bit. I remembered the game of Hungry Hippos stashed in the cupboard! We decided to have a game at 1am (sorry neighbours!) it was raucous, not just the game itself but we were all hammering those hippos as though our lives depended on it and whooping with joy, fear and anger! I lost the game when I moved house and left it in a cupboard somewhere in South Manchester. I really hope that the new tenants of that place enjoyed it and someone is maybe still enjoying it today.
Pauline mentioned how she has games nights with her family, which has continued into lockdown on zoom. It sounds like such a lovely way to be together I wish I were able to take part in something like that. I’m not competitive in life so much, but put a board in front of me and this monster comes out to play. It’s best that I play games for one now, or games with a common purpose like consequences. It’s a much more peaceful way of life for me and my nearest and dearest.
It was great to share with Linda our recollections of childhood games and toys. We had some similar experiences, both of us enjoying freedom and independence at a time when children were encouraged to get out of the house and amuse themselves with their friends.
Although I liked to play out, my favourite toy as a child was not an outdoor one at all.
I wonder if anyone reading this is a fan of the artist Grayson Perry? I love his work and have enjoyed his current series on TV, Grayson’s Art Club, and some of his previous documentaries. One of Grayson’s ‘muses’ is his childhood teddy, Alan Measles. Alan Measles pops up on most programmes and his battered appearance is evidence of how loved and hugged he was during Grayson’s difficult childhood and young life. I have no artistic skills at all, but I had my own Alan Measles which I still have and which has accompanied me in a greater or lesser degree from the age of 1. I believe it was a present for my first birthday and became a very battered rabbit, originally made out of sheepskin with leather ears and button eyes, and patched up over the years. It was/is called Whisky, and I was never sure why because my parents were teetotal so it wasn’t a word I would have heard. I can only think it was a child’s attempts at Whiskers but Whisky it became and always stayed.
I still have it but it is currently packed safely away awaiting a prospective house move, so sadly I am not able to show a photo of it. Like Alan Measles it has seen better days. It slept with me all through childhood until the age of about 10 or 11 when I must have decided I was too grown up for it, but then it re-emerged in the awkward teenage years and was a companion probably until I married.
I shall really enjoy unpacking it and finding a drawer for it to stay when I do eventually move!
As I was born in 1947, two years after the end of WW2, things were still in very short supply. Consequently, my childhood toys were either hand me downs from older cousins which my father restored in the make do and mend of that era, or made by him from scrap materials. Dad had a small work bench in the coal shed where he enjoyed restoring or making things especially out of wood.
The first toy I recollect was a small rocking doll’s cradle he made me as a Christmas present when I was very small. I can vividly remember the smell of the gloss paint he had used on the off cuts of wood he had fashioned into my toy.
Another Christmas present a few years later was a drop sided cot for my rigid doll “Christine”. When my daughter was born he renovated the cot by re-varnishing the wood and putting “Peter Rabbit” stickers on it. Now I use the cot to tell my grandson the story of the Three Bears making the cot a family heirloom.
Dad made me a wooden sledge so I could enjoy the fun of speeding down the slope in the sledging field just round the corner from my home on my uncle’s farm as soon as there was enough snow each winter.
The favourite toy he made for me was the swing, which I spent hours and hours on, loving the feeling to exhilaration as I swung high into the air. Being outside in the garden, enjoying the peace and quiet away from the busy family home with lots of time to think and dream.
I remember my Grandma giving me a dreidel for Xmas/Hannukah. No-one knew how to use it, or what the symbols meant. I didn’t see the point of giving someone a present without knowing how to play it. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I never looked into it.
Me, mum and sister used to play chess together, but when I asked them about this, they told me that they used to play draughts, not chess. My sister subsequently told me that she used to be part of the Chess Club at school.
My best memories, were playing by the brook at the bottom of Golf Course. One snowy winter in the 90s, I was with my friend’s sledges. As I climbed over the brook, the best sledge slid from my hands and washed away with the current. We shared one for the rest of afternoon. My friend, Felicity ran up to the top of the steep hill and braved it from the top with the leftover sledge. The rest of us were petrified, but with plenty of coaxing, we managed to follow in her, manoeuvring the tree stumps. What freedom!
Our bogie ‘MY’ favourite toy
We the Freemans had a fantastic bogie (go cart) and we were the envy of most of our friends. It belonged to my brothers. I had been warned by ‘our’ Cliff (second to the eldest) that I could look but not touch. Cliff was blooming cheeky as he had conveniently forgotten that the wheels on the front of the homemade bogie had come off my old Silver Cross pram. Hands akimbo, I admired the pram’s remains, the navy-blue hood with the pearly white intricate braiding and sparkling chrome spokes. It would have lasted for ages if my brothers hadn’t insisted giving each other rides in it and using it to collect wood for the ‘bommy’ on bonfire nights, so now bits of my pram had become a bogie.
Stan dragged the bogie behind him while I sat proudly poised on the dodgy bright coloured car seat. We headed towards ‘Dudley Brew’. ‘Dudley brew’ sounded like a Birmingham cuppa tea, but was actually a road near our primary school that was so steep when at the top you couldn’t see the bottom.
