Friday, May 20, 2016


Yes, long time since my last post, apologies, all that. It won't be the last time. Let's move on.
The appeal of the Etch-a-Sketch is a little hard to fathom. Not only is your drawing style crippled by having to twiddle two knobs rather than hold an actual pen, but you have to destroy each hard-won masterpiece before embarking on a new one. The ads should have blared out "Infuriating! Ephemeral! Cramp-inducing!"
All this seemed to be more than offset by the apparent magic of a black line appearing on the screen without the aid of a pen - a mystery that still engages people enough for them to present exposés on the internet showing the sliding rods holding the stylus as it scrapes away at the metal dust. (Oddly, whenever one of us kids tried to do enough shading to reveal the mechanism we only succeeded in breaking the thing.)
Or perhaps it was the sheer difficulty of it that made its fans press on with stubborn determination - a bit like golf, where successfully drawing an acceptable circle was the equivalent of hitting a hole-in-one.
I think I got to be fairly proficient with one of these when I was about ten, drawing castles, spaceships, and for some reason several versions of a kid grinning kid running away from a school, satchel swinging behind him. I remember doggedly tracing around his legs and feet again and again to avoid drawing over him with the background lines.
As an animator and a glutton for punishment (much the same thing), I'm now considering buying one of these to try some animation on.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I never has a Scalextric. Only kids who were slightly richer than us or slightly more spoilt got a proper Scalextric for Christmas - they were expensive. What I did have - for a while - was an ersatz version called "Battery Operated Race Car Track" or something similar. £6.99 from Woolworths. What "Battery Operated" meant was that if you put as many HP2 batteries as you could carry in both hands into a brick-sized plastic box, the cars would rush around the track for about ten minutes before you had to buy some more... not a easy task at 11am on Christmas morning.
The hand-held controllers seemed to have two speeds - "Stop", and "Fly off the track at the first bend". With practice you could make the cars amble round the track without flying off, and that was challenge enough - actual racing was pretty much out of the question... which was just as well because before long the wire brushes on the underside of the cars would fray and break off.
A day or two after Christmas one of my mum's friends was visiting, with her four-year-old kid in tow. I was on the upstairs landing avoiding them when she appeared on the stairs and saw me playing with the track. She called down to the kid: "Thomas! come and see the trains!" God, I thought. Women can be so clueless. I ventured to correct her. "They're cars."
"Oh... Thomas! Come and see the cars going round on the railway!"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Matchbox Cars

When was about three, I remember having a lot of battered old toy cars which for some reason were kept in a vinyl shopping bag. No two of them were to scale, but that didn't worry me too much when I was three. They all got rolled along the same carpet with the same 'brumm brumm' noise.
In time the whole bag got passed on to Neil Brison, who no doubt battered them up considerably more, but when I was old enough to have pocket money I started up a fresh collection - this time of nice shiny new Matchbox cars.
Each model of Matchbox car was numbered, so if you had "No 74 - Ford Capri" that meant you had at least another 73 to collect. Because if you didn't, someone else would.
They all cost 24p, but the best ones had boots, bonnets or doors that opened, so you had to get those ones first.
One of my first Matchbox cars got eaten by a zebra in Edinburgh. I took better care of them after that.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Plastic jumping bean track type thing

So many toys from the 70s conjure up images of people at large toy companies sitting about in boardrooms trying to dream up ideas for the next thing they can persuade a viable number of kids to pester their parents into buying, if only the TV ads are jazzy enough. One such thing was this clunky contraption, which I've forgotten the name of. It consisted of three plastic plank-type things, about a foot long, each with four semi-circular grooves running the length of it, and a hole at each corner on the top and bottom where a rod of dowelling fit in, so you could connect the three planks together and stand the thing on the floor. Now came the fun part. you had four plastic bean-shaped things - a plastic shell containing a ball-bearing - that would roll end-over-end down this track. You had to set them off at once and race them.
That was it. It got dull pretty quicky as you can imagine, but I bet the TV ads made it look fantastic.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Polaroid Super Swinger Camera

This was my second camera.

