Children of each generation will have their own totems from their childhood. You can date them by the toys and TV programmes they watched. Whereas my children had Barney and Teletubbies, I had Bill and Ben and the Herb Garden.
I can still feel the wooden block set that I would play with for hours – often driving Matchbox cars around incongruous Romanesque ruins. I’ve discussed the joys of Lego before but in my youth there were books too. I enjoyed reading fiction but more than anything I liked reading facts – like so many boys seem to do these days. In a more recent age I think I would have enjoyed the Horrible Histories series which was so popular for a while.
There were two non-fiction staples in my youth – Ladybird and I-Spy.
We seemed to drive for miles. We always holidayed in the UK and we like to see things. One or two towns each day; churches, natural beauties, castles, rivers and seafronts. We covered most of England and Wales with the exception of Devon and Cornwall. We always stayed South of Aberdeen in Scotland. Long car journeys interspersed by picnics or a roadside cafe were inevitable and this was in the day of limited automotive performance and a developing road network. Entertainment was at a premium and this is where I-Spy came into its own. For those not in the know, I-Spy books were small (even as a child I remember them being small) and listed all the things you were likely to see in the title location. The object of the “game” was to tick off the things you saw and when you completed a book you could send it off to Big Chief I-Spy. Presumably there was some reward for this but, as I don’t ever remember finishing a book, I never got to discover the outcome. They really fell from popularity but have recently been acquired by Michelin and some new titles have emerged. I love the simplicity and the virtue of the concept – much better than crass DVDs and video games.
Ladybird was a real childhood phenomena. I remember reading Janet and John books with my mother before I was old enough to go to school. The pictures are unforgettable – rosy cheeked, shiny faced Caucasian children wearing shorts and t-bar sandals. The text was brief and simple and the plates had lots of detail to encourage conversation. Through the ensuing years I had lots of them. It was only much later that I realised they were actually in sets. I also didn’t realise just how many there were – we visited a specialist in Hay-on-Wye recently and saw shelf after shelf of coordinated books. There were books on nature, history, fairy tales, work and many other topics. The format was the same – scant text and terrific plates on the opposite page. At the back I remember a summary of key words. No-one was ever going to be educated by Ladybird but they would improve their reading and develop an interest they could explore in other books. The text is terrifically dated. What I love about them now is that the words and pictures weren’t all about wonderful chocolate box images. Rather they portray everyday life in many of them; surrounded by the vehicles, decor, furniture of the 1950s and 1960s. The text contains contemporary values and politics subconsciously contained in the descriptions of everyday things. They are no place for the feminist, the socialist or the environmentalist but they do depict middle class world views in the 50s and 60s.
I am delighted that Ladybird at least has been updated. While tots could learn to read with the Janet and John books, apps create learning opportunities beforehand. The bright colours and simplicity translate really well into an app.
I feel like an old fuddy-duddy as I write this and, as a lover of technology, I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I suppose I believe in technology as an enhancer for our everyday lives rather than as an end in itself. I-Spy and Ladybird may not be on-trend but I am nostalgic for them and some of the images are so familiar after all these years. They represent goodness and innocence that we’ve sadly lost. I do acknowledge they depicted a world which never really existed but that is what childhood hopes and dreams are all about isn’t it? Expectations are set so high and it really saddens me that children these days are given mind-numbing video games “because their friends have them” with the result that many of them can’t sit and read, and enjoy, a book.