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...a sweatshop of moxie

Saturday, July 30, 2005


When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

Like many Gen-X'ers -- of which I am a late edition --, I have trouble growing up, and that point was honed rather sharply to me on Thursday, when my mother handed me a button I had once bought, which she had just found stuck inside a drawer. The button pin had black lettering on a white background with the words...

I Refuse To Grow Up

...written on them.

We both laughed. We both understood, because it's a bit of an inside joke really.

There can be no other outcome for me, an only child, sent away to boarding school at age 8, with a traditional and cossetting family to mollycoddle me until I marry and leave my father's home, than for me to be a bit of an eternal child.

I am, after all, the product not only of my own personality, but of my upbringing. Some children rebel against their parents' strictures and reject the hothouse atmosphere of dependence.

But I embraced it.

So since Thursday, I've been in rather a nostalgic mood, as I approach a landmark birthday this coming month.

If I didn't wax nostalgic, I think I would be a little more apprehensive, a little more scared of what comes next.

Nostalgia is a defence mechanism. A defence mechanism for the unknown. For the future.

I have moved so many times, that sadly, I have few childhood photo albums left. They have been either lost, mildewed, or frayed by the unsentimental waywardness of time.

And maybe it is this unavailability of seeing myself grow up, in the constant photo-taking that seems to be the lot of every modern child, that makes me remember things even more acutely than might be the case.

Memories have to be forced to the surface, like a sailboat during bathtime, which won't stay down.

And these are the three memories that bubble to the surface today:

- I had a maternal great-grandfather, a rather taciturn but loving Austrian gentleman, who was a wizard with his hands.

He was one of those instinctively creative people you hear so much about, but never meet too often in this life. The kind of person who invents whole worlds out of nothingness, through the sheer power of their imagination. CS Lewis, AA Milne, JRR Tolkien and now JK Rowling.

People with enchantment in their hearts.

But this great-grandfather didn't spin tales, so much as fashion them with his hands. Maybe, like Ingmar Bergman's memories in Fanny och Alexander, he was remembering his own youth indirectly for me, as he adored creating magic lanterns, puppet theatres, and wood toys just for me.

The relics of a simpler world. A Victorian world.

He had a fully-kitted out carpenter's room in his cavernous Viennese home, where he would disappear for days as I waited outside, wondering what treat he would produce shyly in due time a few days later.

Then he would bade me to go to a special room, rather like a real theatre, probably used for family plays, tableaux vivants and the like, with a proper red curtain and heavy gold chairs strewn about.

The curtain rolled back, and there was my very own puppet theatre, not Punch and Judy so much as stringed puppets, marionettes, which I need not mention, he had made too.

Wooden they were but not this painted

And he would enact funny little plays, but always couching the stories along the lines I wanted to hear.

"What do you want to see today? Where do you want to go?"

And invariably, I wanted to go and "meet" historical characters, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, William the Conqueror, St. Louis, and especially, Henry V.

For instead of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brüdern Grimm, my great-grandmother, his wife, would read to me Shakespearean plays at night, just before bedtime. I think it is then that my twin loves of reading and writing were born. In fact, I'm sure of it.

He died when I was 7.

I wonder whatever happened to my puppet theatre. I like to think it survived the unsentimental waywardness of time.

- I am at Hamleys in Regent Street. I am around 5 or 6, and it's a Sunday, the only day I have my parents to myself.

My father works 16-hour days at hospital. When he arrives home, I am asleep. When I awake, he's gone. But Sunday is our day. Our family day.

Fifth floor, please

I enter holding my mother's hand, and we have a pact. Every weekend, I can buy one toy.

It can be any toy I want, but before I ask for it, I have to "convince" my parents to buy it by presenting an argument of why it's worthy to be bought.

I am roaming around each of the floors.

What shall I buy? Another Barbie? No. I already have 3. Three different "models", but that's all they had back then, and I have run out of arguments about buying a repeat Barbie.

I wander to the boys floor, quite unwittingly. And why not -- I love toy soldiers too.

