TRCH Ranulph

Toys Were Us

12 December 12 words: Ian Douglas
"And now again, when its gloomy and dull, we all deserve a trip to the toy cupboards of yesterday."

We’ve all got a soft spot for the toys of our childhood. They hark back to those golden summers, when the good guys won the day and always in time for tea.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to the exhibition on Modern British Childhood in London. I was one of several authors invited by the writers collective ‘26’ to pen a Sestude (a 62 worded creative form) inspired by toys from the exhibition. Our Sestudes then went on display alongside the item they honoured. I was given that most iconic of toys, Scalextric, which immediately invoked boyhood memories of tin cars, plastic tracks and the reek of electricity.

The exhibition launched at the V&A’s flagship, the Museum of Childhood. I went along for the jolly and ended up with a night to remember, not least for Esther Rantzen’s spirited rendition of Muffin the Mule’s theme song. As the wine flowed I was struck by how much the exhibits had meant back in their heyday. The Sylvanian Family, Star Wars, Ladybird books, they all cast their spell over successive generations of British children.  

Take Nottingham’s very own Raleigh-manufactured Chopper Bike. Described as a cultural icon, the Chopper invaded our collective consciousness back in the Seventies.

It may seem hard for today’s youngsters to believe, but back then the Chopper was the epitome of street cred. The must-have for any self-respecting boy. Indeed, the design was inspired by the motorcycles of Easy Rider fame. Look at the Chopper’s sense of style, the laid back saddle, the lower handlebars. Yup, we could cycle round our chilly council estates pretending to be Jack Nicholson, roaring across the Californian desert and cocking a finger to authority. It helped the seventies teenager to refine his ‘swagger’.

The story behind our legendary toys can be inspiring as the toys themselves. The Chopper was conceived by a Raleigh designer while on a research trip to the States. This was the time of Flower Power, the Black Panthers and the whole counter-cultural revolution. We can only speculate what a Nottingham lad made of all that. It must have been good, because he sent home some inspired sketches on the back of an airmail envelope. The rest, as they say, is history. Raleigh had been in a tailspin since the sixties and looked set to close. The overnight success of the Chopper bike rescued the factory, giving them a financial push that lasted to the eighties. The fact the Chopper bike was racked by mechanical flaws and criticised in the media as dangerous was considered neither here nor there. It was glamorous, cool and contributed very nicely to Nottingham’s profit margins. 

Another item in the exhibition that sent me reeling back to childhood was the Fuzzy Felt kit. Show a box of these fabric shapes to today’s young people and they’d probably roll on the floor laughing their heads off. How can it compare to a Wii or a Playstation? Will it provide hours of fun? Well, actually, yes. In the dark days of the pre-digital era Fuzzy Felt was as good as life got. A few sparks of imagination, some coloured silhouettes, a sticky board and you were away. Farmyards, zoos, railways, seascapes, fairy castles, any manner of location could be conjured out of thin air. In the early seventies my baby brother wrote to the manufacturers suggesting they produce a Space Age version. They wrote back to say astronaut suits and rocket ships were too complex for their cutting machines. But their letter came with a few complimentary sets, so he still ended up over the moon.

Now in its seventh decade, Fuzzy Felt owes its existence, like many everyday products, to World War Two. Lois Allan spent her war years making the pieces of felt used to seal the insides of tank engines. The misshapen bits were left lying around until Lois noticed her children sticking them on the backs of her tablemats. That was her eureka moment. In 1950 she turned the idea into a reality and launched an empire built on triangles, squares and egg-shaped ovals. The toy sold in the millions across the world. And although it may look a bit old hat now, (a fuzzy felt hat at that) it’s still in production and still selling. Without losing its soul to the modern world either, no fuzzy zombies or felt werewolves, thank you!

For me the best thing was the smell, every time you opened the lid that mothball whiff of felt heralded another adventure. So, a piece of material to stop the Nazis went on to conquer the world! (And the art of felt making, by the way, goes back to ancient times and is the stuff of Sumerian legend.)   

Cindy, Lego, Blue Peter badges, Tufty, The Green Cross Man can all be seen at the Museum. There are even life-sized replicas of the Teletubbies. Try not to shiver when you turn the corner and bump into them. Yet, inevitably, there isn’t room for everyone. So let me indulge myself for a moment over those happy boyhood moments lavished on the Zeroids, who missed the exhibition. They may sound like a skin disease today, but the Zeriods were three awesome robots, whose popularity swept the Western world back in the late sixties. Zerak, Zintar and Zobor, as they were called, came with flashing lights, motorised caterpillar treads and magnetic hands. Ah, the sheer magic of watching them whirr across the carpet, (which doubled up as the crater-pocked landscape of an alien planet, naturally!) They karate chopped any Action Man who got in their way. They zapped the cowboys and indians into puffs of dust. They rolled over toy soldiers screaming for mercy. Then, as the whimsy took me, they became good guys with hearts of gold, or at least of plastic. Those robots took me all over the Universe, and of all my parents’ acts of villainy, throwing out the Zeriods while I was distracted, has to be the worst! Especially if we cast an eye over Ebay today, where Zobor is currently fetching a modest £375.

So that’s what it’s all about. Magic, glamour, escapism, innocence. It could be the  Zeroids wiping out a horde of evil-eyed Martians, or Cindy stealing the limelight at a Fashion Show. Maybe you peddaled your bike about, picturing yourself as Evel Kneival or lost yourself for hours in a barnyard of fuzzy animals. Every generation, every individual will have their treasured favorites. And now again, when its gloomy and dull, we all deserve a trip to the toy cupboards of yesterday.   

Ian Douglas is the author of A Chidlren's History of Nottinghamshire. The Modern British Childhood Exhibition runs until 14 April 2013.

Ian will be offering a family-friendly tour through the centuries of Nottingham History as part of the Festival of Words on Saturday 16 Feb, 11am. Meet outside NTU Newton Arkwright Building. See the Festival website for more info

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