I would stand and gaze in amazement as Stan would glide with expertise down the infamous hill, tugging the rope used for steering which was connected to the axle and ‘my’ wheels. I had the job of polishing the bogie. It gleamed as it careered down the hill. I imagined Stan with the skills he had, driving in a ‘real’ Grand Prix.
A resounding yelp would escape my lips and my heart would miss a beat as Stan steered the bogie. Passers-by would dart in every direction. Their bodies firmly pressed against the shop fronts narrowly escaping a collision. People shrieked as he passed them, a whoosh of air trailing behind him. I would be beaming ear to ear. Out of all my brothers I was absolutely delighted Stan was my twin.
Soon, Stan was trudging, out of breadth on his way back up the hill. Like Dick Whittington with the rope draped over his right shoulder. Bringing the bogie back was the only downside which was soon forgotten on the descent.
I settled on to the car seat, my adrenaline pumping as I conveniently dismissed my fears of being caught by Cliff. I bravely clung onto the rope. Stan placed both hands on my shoulder and glanced down the hill for any unsuspecting man, woman or child. My current track record of major collisions had reached double figures so everything movable stood a better chance if out of my way. ‘Are you ready sis?’ ‘I’m ready’ I chorused. Stan gave me an almighty shove. I was now gliding and dodging whimpering dogs. ‘Go on our kid!’ I knew Stan was proud of me. We giggled all the way home.
Later I saw the unsuspecting Cliff, I looked at him sheepishly knowing Stan and I had got one over him. I slept soundly that night and dreamt of our bogie.
©Pauline Omoboye, 14.3.21
Long before Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men books, my older sister created Mr Goodbody. He lived at the far end of the path down the side of our house. She chalked him, his front door and windows onto the sloping buttress supporting the concrete wall beneath the next-door semi, built like ours into the hillside. He lasted a long time, re-chalked occasionally, and featured in many of our games, our voices echoing between the two walls. Everyone used the back door rather than the front, so his round, smiling face no doubt amused the binman, the milkman and the coalman making deliveries.
My younger sister and I spent hours perfecting our skills with a tennis ball knotted into a thick nylon stocking. Standing with backs to the wall, we swung the ball hard: above the shoulders, under the arms and between outstretched legs. We counted the hits before losing momentum. I did the same on my pogo stick, counting as I jumped along the side and on the flags round the back of the house. I remember such elation when I’d finally passed a hundred, then overbalanced and crashed right through the living room window and landed on the table! Miraculously, I wasn’t hurt by the broken glass, and neither was anyone else, but what a shock for everyone. Pogoing was banned after that.
Memories of make-believe games outdoors, no doubt inspired by the books we read, also fill my mind. One summer holiday, up the steps with Mr Goodbody’s house on one side, the rockery on the other, the lawn became the deck of a ship going to Australia in a game lasting several days. We cooked meals in a toy tea set, I climbed a tree at the end of the garden as a look-out and we had adventures on imaginary lands in the cows’ fields over the garden fence. We came back in time for tea inside the ship (the house) and our bedrooms were our cabins. I can’t remember how the journey ended, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t remember the endings of Enid Blyton’s stories either!
Like so many before them, the past couple of weeks have not been easy ones in which to be a woman. Recent events in the news have led to me spending a great deal of time debating – with friends, family, and colleagues – women’s safety outdoors and, as a consequence, I have repeatedly felt overwhelmed and saddened. On Saturday morning, I roused myself from the headspace in which I had spent much of the previous week and looked forward to catching up with everyone and reminiscing about toys and games – an opportunity to escape, perhaps. As ever, I underestimated the power of our sessions and their tendency to be ever so much more than a straightforward trip down memory lane.
I first talked with Nury about his mischievous antics as a child: a wedding party whereat, aged seven, he and a friend hid beneath the table to devour an entire platter of cookies. Nury’s tales had me in fits of laughter and I also could not help noticing how vivid the women were who populated his stories: the mother who discovers the miscreants (too late to salvage any cookies), Nury’s lasting impression of the glamorous bride and, later on in our conversation, the kind, practical figure of Nury’s own wife and the incredible women of the NHS who cared for her while she suffered from dementia, and to whom Nuri continues to feel indebted.
Then, listening to others report on their own conversations, I heard women of all ages united by recollections of childhoods tied to the great outdoors. The words ‘freedom’, ‘rebellion’, ‘exhilarating’, and ‘adrenaline’ pinged between Zoom thumbnails as though we had tapped into a new, shared language. Lucy spoke of a now-unfathomable “obsession with going downhill” and I suddenly pictured myself going helter-skelter down the streets around where I grew up on a series of bicycles, roller-skates, and borrowed skateboards. Likewise, hearing women marvel at their own past daring – “I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a puncture, but that never occurred to me at the time!” – I felt a sense of kinship.
I am unsure how to finish here, except to say that, in days seemingly filled with discussions of women’s vulnerability, it was something else to be in the presence of women who have loved refusing that descriptor. Women who have opted instead for fearlessness, confidence and, yes, recklessness, and whose lives have been all the richer for it. A reminder that courage is a gender equality issue.