Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A St George's Day lament for the lost England of play-proof toys

Before last year’s Olympics and Jubilee, many commentators agonised over whether the Union Flag could ever again symbolise national unity, because of its attempted appropriation by various far right groups.

Yet New Labour’s hijacking of the red rose for party political purposes has been calmly accepted with a shrug.

Admittedly this only really troubles me once a year: but it is today, St George’s Day. When I shall proudly wear an English rose in my buttonhole and wait resignedly for some bright spark to say: “Well, I never had you down as a Miliband supporter.”

Luckily only a pale pink rose was available at Hann Towers this morning

To which I shall doubtless reply with a variant of my standard response to Labour canvassers: “I’m not, I just look stupid.”

It is something of a challenge being a patriot these days, particularly as the unlikely father of young boys. I was brought up in the 1950s to believe that British was always best. Nearly all my toys were proudly stamped “Made in England by Meccano Limited”, usually followed by the mysterious yet somehow reassuring “Patent Pending”.

I once made the serious mistake of thinking that “Empire Made” also counted as British, until my Dad pointed out that it was a polite euphemism for “Made in Hong Kong” and therefore rubbish. As was anything emanating from Japan or other points east.

His only concession, made with the teeth-gritted reluctance of one who had been shelled on the Normandy beaches, was that the Germans could be relied upon to make some things even better than we could.

When I acquired a level crossing for my Hornby train set, it came out of the box ready to use and was made of solid metal so indestructible that I still have it to this day, along with many of my Dinky cars and trucks.

True, they have sharp edges and kiddies probably die of lead poisoning if they are foolish enough to treat them as ju-jubes, but you can subject them to repeated multiple pile-ups without so much as scratching their paintwork.

Compare and contrast the Hornby trains of today which are my three-year-old’s pride and joy. All “Made in China”, naturally. I keep meaning to buy a stopwatch and take modest bets with myself on how long each addition to his layout will last. The level crossing I installed on Friday made it a creditable 24 hours before the plastic barriers were snapped.

On the one hand nearly all this stuff is labelled as not being suitable for the under-threes. However, no one should interpret this as meaning that it is suitable for the over-threes. It merely means that the Elfin Safety experts consider that children who have passed this milestone are less likely to shove the small parts in their gobs and choke to death.

The reality is in the very small print on the engine shed I recently acquired, precisely because I was impressed by its apparent robustness: “Detailed scale model for adult collectors. Scale model not designed for play.”

Not suitable for children

Let me tell you, Mr Toy / Model Company Mogul, playing is all any of us want to do with miniature trains, whether we are coming up to four or 60, and however much we may try to pretend that we are really constructing scale model dioramas to provide an educational insight into our industrial past. 

Following recent revelations about the true value of my “investment grade” model collection, I think I may as well give it to my boy Charlie to enjoy. The Hornby Dublo 3-rail diecast models would probably emerge unscathed from a North Korean nuclear attack, so it will be interesting to see how much damage he can inflict on them.

His mother may veto the spring-loaded rockets on the Tri-ang “Battle Zone” military train in case they put his eye out, but I feel sure that the circus train with the giraffe which ducks down before low bridges will afford hours of innocent pleasure.

Well, it certainly will to me, at any rate. After all, that is what toy trains are for.

Playing with and having fun. It just seems a shame, on this red letter and red rose day of English identity, that they cannot be “Made in England” any more.


Written for, but not published in, the Newcastle Journal of 23 April 2013. Though, to be fair, it was published in the Newcastle Journal of 24 April 2013.

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