In an attempt to get things finished I am sorting out what’s left into (probably) six more posts, which I will try to write at the same time. (But, of course, it may be five or seven before I end!) This one will look at some of the things that entertained me – from early childhood to late adolescence. It’s roughly (only roughly) in chronological order.
I will start with what I remember as a young child at home. Toys were very much what we would now call gender biased so boys played Cowboys and Indians and had cap guns. Girls had dolls.
The two things I remember liking most were jigsaw puzzles and colouring books. Jigsaws came in different sizes and levels of difficulty and I worked my way up. I still like them and generally do a 1000-piece one at Christmas.
I think I must have appreciated precise two-dimensional shapes in a way that combined these two interests. For colouring books I had Lakeland pencils in a set with far more colours than the picture above. I would fill the shapes precisely to their edges.
(I am not what you would call artistic. I can copy, not very well, and I can colour in precisely. I used to love the idea of Painting by Numbers but I never had a set – maybe one day I will buy myself one.)
I also remember Airfix models and it looks as if they are still available. They were models of aeroplanes made by assembling lots of tiny injection moulded plastic parts with glue. I have said so often that we did not have plastic – so Airfix were setting new standards in the late Fifties. Wikipedia makes it clear that as the range grew in the Sixties it included vintage and modern cars, motorcycles, figures, trains, model railway accessories, military vehicles, famous ships, rockets and spaceships, as well as an ever-increasing range of aircraft.
Early School Games
As a very young child the game I remember playing was what we called ‘Gobs.’ After years of failure to find them, the picture above has appeared at last on the Internet. It was a version of the game of ‘Fivestones’ and we used small cubes with toothed edges like these. Basically you had to pick them up from the floor with one hand and catch some of them on the back of the hand.
As we grew older I saw other groups using what we called ‘Jacks.’
These pictures are modern versions. Jacks were metal and there was a single ball, probably made of rubber. I never learned this more modern version.
We also played Hopscotch. Chalk was much more common. Teaching was done in chalk on a blackboard. You just needed a layout something like this chalked out on the pavement or playground at school. You hopped forwards and backwards – I can’t remember the details.
Mostly in the playground we ran around and played what I know now as ‘Tag.’ We just called it ‘It.’
In the autumn we played ‘Conkers.’ You must know what conkers are – the fruit of the Horse-Chestnut tree. I suppose some of the fun was in finding and preparing you own. You had to drill a hole through them, after taking off the outer shell, using a long metal skewer and then thread a string into them. We knew and talked about methods of hardening conkers, either with vinegar or by baking in the oven, but I’m not sure that anyone actually did this. Modern ‘Health and Safety’ regulations seemed to have banned this game in many schools.
At home we used to have a dark wooden combined bureau and bookcase. Dark stained wood like mahogany used to be fashionable. I can’t remember a time before we had it and it is the only piece of furniture still in the family. The bookcase was always full of books that Dad must have acquired when he was quite young. They never changed.
There was a large chunky dictionary – Funk and Wagnells. I don’t think we used it much because it was American.
I remember a paperback book ‘One, Two, Three … Infinity’ by George Gamow about Mathematics and Science. Wikipedia says it was printed in 1947 aimed at intelligent laymen. There were others probably in the same series in astronomy and basic nuclear physics.
There were some large general books on anthropology and a five-part encyclopaedia. I can’t remember the name of the encyclopaedia but I remember its components. They were called: ‘A-Eng’, ’Eng-Hor’, ‘Hor-New’, ‘New-Sal’ and ‘Sal-Zyr.’
And there were the books Hoyle’s Card Games for One and Hoyle’s Card Games for Two.
[I remember these two books but we must have had a book with card games for four players. You will read further on about Solo Whist and Bridge.]
I probably read all of these, not all at once, but not all of the Encyclopaedia.
Early Card Games
As a family we grew up with cards. Mum must have taught us the early games. (I didn’t read the Hoyle’s books until much later.)
We started with Beggar-my-Neighbour but we didn’t call it that. I think we called it Beat my Neighbour. This is the sort of card game that depends entirely on luck – a two-player game that always finishes. (I remember this game from Great Expectations, where they called one of the cards the Knave. Even my memories don’t go far enough to remember when people used this word. It’s the Jack. But I do now know some older people who still call it a Knave!)
We also played Snap and we learned Patience. (As far as our family was concerned Patience meant the solitaire game known as Klondike. We never called it anything other than patience although later we sometimes played a type of Clock Patience.)
When we needed a game for more than two players we started playing Sevens and then simple versions of Rummy (not Canasta). These were games that had a bit more of a skill element and we learned about tactics. Sometimes going for what you want is not the best tactic. You have to prevent others from getting what they want.
Mum’s favourite game was Bezique, which she taught us. It’s a game for two players that came in a little box with its own set of cards.
Nan liked Cribbage, an older two person game that I think used to be the only card game that could legally be played in pubs. We had the scoring board that went with it.
At Boar Close we played outside because it was an open green without any traffic. I think we knew the other children but I can’t remember much from those days.
When we moved to the next house it was not practical to play in the street. (There was still virtually no traffic.) We were allowed to go to the park – Wanstead Recreation Ground next to Ilford Golf Club. The park is still there on the map and I don’t think it has changed much but the North Circular Road was not in the way then! Wanstead Park Road was a quiet road and we just walked to the park as we walked to school. We were unlikely to be troubled by any traffic. At the age of about eight I went there with my two brothers and sometimes stayed for hours. We went across the open grass, crossed the river and would just wander along the Roding in the woods.
