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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Toys from your childhood.

We have this nostalgic, almost romantic, view of happy childhood memories of playing in sunbaked gardens with our toys that were so de rigueur back then.  I am talking about the 70s for those of you old enough to remember such classics as Stretch Armstrong, Slime, Etch-a-Sketch and Subbuteo.

Granted, some of these were indeed way ahead of their times and provided hours of fun. But some were just plain odd and downright pointless. Here are some of my favourite toys that were quickly packed up in its original packaging and left to rot in some musky old shed.

Swingball – I presume the aim of this game is to improve your forehand and backhand, but the only skill I learnt from this hazard-on-a-stick was to avoid being hit in the back of the head with a tennis ball traveling at 36 miles per hour. The object of the game was to be the first one to get the ball to the top of the pole, using plastic paddles that looked like Chinese-made mini tennis rackets, thus releasing a piece of cheap plastic on the top to indicate a winner. The ball was attached to a piece of rope or cord that would wind around a spiral piece of metal track, thus enabling either opponent to hit the ball so hard that the opposing fool would have to duck out of the way to avoid being concussed by the target ball. If the combatant then proceded to demolish any sense of self belief or courage that you may have had the ball would continue to travel up the spiral and to the top, releasing the pathetic plastic pop-up egg cup.

As I mentioned earlier, unless you are a sadistic tennis semi-pro, the only thing you can do is stick your plastic paddle out at full stretch in the vain hope that somehow it will stop the ball. Now, in my day, these paddles would way about 4kg so when you are a 26kg stick insect you can’t really hold it for any extended period of time (in fact only long enough to execute a pathetic air swing, much to the mirth of your opponent). Oh, and the other thing I learnt was to play on with huge blisters and callouses on my hand from gripping the paddle as if my life depended on it.

This is how the manufacturers would have you believe how easy it is to play (look even grown ups can play Swingball with children):

What it doesn’t show you is that Daddy is actually thrashing the living daylights out of young Johnny – look at him he isn’t even lifting his racket because he knows he just needs one well-timed shot to scare the bejesus out of his son and win the game.

This is a more realistic reaction (complete and utter bewilderment as to why anyone would want to play this game in anything other than mayoral chains and a 3-piece suit):

My worst childhood nightmare (barring a bunch of clowns playing swingball):

Space Hopper – now if someone had said to you (as a 6 year old child) that you could have a giant red plastic testicle to bounce up and down on in this day and age, you would be locked up and have the key not only thrown away but the locks changed every night by a nice big bloke with tattoos called Violet. But that is exactly what the Space Hopper was (albeit with some horns to hold on to. Honestly, I think half the toys and children’s shows were invented by some sex-starved hippies blissfully stoned off their rockers). The premise with this bouncing gonad is that by sticking this swiss ball with a freaky animal face on it between your legs you could propel yourself down your local high street without the need for walking. There were some recorded incidents of 7 year old boys that bounced as high as 25 metres in the air without injuring themselves or their private parts. The fact that you were in actual fact hopping on your own and using your feet and legs to propel yourself meant nothing to the geniuses that marketed this toy. You can try it yourself: crouch down in the middle of the room and bounce up and down and see how far you get. Now put your hands near your crotch area as if you were holding a bull by the horns and…hey presto! You have just used an imaginary Space Hopper. Feel cheated? I did.

Here is a picture of one of the world’s most useless inventions:

(Although I do actually think this guy has a swollen testicle coming out of his jeans – “I sat in gum!”)

Skateboard – a rather energetic way of getting nowhere fast. Still used today by normally couch-ridden and pedestrian 27 year olds who think that its quite gnarly to work in IT during the day and extend a middle finger to society by carving up the pavement on a piece of wood slightly bigger than a paddle pop.

Pogo stick – literally a stick that goes nowhere…fast. 

Scooter – almost as pointless and wanky as a skateboard, but at least you can rest your hands on the handlebar. Can’t imagine how we managed to stop ourselves from slamming into a postal van in my day; we never had the thing you stand on that makes the back wheel lock up. I think we just used to jump off and watch it sail into the side of our neighbours’ cars. See also skateboards that have a mind of their own.

Etch-a-Sketch – great if we lived in a world with no curves or round things.

