What sparked this off was the difference between the toys of my grandchildren and great grandchildren. The quantity, the quality of design, the variety of textures made me look back on the past. Not only that, as we needed some toys in the house for when they visited, we were amazed at how cheaply the most beautiful toys can be bought at car boot sales. I was going to a wedding and the kit required was black-tie, and I remarked that ‘I had to get my waiter’s set on’. I then realised that to talk about a ‘set’ was probably a throwback to the 30s when children at Christmas were given every type of set, cowboy, Red Indian, conductor, nurse, it was end less, and irrespective of how cheap or expensive the set was, they all had a hat, – no hat, no fun! I remember, when I was very young, receiving a tram or bus, conductor’s set, with a little spring clip board of coloured tickets, a strap to go over the shoulders to carry the puncher, a bag for the toy money, not supplied in the cheaper sets, and an identification badge. Then my long-suffering family sat, line ahead, on kitchen chairs so I could pretend to be a bus-conductor. I don’t see such a proliferation of these sets on sale today at Christmas. Maybe the long suffering parents have put a ban on them for obvious reasons.
With so little traffic we played in the street, and there was one vicious game, which I’m sure the parents would not have approved of, that was regularly played in our district. We divided into two teams in competition, a boy from one team stood braced against the gable-end of the house, the next boy put his head between the first ones thighs and his shoulders against the thighs, so his head would not be thrust against the wall. The rest of the team bent down and one after the other copied the second boy, until there was a row of hunched backs. The second team then successively ran and jumped as far up the backs, and as hard as they could in an attempt to collapse them. The dangers in this game are evident.
We learned skills with hoops as high as ourselves, with a whipping tops and spinning tops, skills which were honed, because the pecking order was based upon skill. We learned to do tricks with practically everything that came to hand and when in the late 30s America sent us the Yo-Yo, that too was addressed with the same amount of care and attention. Some of us could not afford the real McCoy, and were palmed off with an English version, which never attained the heights of invention of the American ones. Earlier, as I had no father, my grandmother taught me boyish arts. She took me to the butcher’s to buy rib-bones of the right thickness and lengths, taught me to boil them until the meat fell free, to probe out the marrow, clean them and shape them to the hand, so they could be used, one set in each hand, one member held loosely between forefinger and thumb, one between second and third fingers, to rattle out rhythms like a music hall artist. She also taught me to play the Jews’ (jaws) Harp, the tin whistle, the mouth organ, to hoot like an owl through my thumbs and boxed hands, and I had sores on each corner of my mouth learning to whistle with four fingers.
Because life itself was simple and almost preordained, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that my generation must, from grandparents to grandchild, have played games that were very simple and a lot of them naive. Meccano and toy trains are probably the most common sophisticated choice that children enjoyed. Jigsaws, toy soldiers, scale models of cars, dolls and dolls’ houses for girls, were general. One can draw comparisons, and give explanations, but the rate of change in every sphere has been a progressive move to the more automated and sophisticated, and the throwaway society.
Boating ponds. My belief that the thirties were the ‘Golden Age’ has become a family joke. Not necessarily the happiest, nor, when I was the most fulfilled, far from it, but there seemed to be security in that nothing much changed and yet there was plenty to do, innocent things, such as a small child, being rowed, round the Boating Pond on Tooting Bec Common by the attendant, paid or bribed, while the parents stood on the bank. Later we propelled ourselves in a paddle boat, an ugly, blunt ended, green painted bucket, scorned by all but the tiniest. They had paddle handles for each hand, working independently, so one could steer and progress at a stately pace. One didn’t get too far before being called in. The next stage was a one-boy or two-boy canoe. At Tooting Bec Common the large pond with its inlets and islands gave scope for imaginative role-play. Later one advanced to the rowing boat, blunt ended to limit speed and damage. Here one learned to spin on a sixpence, hide from the attendant when time was nearly up, ram and splash and to take it when one was rammed or splashed in turn. We also learned when to hire the boat so that we had more than the prescribed time, one only needed to understand the operation of the crude timing system. The Council did a worthwhile job supporting the Boating Ponds; we expended energy, used our imagination and passed many a happy half hour for little cost. I can’t help wondering what affect the Health and Safety Regulations have had on boating ponds today