MY EARLY YEARS Children’s pastimes 1

 

MAKE, DO, MEND

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s meant that boys (and girls) had hobbies. With no technology except hammers and nails or needle and thread, we would MAKE things. I would DO things like sport and dancing and collected anything from tadpoles to stamps. If something didn’t work, I would MEND it, from toys to motorcycles.

Nature

One of the easiest and cheapest things to do was ‘nature’. It was all around us, in parks, railway embankments, canals, streams, bomb sites and wasteland. We also had seasons. In the spring, we would walk through Bournville as crocuses and daffodils covered the wide road verges. On wasteland there might be ponds where you could catch frogs and toads and scoop up frog spawn which you would take home in a jar and watch as it turned into tadpoles.

  Frog spawn Toad Leeach CrayfishFrog spawn, toad, leech and crayfish. All from our local streams.

In the summer there were flowers to gather, fruit to pick, and daisy chains to make, all within walking distance of home. We would poke around the brooks and streams looking for sticklebacks, leeches or crayfish.

In the autumn you could go scrumping for apples which were always unripe and gave you stomach ache. You would keep quiet at home about this; for such ailments Mom would administer a dose of brimstone and treacle[1]. There were also chestnuts which you would alternatively bake or soak in vinegar to harden them in order to play ‘conkers’[2].

In winter there was less evidence of life. But there was ice; you could break off icicles and suck them. Or sprinkle water on pathways to turn them into ice slides. No-one told us about these things; we went and found out for ourselves guided by our own children’s folklore.

Eagle owl

Glowering Eagle owl.

As I grew older, nature trips became more organised. I was a bird-watcher and went to see a man at Birmingham Town Hall who talked about owls and brought an eagle owl with him. It sat on a perch all evening glowering at me from twelve feet away. I was the only boy with permission to enter the extensive wild woodland in the school grounds to record the bird population. I won prizes for my nature drawings and for re-labelling the school’s large collection of stuffed birds.

Science

Exploring nature would often lead to scientific pursuits in biology and chemistry. I learned how to skin mice (dead ones) and stretch and preserve their furry skins. I would boil the heads of birds and small mammals to clean them of flesh and then soak them in carbon tetrachloride to remove traces of fat. I had a macabre collection of body parts, insects and small crustaceans pinned to a board.

A wide range of chemicals were available from local chemists; corrosive, poisonous, inflammable or explosive. If there were controls they were hardly applied and even as a 15-year old I could easily have built an incendiary bomb. Chemistry sets, despite their array of different chemicals, were not interesting because most of the experiments were sensible and unlikely to do any harm because of the small quantities. Instead, we mixed coloured liquids to make other colours or revolting smells, built erupting volcanoes, and made mixtures that crackled and sparked when lit.

I built radios from basic components, called ‘crystal’ sets. To obtain radio reception I strung a 75-foot aerial from my bedroom to the end of our garden. These rudimentary radios did not need a power supply, operating only on the minute power of the broadcast signal. Sound came through headphones (army surplus). When transistors[3] were became available in the early 1960s I was able to buy the components and build an amplifier. This needed battery power but I was able to attach a speaker and listen without earphones. My radio was built on a piece of wood with wires connecting various components; a mess of wires but it worked.

Building

Although I would make things like radios from scratch, there were also construction toys, if your parents could afford them. Meccano was the most famous but we would only have second hand sets with parts missing. Instead of the massive engineering projects depicted on the cover we would be lucky to assemble a small monoplane from the parts we had. They were also incredibly fiddly with their small bolts and square nuts. Unless you were building something originally made from girders and flat sheet metal, your model just didn’t look like right.

We also had a Bayko set which allowed you to build a house from plastic parts. As usual, our efforts never looked like the picture on the box. Lego began producing its plastic bricks in 1958 but they didn’t reach us before we grew up.

Airfix collageAirfix needs no introduction.

