This week was a very exciting one – my first ‘By the Book’ column was in the Spectator. Those of you who have been reading EmilyBooks for a little while might have seen some of my pieces for the Spectator’s Book blog, but this was the first time I was in the actual mag, in the physical printed thing. For the inaugural ‘By the Book’, I thought that David Cameron and George Osborne – who were accused of being too posh to know the price of a pint of milk – should take a leaf out of Brideshead Revisited and be a little more like Sebastian Flyte. You can read it here. The best bit is my little bookish picture!
Amidst the tremendous excitement of seeing my name in print – repeatedly showing smiling friends, proud family members and even bewildered newsagents my column – this week I have been rather preoccupied with toys. In my column I wondered what David Cameron and George Osborne would call their teddy bears, if they were to follow the example of Sebastian, with his dearly-loved Aloysius. (Perhaps Ted Heath?) The thought crossed my mind again when wandering through the magical Pollock’s Toy Museum this weekend and seeing such lovely creatures as this:
According to his label, he has a military bearing and a squeaker in his body. There was even a little teddy bears’ picnic assembled in another cabinet. (I suspect that David Cameron’s bear wouldn’t be allowed any milk with his tea.) But my trip to Pollock’s Toy Museum wasn’t just to hunt out possible parliamentary teddies, it was to seek inspiration for my novel.
Some of you might remember that I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. Yes, I’m still writing it. But it is going well – I’m edging towards 60,000 words of the first draft, which means I’m substantially nearer the end than the beginning. The novel is about a young woman called Anna, who moves into a canal boat with a strange older man called Roger (first Jolly Roger, then Dodgy Roger), makes friends with a barmaid called Eliza and then the two girls explore a nearby derelict house. So far so Swallows and Amazons I hear you think… but here’s the twist. We learn about who’s lived in the house over the past hundred and fifty years, through remaining traces such as layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, a mysterious piece of wood with Hebrew writing on it, even the very bricks in the walls. And all these historical chapters are based on fact.
Which means that sometimes I have to do rather a lot of research, and some other times I get to go on jaunts to rather idiosyncratic museums. Anna and Eliza are going to find a little broken bit of a boy’s toy from the 1930s. Luckily Pollock’s Toy Museum had several contenders. I thought perhaps a wheel from this rather smart car:
Or else there were masses of train sets to choose from. I suppose they could find a train wheel, but I am particularly fond of these little mini advertisements, which were used to decorate train sets:
And I loved this destination board too:
Tough choice. Perhaps the train paraphernalia is a little more original, but then it would be so easy for a wheel to come off a car, and spin off into the corner, where it could lie covered in dust for a very long time indeed. Although, I suppose those little advertisements or place names are very slim pieces of tin. Slim enough to slip between the cracks in the floorboards, for instance. Hummm… I shall have to get my imagination whirring into action.
Pollock’s Toy Museum is utterly enchanting. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every inch is packed with so many things. The Victorian science experiments sets were far more exciting than the ones we get today – they included little jars of mercury and the like. There are early building blocks from brands like Meccano, old Penny Dreadfuls, beautiful dolls houses filled with mini-everything, and – best of all – E.M. Forster’s toy soldiers, donated to the museum by King’s College Cambridge. Quite why Forster had his childhood toys with him up at Cambridge is psychologically intriguing to say the least.
My very favourite toys, when I was little, were my cuddly animals. I had a selection, ranging from Charlie the caterpillar (who had different coloured socks on each foot), to Jeremy Fisher and, most favourite, were Chip and Dale the chipmunks, with their respective black and red noses.
When I was about five years old, I had a rather traumatic revelation about my cuddly toys. We went on a holiday to Disneyworld, where my parents bought me an Eeyore soft toy. I really loved that Eeyore. I was going through an acute Winnie the Pooh phase, and felt particularly affectionate towards the poor melancholy donkey. He was instantly drafted into the upper echelons of my soft toy society, and Chip and Dale were made to move up to make room for him at bedtime. So far so good. Until we left Disneyworld and went on to some other bit of Florida. Once we got to the new hotel, we made a terrible discovery. Eeyore had been forgotten. I’d like to say that I handled it with sophisticated and mature aplomb, but, of course, I was a nightmare. The previous hotel was telephoned. Had housekeeping found it in the room? Could they perhaps find out and then post it to us? But all this to no avail. Eeyore had completely disappeared.
I think perhaps I might have got over this loss. I did, after all, still have Chip and Dale, who were very trusty companions. And perhaps, I reasoned, Eeyore had just wandered off to find another home. Perhaps he didn’t like all the company – he definitely keeps himself to himself in the books. But then the thunderbolt came:
‘Oh well, we’ll just buy another one,’ said Mum.
I didn’t understand. There wasn’t another one. Eeyore had gone away. That was Eeyore, there couldn’t possibly be another Eeyore.
‘Don’t be daft,’ I was told. ‘There are plenty more Eeyores. We’ll just go to a shop and buy another one. It will be exactly the same.’
It was a horrid moment. Because if there were millions of Eeyores, all exactly the same, then there were also millions of Chips, Dales and Charlies too. These were my friends – and suddenly they were made to seem just mass-produced things, not real at all.
Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Margery Williams’ classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a boy’s toy rabbit who is desperate to become real. It’s a very sweet story, and there is a very sad bit in it too. There’s also that famous quotation, often pulled out for weddings and the like, about becoming real. I won’t quote too much here as it’s too naf, but the gist is, you become real when you’re really loved. It can hurt, and it takes a long time:
That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
Bit schmaltzy, but I think it can just about be forgiven in a children’s book.
The point is that toys are only toys to adults – to children, more often than not, they’re real. And wandering round Pollock’s Toy Museum, bearing this in mind, is completely astonishing. It is filled with all these things that so many children have loved so much. One can peer around inside other people’s imaginations, glimpsing all those funny scenarios and whole worlds that have sprung up around these little props.
I suppose really that’s what writing the novel is all about – recreating some of these lost worlds from a few little clues. At least for one of these 1930s toys, one little lost world might be resuscitated.