Sometimes we took little fishing nets on bamboo poles fishing for tiddlers. I don’t remember ever catching anything. We didn’t have watches but were expected to be back in time for tea.
When we were older we went to Valentines Park, which is slightly more difficult to reach. We had to cross Cranbrook Road. This is a much larger park with ornamental lakes, a café and it even includes a cricket ground. I remember seeing squirrels there and we played at the children’s play area.
They just had swings and a rocking-horse and roundabout similar to the picture above. I suspect that modern Health and Safety regulations have seen the end of these!
Prior to 1967 Essex County Cricket did not have its own grounds. They used several cricket pitches in the county in rotation including the one at Valentines Park. [Yes, an early series of the Great British Bake Off was filmed at Valentines Mansion in the park.]
Here is something else Health and Safety would not have liked. When it snowed and we found somewhere where the snow had been trodden into ice we could make a slide. I am sure we used to have something like this outside Highlands School.
As young children we played Ludo and Snakes and Ladders but I don’t think they were very popular. We also had Chess and Draughts [US: Chequers] sets but these didn’t get used much either.
The one we did like was Monopoly, which we must have acquired somewhere around 1960. It lasted a lot longer than the others and could cope with any number of players in our family. The family did also try Cluedo a bit later.
I think I read quite a lot and I read some of the children’s classics like Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, the Wind in the Willows, the Water Babies and Treasure Island. But there were some that escaped me.
Once I reached Ilford County High School I made use of their library and read a lot.
I liked Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his Tarzan books but also read the Mars series starting with a Princess of Mars. I must have also liked Science Fiction from an early age. I found the C S Lewis trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength but somehow I was not aware of the Narnia series.
I won’t list all the Science Fiction I read but much of it dates from the Fifties and Sixties. I remember John Wyndham – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos, the Chrysalids and the Trouble with Lichen. The Death of Grass by John Christopher was another similar post-apocalyptic novel. I also read a lot by AE Van Vogt and Kurt Vonnegut of which the most famous is Slaughterhouse-Five. It was the era of Science Fiction, much of which in the form of collected short stories.
[Now some of what was Science Fiction has become science fact but much of it has been proved impossible or unlikely. We can no longer write about human-like civilizations on the Moon or Mars. We are left with endless Science Fantasy series set in semi-magical alternative realities.]
I read stories by Agatha Christie including And Then There were None. (I dare not give the original title, which is unacceptable now, but at the time I don’t think anyone considered it to be offensive.) I think my favourite author was PG Wodehouse, not only his Jeeves stories, also the Blandings Castle ones and Psmith. (I think I read some Bunter stories by Frank Smith but the character is much more linked in my mind to the television series.)
Many of these were the black paperback Penguin Classics – The Canterbury Tales, Pilgrim’s Progress, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Gulliver’s Travels, Crime and Punishment, Revelations of Divine Love … and many more.
I particularly remember four blue paperback books that I read from cover to cover. Animals Without Backbones in two volumes introduced me to the science of animal life – and Man and the Vertebrates also in two volumes completed the elementary introduction. Both were written in the Thirties so my knowledge of taxonomy isn’t completely up-to-date.
As we grew older we moved to the varieties of Whist games. For several players there was Knockout Whist – starting with seven cards each. You had to get at least one trick to go on to the next round and it went down each time – six cards down to one. Crazy Whist started with eight cards and again went down each round – but this game was scored. Before each round you said how many tricks you hoped to make. You scored one for each trick with a bonus of ten if your prediction was right.
We learned Solo Whist played with four players and using all 52 cards each round. You had to bid to make things like Abundance (nine or more tricks) or Misere (no tricks!)
There was also a game called Napoleon a bit like a five card version of Solo Whist.
Later as a family we learned to play Bridge, a game I now still play several times a week. Dad taught us and sometimes we played until one or two o’clock at night round the snooker table. With three brothers and two sisters we usually had enough to play. I think we started with Auction Bridge, learned from a book, but very soon changed to the more modern Contract Bridge. The game has changes a bit but I always enjoyed it.
I can’t complete this blog without a few words about films. The ones I remember from the cinema were the Carry On series but from earlier I still remember the old films that were shown on television on Sunday afternoons.
There were some that seemed to come up again and again.
I Remember Mama, from 1948, was a melodramatic film about bringing up a family in hard times, remembered for the scenes where Mama counted the pennies and announced, “We won’t have to go to the bank.” (We learn at the end that there is no bank. But they survived.)
Mr Blandings Dream House, also 1948, was a comedy starring Cary Grant.
My favourite was Bringing up Baby from 1938, described by Wikipedia as a screwball comedy, starred Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. I still class this as the second best film ever made (after It’s a Wonderful Life.) Just to give you an idea of it, you have to know that ‘Baby’ is someone else’s pet leopard, which at some time escapes and gets confused with a really wild escaped leopard. To recapture Baby Katherine Hepburn sings I Can’t Give You Anything But Love to it. And the film ends with the hero and heroine on top of the skeleton of a brontosaurus as it collapses.
I suppose I should mention Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but I think this has been long enough already.