But I pass the toy soldiers, as little boys stare at me for invading their turf. How sexist children are, on both sides.

And then I see it. It's a Howzat set.

I have always wanted to have one, and so I screw up the courage to ask for it, as I bring my father up to the sales counter, and the sales assistant leans over, puzzlingly. I squeeze my father's hand and point.

"Howzat? I used to play that for hours. Right. Why do you think you should have this toy?", he says, using our special weekend phrase.

I know immediately why I had always wanted it. "Because if I buy it, you will play with me more."

We leave Hamleys with my Howzat firmly in hand.

- Honey was an old bay mare who had taught generations of Hyde Park children to ride. It is a weekday, and I am having my riding lesson. I am around 10 years old, and it's summer.

Summers in London tended to be always drizzly in my memory, but that day was an ethereally sunny day. Somewhere beyond there are children, and I am sure I will have a go at playing pirates later on, near the swings.

"Pay attention! Ease gently with the reins. Bring in your hands. Easy!"

I don't recall the riding instructor's name, and I actually don't remember much about the riding lessons, save that I loved them. Children always love what they do well.

I am riding in a circle, trying to get a rhythm of the trot down. Trot. Trot. Trot. Gentle. Smooth. The horse receives its cue from your hands, it senses your nervousness or haughty command, and behaves accordingly.

When I get too dizzy or she goes too fast, I grab hold of her mane instinctively. Oh dear. She knows I'm scared of her and the speed of the trot now. I won't be able to control her, willing her to my commands again.

But I needn't have worried.

Honey is a forgiving horse. The best horses always are.

Rotten Row - midmorning

Those are my three memories of my childhood, the snaps I have retained in my memory in lieu of actual Polaroids.

But I am pensive now.

Could it be - maybe - maybe only the truly happy, have trouble leaving their childhoods behind?

When I was child, I was around adults, I thought as an adult, wanted to be an adult, but when I grew up, I wanted to remain a child forever.

UPDATE: Try this site if you want to play an online version of Owzthat. H/T: Kullrad.


  • Lots of atmosphere in this recounting of part of your childhood. Drifted over here from Althouse, and this got me thinking even more about my own early years.

    I liked this part:

    I know immediately why I had always wanted it. "Because if I buy it, you will play with me more."

    Kinda took me back to my the days when my father would take my sister and me into Manhattan around Christmas for toy shopping.

    A lovely post.

    By Blogger Finn Alexander Kristiansen, at Sat Jul 30, 08:28:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Good grief, I only just posted to Ann Althouse's site too.

    First, thank you so much for your generous comments, Finn.

    In fact, I confess, I wanted to spark these types of memories in whomever reads this post, because no matter how tough some childhoods were, I think most people realise there's always a gossamer-thin airiness, full of wonder, about them too.

    I have to tell you though, when I went to FAO Schwartz in NYC as an adult already, the atmosphere paled as compared to Hamleys -- but then, I didn't have your eyes as a child. :)

    Thanks for the visit.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sat Jul 30, 08:47:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Sadly, many toy stores are closing because kids seem to be maturing more quickly and want the latest video game systems or cell phones. I think 20 will be the new 30 in a few years!

    My memories of toys come from them being destroyed almost weekly by my cousins, Tony & Tony. Fun Times.

    By Blogger Renato, at Sun Jul 31, 12:09:00 am GMT-4  

  • Atari Pele video game anyone? ;)

    Each generation believes the generations that follow them are incurably "modern", read --unchildlike, too advance for their times, and down-right disagreeable.

    They perceive them as lacking some mysterious Ingredient-X, which presumably their own generation was the very last to have.

    But though you can't argue with stores closing, and trends, I have great trust and confidence in the Millenials...who are rising.

    The 1980's generation will feel even more nostalgic, than the late 1960's/1970's one of ours does today.

    If I were you all, I would start investing in Hasbro stocks immediately.

    You'll thank me the moment the Slinkies and Etch-a-Sketches make a comeback.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sun Jul 31, 01:55:00 am GMT-4  

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