My first came from Hamleys, the self-styled 'finest toy shop in the world' ('biggest', in the days before Toys-R-Us) on a family trip to London in 1973, when I was seven.
It was small and black, and had no control except for a shutter lever on the side and a knob to wind the film on. My sister Wendy got one too.
For the rest of the holiday, I picked and chose my subjects carefully, as I only had one reel of film, then had to wait about two weeks for the developed pictures to come back from the chemist's.
When he finally came home with the little blue and white folders from Boots', Dad gently broke it to me that none of my pictures had been printed, because none of them had come out well enough. On one of the negatives, if you held it up to the light you could make out a distant silhouette of Big Ben. The rest were blank, or faint blurs. That's what 28p bought you in 1973. (Wendy's were fine, of course - she always seemed to have all the luck).
I was rather put off photography for a while by that experience but I'd recovered enough by Christmas of the following year to be besotted by a Polaroid instant camera in that year's Great Universal catalogue. (It must have been on the pages of grown-up toys... which always looked so much cooler that the others.)
It arrived on Christmas morning in a nice grey box bearing the glamorous smell of fresh plastic. It was big and clunky like everything from the 70s and I loved it. It came with a box of flashbulbs, and a pack of film the size of a small book.
When you looked through the viewfinder and squeezed the inch-high shutter knob, you saw a little red sign light up at the bottom of the field of view that would tell you if the light was right. If not, you'd have to use a flashbulb. If it was, you could press the button down a whole inch with a satisfying THUNK, then pull the paper tab out of the side of the camera - which took a bit of force as well - and the picture would come with it, stuck face-down on the paper. Unlike later Polaroid cameras, it didn't develop before your eyes - you had to wait a full minute before you peeled it off. Too soon, and you would be punished for your impatience. Also unlike later Polaroids, the pictures didn't fade with time - they only had to survive the ravages of an eight-year-old's storage system... though my mum foresaw that and for my birthday, got me a very cool photo album with stick-down pages and an antique world map on the cover.
The camera seems to me now like one of those things from the 70s that was just waiting for a digital age to do what it tried to do, only so much better.

The album is long gone, and the camera was consigned to Harecrag Cemetary for Deceased Consumer goods a few years ago when the plastic around the eyepiece perished, but the pictures survive. Here's the very first one, of Wendy looking eager to see the result.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Adventure Kit

The photos in the Great Universal or Grattan catalogue always made the toys look better quality, more glamourous or just more fun than they usually turned out to be. They were pictured being played with by beautiful happy children who probably never fell out with each other or their parents, who lived in large detached houses in Surrey, went to smart Chav-free schools and got to go to Disneyland on their holidays. Their world was brightly coloured, full of wonder and smelt of fresh ink. There was a sense that if one could only have access to their wonderful toys, a small part of their world could be yours.
In reality, of course, once the excitement and general mess of Christmas Day had faded, when the smell of turkey had gone and the piles of crumpled wrapping paper had been stuffed into bin liners and thence into the bin, the untidy heaps of presents sorted into disconcertingly small piles and placed at the bottom of the stairs for filing, and even the next morning's holiday TV of old Tarzan movies and Flash Gordon serials had been disposed of and Dad had settled into his armchair for, God help us, an entire afternoon of racing, those much-coveted toys were laid bare to scrutiny in the cold light of Boxing Day and that which was once so wanted was now invariably found wanting.
Never was this so true as of the Adventure Kit.
This consisted of a glossy box in a sophisticated, adult shade of grey, containing a pair of binoculars, a compass, a sort of plasticky satchel type thing, a whistle and (the box proudly announced) a *REAL* camera. The catalogue photo showed the usual shiny kid, in this case looking a bit like the boy out of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, standing in an unseasonally summery
field of tall yellow grass and dandelions against a hazy backdrop of not-uncomfortably- wild-looking trees, his camera and plastic satchel hanging round his neck, examining something in the distance through his binoculars, probably a giraffe. Not an adult in sight of course.
Although it still looked very smart in its box, and still even felt little glamourous when it still smelt of new plastic, reality soon backed it into a corner. My first, and I think only, outing with the Adventure Kit was to the Column Field, all of five hundred yards from home, with Alistair Robson. There were a few trees there, but not much to look at or photograph that I hadn't seen every day since I was three. The only wildlife was four stone lions and a couple of furtive teenagers with cigarettes.
Adventure (the lesson was) does not come from Grattan's Catalogue.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

New Record Player

The faithful old gramophone mysteriously disappeared, as did many old toys and books that one parent or another thought I wouldn't miss, not long after my own first record player arrived one Christmas when I was about seven.
It was a Dansette; green stick-on vinyl-type-stuff on the outside off-white plastic beneath the lid and, with two chrome knobs for tone and volume. It failed to work on Christmas morning, which probably miffed my Dad more than it did me, but once it was fixed I made good use of it for years.
I never got into pop music much – Dad said it was all rubbish and to prove the point he played the finale of the ‘1812 Overture’ at high volume on his Stereo and sat me in the middle of the room for full effect. I was strictly a Popular Classics kid after that, which didn’t really do much for my social life.
I spent many an hour slouching on the floor with the record player on, looking at the plastic band around the electricity lead, and wondering what the cryptic wording meant: ‘Green and yellow earth, blue neutral, brown live.’ It made no sense - I had never seen green and yellow earth.