Choppers – another name for a bicycle with one small wheel at the front and large one at the back. I still can’t work out why they had to be different sizes. I mean you don’t see a Hells Angel riding along some Californian highway with a tiny baby wheel at the front and a large one at the back. My only guess is that it makes steering it easier, but this cannot be true either as I remember riding home from school one day on my fake Chopper – I think it was called a Scrambler (which I actually shared with my brothers – how 3 boys can share 1 bike I will never know) – and I hit a pothole and the small wheel virtually disappeared into the tarmac and I went arse over tit onto the road. The handlebar was dented and twisted but I think we managed to fix it. But the handling was atrocious; because the front wheel was so small as soon as you turned 45 degrees the whole thing would topple over and you would end up with the handlebars wrapped around your midriff and grazed knees. Anyway, they were very cool in those days. They had this white band on the seat, which was so long that you could have fitted 3 people on it, that had a safety warning on it: ‘This bicycle is not constructed to carry passengers’. Not designed to carry passengers? You could have transport a whole Vietnamese family and their entire worldly possessions on one of these bikes. Anyway, you judge for yourselves:

Raleigh Chopper Mk1 (circa 1971)

Raleigh Chopper plus drug dealer (circa 1987):

Raleigh Chopper Mk2 (the only real difference between this and the Mk1 is that this one now has a automatic gearbox taken from a ’67 Ford Mustang):

Now that I think of it, these toys are not so much useless, its just that the misguided marketing boffins were from a time when life was simpler when a stick and ball were all you needed to keep boredom at bay. No doubt some of these are now regarded as retro-cool; but I for one won’t be bidding for a slightly used and deflated Space Hopper that’s for sure. A vintage Chopper on the other hand…

More leisure time. That’s what they promised us. A future filled with time and space-saving devices, such as clothes that clean themselves, cars that park themselves and appliances that can make our lives so much easier. Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, but the thing is, these inventions don’t actually make our lives easier. Take the self-parking car for example, what insurance company worth its AAA rating is going to insure someone that lets a 1.5 tonne heap of metal park itself? And how does it know which space it will fit in? I have been driving since I was 17 and I still can’t judge which spaces I can fit into; its only after a couple of circuits of the block and careful consideration that I am confident that I can squeeze my 2-tonne tractor into that space outside my front door. The issue is that it doesn’t make our lives easier because we would constantly worry that the computer would throw a wobbly and suddenly go psycho and smash into anything it sees with its glowing robotic eyes (have you seen the episode of The Simpsons, when the robots at the Itchy and Scratchy Land go berserk?). Its got group class action written all over it. Heavens forbid what it will be like when cars can actually drive themselves.

Robot vacuum cleaners are another invention that is supposed to save us time. Except that it can’t climb stairs or put chairs up or get into corners. So, in effect, it can only do about 70% of the work required to vacuum a house. By the time you have set up sensors to stop it falling down steps and committing Roomba suicide, or moved all your precious furniture out of the way, you may as well have done it yourself (or called in the cleaners). And can it empty itself? Oh no, you still have to wipe its arse.

My theory is that there will never be machines that will make our lives easier because if there were ever such things in existence, we would never need anything else and these companies would be redundant. So they make appliances that are almost indispensable, just reliable enough to get your through the first 2 years of leisure-enhancing nirvana until it breaks down. And not just slightly fail, but catastrophic failure. All those old-world appliances that you threw away because now that you have this one thing to replace them all are now just relics on some scrap heap on the outskirts of Blacktown. Of course, you can’t exactly get them back now so you have to walk up to the TV and change the channel manually, except that there are no longer any buttons to change the channels on the TV as they were deemed redundant when TVs were controlled remotely.

Why am I ranting on about this you ask? Well, I have to come clean and admit that I have an agenda here. You see, about 2 months ago my universal remote ceased to charge itself, so I asked the manufacturer if they could send me a new battery (which I would gladly pay for). Not as easy as it sounds. Firstly, they would need photo proof that the battery is not charging. How on earth, I hear you ask, do you show that a battery is no longer charging? No matter, I take some nice photos of my remote, the battery that no longer wants to play ball, my invoice (as proof of purchase), and the serial number. I am tempted to take one of me holding the device to prove that I am in fact a real person and not some cyber weirdo that likes to annoy tech companies.

Another 5 weeks pass and by now its nearly Christmas and the thought of not having my beloved remote throughout the busiest thumb pressing season of the year is almost unbearable. Luckily, I have a newborn daughter to keep me amused for the festive season. So whilst embarking on a Sleepless in Seattle type relationship with a Filipino call centre lady, my quest for a life of leisurely couch time goes on. Now I have 3 remotes to contend with. Was life ever really that complicated before we needed all these gadgets that save us, on average, 38 seconds a day?

Two and a half months later I finally get my replacement handset after much photoshopping and frustration. What they didn’t tell me when I bought the thing was that after about 2 years the battery starts to swell up and becomes stuck in the battery compartment, thus rendering it useless in terms of being able to recharge it. But now that I have my new remote I now also have to re-programme it. These so-called smart gadgets are about as smart as a dog with a new trick – you still have to remind it how to perform basic functions like ‘turn on TV’ or ‘turn off TV’ and not switch on microwave when I want to watch Murder She Wrote. Again, if such as gadget existed that could learn all my commands and be smart enough to realise that if I wanted to listen to CDs on high volume at 2am I would have told it to do so, we would never need to buy any of their products again, or need to talk to call centre staff in the Phillippines.

Clothes that clean themselves, however…