On the night of December 24th, 1984, my brother in the bunk above mine forced me (I can’t remember the exact nature of the forcing, perhaps just incessant asking rather than physical torture. Perhaps blackmail) to tell him what he was getting for Christmas. I knew. Had I seen it? Had I been told? It was the Playmobil (we called them playpeople) pirate ship. He didn’t believe me. We knew it was a rare prize of a thing. Expensive. Beyond price. He was gobsmacked when it appeared. Then, we were between homes, living in a flat close to my uncle’s house, and to where our new house would be, in a village close to Cambridge, on the edge of the Fens. The bunks were solid pine things, and my uncle had etched his initials into the bunk that was now mine: the bottom of course, for the top bunk is by rights the claim of the older brother. The natural order of things.
I remember this today, because I’ve been drafted in to help with the childcare for my nephew and niece. My nephew started school two weeks ago. My niece is at nursery. Binh Tam, your aunty’s here, calls Miss Williams, his teacher, and he rushes out grinning. He gives me his homework book, and the little suitcase with rockets and astronauts on it that he prefers to the more usefully shaped schoolbags that the school has given out. Inside, it has a plastic toy seaplane, that he took to show and tell. And then he asks if he can have a lolly. That’s aunty’s prerogative and I pay forty pence for two Mr Freezes. Well that’s what they were called when I was a kid, and I think that’s what they’re still called. There’s been 200% inflation on the price since then. He looks at me warily as he hands me his choice. He’s never allowed cola, but I can’t refuse him this. We all know the cola-flavoured one is is the best, and since it’s the one I’m going to have, I’d be a hypocrite. It’s completely familiar, this crush in the shop, children and parents, grey flannel and white shirts. The shopkeeper is like an auctioneer; expertly pricing up and sizing up, taking notes, coins, distributing change.
My nephew explains to me that if you crunch up the ice, and let the Mr Freeze melt, you end up with juice at the bottom that you can suck. Teaching your aunt to suck Freezes, I laugh. He doesn’t get the joke. On the way home, we stop at a playground. There’s a climbing frame, a swing that’s actually a big cauldron. Some playground designer has done the science and whatever g-force acts on the swing is enough to prevent all sizes and shapes of children flying into oblivion even if they’re not holding on. He’s a little wary of too-high and too-fast, despite his bravado enthusiasm, but he’s giggling hysterically as I send him skyward so that the chains slack, and I have to jump to push the rim. This is one of many playgrounds dotted around the neighbourhood that we go to, and it’s tiny, but the equipment is wonderful. I remember two phases at the small playground where I grew up. That mad old six-seater wooden rocking horse that we used to buck wildly in an attempt to make it fly. It was replaced by something more new-fangled that I can’t quite remember. Those wooden slatted roundabouts: you had to beg release from whichever hare-brained child was in charge of velocity. Swings that so much of the time had been sent over the crossbars by bigger kids. Wicksteed Park. Kettering. It’s burned into my mind’s eye from stepping up those iron treads, stamped with that name, a thousand times before performing some set on the slide that I couldn’t get my body to do nowadays. Watch me! Watch me! The kids say as they go down side-by-side, on their fronts or backs, or turning as they go.
I look for the Wicksteed badge, but none of the equipment is obviously branded. I look them up later, and I’m amused to find that ‘heritage’ is a word they use for the equipment that I remember so clearly. Wicksteed Park still exists. The second oldest theme park in Britain according to Wikipedia, founded in 1921. A Unitarian tool manufacturer committed to suffrage, intent on building a model village, builds a safe, family-friendly playscape as peace celebration following the end of World War One, and branches out into manufacturing playground equipment. The company is still a leading supplier. It’s one of those wonderfully philanthropic explosions that we still feel today. I’d already realized that Kettering’s iron ore and steel manufacturing history, and the inevitable non-conformism that comes with such enterprises must have had something to do with it, but it’s another of those pleasing discoveries that are somehow also disturbing: my nephew and path dependency. There’s no escaping history.
After we’ve picked up my niece from nursery and the initial bounce has worn off, I see how tired they both are. I find myself singing the song that’s been stuck in my head in order to keep them from getting fractious. It’s stuck because of one of my niece, Binh An’s, toys that her grandparents in Vietnam have bought for her. I should hate it, but I can’t help thinking it the most wonderful thing in the world. Hello Kitty is older than me, and I loved the suburban London-Japanese feline when I was her age. The tune is stuck in my head, and I realize I don’t actually know its origin. I go to Youtube of course, and I find that the Chipmunks have been around a lot longer than I thought. It was first a hit in 1958 for David Seville (and Alvin). In a Youtube hole, we’re lead into the Monster Mash, and Disney’s 1920s Silly Symphonies. The kids are enchanted. It’s funny really. There is so much new stuff – she loves Peppa Pig; he loves Go-Jetters – but enchantment is enchantment.
My brother patiently rigged the Playmobil pirate ship. Wrote, Cutty Shark, on the smooth plastic space on the prow, with the special pen designed for just that purpose. It’s still in good nick. There’s the difference. It’s one of the things we’ve not given the kids full access to. Perhaps the sheer amount of stuff they get means they care less. Perhaps the fact that I’m not sure the pirate ship is all that much more expensive in actual terms than it was in 1984. Plastic is cheap. Injection moulding has revolutionized everything. Synthetic materials, timber treatments. These kids know superfluity, abundance. The playgrounds are wonderful things, no more skinning your knees on ashphalt, or peeling paint – it’s smooth wood, rubberized wet pour – everything for splinterless little hands, free from chips of gravel embedded in blood. And then Aunty, at the touch of a button, can recall the ‘heritage’ of childhood, the Chipmunks, dancing skeletons, Wicksteed Park, preserved in humming google barges somewhere. A pity she didn’t preserve King Eddy, encased and labeled. In the short lifetime of my beloved nephew, he’s lost my wise ruler’s crown, cloak, sword and shield (intact since c. 1985). At least he still has his jet black hair. King Eddy always lives! I would cry before whisking him from danger, as yet again the Playmobil pirates, aided by US cavalry would storm my castle, dispose of its knights.
It’s a wonderful thing to witness, childhood. There’s good contemporary archaeology work done on it, not least by my colleague Sarah May. It’s bewildering and beguiling. You all know this, of course. And it’s exhausting. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to write this up, so I’ll end by marveling again at those that do it without back up – financial, familial, emotional – you really are amazing.