Every boy built Airfix kits, most of us started with the famed Spitfire. I could never get on with the plastic cement which would go everywhere and melt the plastic. I wasn’t very good at painting either but railway locos painted all-over black caused few problems. My best model was a kit of a Mini which I motorised to race on my friend’s Scalextric track. It had a good turn of speed but it would slowly disintegrate due to my poor glue technique.

Scalextric needed a large space to lay out the track; the same went for a train set. We didn’t have the space but I would go to other boys’ houses where they did. One or two had large railway layouts, all hand built, which belonged to their fathers. The dream was to run a Hornby or Triang train with its electric motor and a rake of coaches on your own track. It remained a dream unfulfilled; all I could afford was a small loco, a few trucks and a short stretch of track made by Lone Star.

Matchbox bus 2Lone Star 2

Toys were made of metal.

These were half the size of 00 gauge and thus called 000 gauge[4]. Made entirely of diecast metal they had no motor; I would spend hours shunting trucks by hand along a Y-shaped piece of track. I bought them from the TASCOS[5] department store at the bottom of Umberslade Road. I would make regular visits on the pretext of waiting for new models but at age eleven my income was limited and my layout grew very slowly.

It was easier to build a model bus fleet. Lesney made Matchbox models and their no.5 was popular. I had several and repainted them in my own livery of green and white as ‘Perry Motor Services’. There were also trolleybuses and coaches and my fleet grew to a dozen or so. I even converted other Matchbox models such as lorries by making cardboard bus bodies for them[6].

Collecting

We collected everything. Apart from model trains and buses, animal body parts and radio components, I would have collections of pebbles, leaves (especially in autumn), old bottles and jars (some might carry a reclaimable deposit), bus tickets, cards from chewing gum, cigarette cartons, matchbox labels, foreign coins. None of these would cost anything – they were provided by relatives and swapped with friends or simply picked up off the road.

PennyBlackGreyScale

The world’s first postage stamp; the Penny Black (1840). Proudly reproduced by me on a poster at fifty times actual size.

Dad collected stamps and encouraged us to do so; for a short time, all four of us children had collections. Every Saturday he would lay out four rows of 50 stamps or so[7]. Each row was of equal value and we tossed a coin to decide who would choose first. Our collections grew slowly and I began to buy them myself ‘on approval’. I learned a lot from those stamps; I wanted to find out what those foreign scripts meant, where were those faraway places with strange sounding names, why did so many countries carry the portrait of British monarchs[8]. I read about postal history and a school project involved the production of a large poster with an oversize Penny Black carefully detailed by myself.

Birds x4  Upupa Epops

I combined bird-watching with philately and won a school prize for a collection of stamps showing birds of Britain and Europe[9].

These were our indoor activities. As I grew older I would venture further afield …

To be continued.

© Derek Perry 2017. Not to be produced without permission for any purpose. Illustrations are from several sources (not credited – please advise if images have been used without permission).

 

[1] Brimstone is an old-fashioned term for sulphur; treacle was used to make it palatable. Although often described as a ‘Victorian remedy’ my Mom used it on us until the 1960s.

[2] The hard, brown fruits of the horse chestnut tree would be pierced and a string drawn through them. You would take turns to try to hit your opponent’s conker and break it to pieces. Why am I trying to explain this?

[3] The transistor itself was a black plastic cylindrical component about 5 millimetres long with three wires coming out of it. It replaced the large glass vacuum tubes that radios and televisions used at the time. 

[4] Approximately N gauge. My loco was about 4cm long.

[5] Ten Acres and Stirchley Co-operative Society – our local ‘Co-Op’.

[6] Fifty years later I set up a company to manufacture model buses.

[7] This selection process had started when we were much younger but with rows of sweets.

[8] I inherited Dad’s collection of thousands of stamps. I could not maintain it so I sold some in order to concentrate on his collection of British Empire stamps of King George VI. I have continued to fill gaps and the collection remains a memorial to Dad and a family heirloom.

[9] Collecting stamps taught me a lot about history, geography and, in this case, ornithology. The exotic bird is European has a wonderful Latin name; Upupa epops. Not seen in Britain but when I saw one in France hopping along the road I knew exactly what it was and I was exultant.

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