Toy story

6th December 1996 at 00:00

POWER PLAY: CHILDREN'S TOYS AND POPULAR CULTURE By Dan Fleming Manchester University Press Pounds 35Pounds 14.99

Two new accounts challenge the idea that childhood was ever a time of innocence. Nicholas Tucker travels back in time.

In his autobiography, G K Chesterton describes those childhood memories that come back so sharply and suddenly, only to fog up immediately we start trying to analyse them. Many such memories are evoked by Children's Pleasures, a generously illustrated work drawing mainly on the vast resources of London's Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. Written by the head curator, it covers every aspect of childhood pastimes from chap-books to radio, film and television.

One temptation in any museum is to concentrate on a nostalgic view of the past buttressed by the costly toys most likely to have survived intact over the centuries. But Bethnal Green has always offered much more than dolls' houses and rocking-horses. Burton begins his account with some reminders about a darker childhood time, including a picture of a tightly swaddled baby looking miserable. Other objects and clothes pictured here challenge anyone looking to history for simple solutions to today's problems.

In the areas of gender and sexuality, the pinkblue distinction between the sexes only gathered pace around 1930. Before that, small boys would often wear frocks and have long hair before the ceremony of "breeching". At the turn of the century, there was a vogue for postcards of nude or skimpily clad infants, sometimes lying on rugs or hugging teddy bears. Such pictures could lead to prosecution today; our ancestors found them charming. Future social historians will judge which response is oddest.

A 19th-century Father Christmas makes an appearance, carrying a birch to punish naughty children as well as presents for the good. He is too early to have among his toys a 1991 Desert Shield Survival Kit, including nylon camouflage colour vest, rubber knife, compass, two grenades and official documents. The manufacturer's suggested age range is five years upwards. There is no mention, however, of Mr Atomic, a 1950 toy made in Japan for export to America, unnervingly similar to the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

This last toy gets a mention in Dan Fleming's Power Play. He describes the way toys sometimes open up imaginative possibilities for children but then close them down by directing play only down certain limited, prescribed channels. Fleming believes this happens more often today, given the way modern toys tend to interconnect through the medium of a global media culture familiar to all children. If toys have always been something of a cultural construction kit, modern children may still end up with fewer choices in their play even while possessing more toys than before.

Other aspects of this densely written but meandering study are harder to accept. Taking his lead from the eccentric psychologist Alice Miller, and her view that "the baby for all practical purposes is born criminal", Fleming sees toys as enabling children to express a badness not otherwise accepted by the adult world. Yet ever since The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the existence of some mischief in children has been widely celebrated by adults.

This good-humoured tolerance may be changing now, at a time when William Brown would probably provoke a teachers' strike were he at school today. But not wanting a little angel has long been a desire among parents, even though they may not relish the idea of owning a little demon instead.

Fleming believes that the "historical and semiotic production of contemporary children's culture is found to be highly organised". Thus a toy hospital on sale in 1980 "represented a bit of doctoring for a nation's ailing self-image". He has different ideas about the significance of Pizza Hut, a contemporary assemble-it-yourself toy.

His arguments, while often stimulating, can also be arbitrary to the point of wilfulness. But the many illustrations of different modern toys, assembled in thematic collages and photo-graphed by the author, allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

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