When I was little my sister had a friend who had a mum who had once taught a (now famous) ice dancer her O Level English. She told her not to be silly and try to make a living out of ice skating but concentrate on her exams instead. They lived in a huge, I think it was huge, house in an area of Nottingham that was owned by Oxford university, where even the olde worlde lamposts were preserved to keep it like a living monument to the Victorian past. It was an amazing house, as so many of my friends houses were, back then. I don’t think we had any idea what an extraordinary set of people we were growing up in; I think we assumed most people had journalists, lecturers, lawyers and doctors as parents. It would never have particularly occurred to us that most people did have houses you counted by the acre and gardens you got lost in. I don’t think it occurred to us that our seemingly rather modest by comparison home, 3 critical roads down from Oxford’s The Park, was in fact bigger than any house I would ever be able to buy myself. When we moved, to a sprawling country farm house, ramshackle and bewildered by its own age, we still managed to be the poor relation to many people we went to school with. How, I have no idea. It was only at my older school that I got eden a glimpse of people who lived in ordinary sized houses; at big school I had more friends who lived in streets, not in places where you just referred to the house and the village. It was still a pretty extra-ordinary life though.
I remember this particular friend’s house though. High ceilings, duck egg blue, crammed full of passages and hidden rooms and a rambling kitchen with interesting, homely things piled on every surface. Toys I had only seen on adverts, a tortoise in the garden, a mum who was mostly at home, milk and biscuits on the table when we arrived there from school. Craft stuff out, no tv to speak of. A mum who laughed when a ball went through the window (through gritted teeth?) and indulged us in dressing up from her wardrobe and teetering about on her high heels.
For all the toys, and it’s funny I should remember them given my job now, what always makes me laugh is that whenever I was there (which was for child care I suppose, she was my sisters friend), we only played with one thing. The stairs, broad and shallow stepped in the slightly wrong treaded way of old houses that makes you miss your step and stumble, had a bannister to slide down and die for. We probably nearly did die – we certainly slide. But going down the stairs was one thing, going up was even more fun. It had an old stair lift on which we hurtled down only to squeak with glee as we clambered aboard the cracked leather seat of a chair installed for some stately gaffer who had owned the house before it filled with plastic that children never played with. Perhaps the tortoise belonged to him. Probably he turned the garden into that walled mass of hidden shrubs and earthy dens. But whoever he was, when his legs gave out beneath him and he installed that chair, he gave us a future toy that filled endless hours with fun.
I think of it a lot when I watch the girls and boy. It is rarely the things I expect them to love that they do. When I make them clear out their rooms, it is tiny treasures from forgotten days they have hoarded. Paper medals and hand made ribbons doing duty as doll treasure, a scrap of a scarf, a box of delights I handed over one day expecting my treasured rings of olden days to amuse for a moment. And true enough, when great gran got a stair life, they played on that all day too.
What sticks in your mind as the best non-toy ever?