Make-believe play

Growing up in a rather unorthodox and bohemian environment in the early 1960s, I don’t remember my brother or I having expensive and commercially produced ‘toys’, rather we were encouraged to play with the things around us and explore our world.

Perhaps because our father was ‘in films’ we were especially encouraged to take part in imaginative and creative play through dressing up and play acting.  Nowadays, dressing up costumes are available in every supermarket, but we only had a box crammed with old hats, scarves, belts, bags and other bits and pieces.  To become a pirate, one only needed a scarf folded into a triangle and tied at the back of the head over the pointy bit of the triangle, and the kitchen table turned upside-down to serve as a ship.  The same scarf could be tied around the neck with the pointy bit at the front, teamed with a hat and loose-fitting belt to become a cowboy.  To add an extra dimension to our play, we each had a hobby horse made from a broomstick crowned with a felt head, button eyes and wool mane, and they were great fun to charge around on and do battle with.  On the whole, I was quite content to be a pirate, a cowboy, a knight, or even a wicked witch, but had no interest in becoming a princess because, as far as I was concerned, princesses had to wait around to be rescued, which of course would be no fun at all.

Black and white photo from early 1960s of a young child wearing a hat and holding a hand made 'hobby horse'
Me c1962 wearing a hat and holding my ‘hobby horse’

Generally, in the early 1960s, play was left up to the children themselves and adults tended to not get involved, but when I was about four or five, my younger brother Nick and I were being cared for by our father’s ‘ex’ whilst our mother was in hospital.  Monny was a very kind and lovely French lady, who adored children and had a small playroom in her flat in Putney with a cupboard full of toys.  Also living in the flat was her youngest son, then a medical student who delighted me by letting me listen through a stethoscope, and look at specimens under a microscope, including (his) real blood!!  He kept a human half-skeleton named Gladys in an old ammunition box under his bed and Gladys absolutely fascinated me: her bones were connected to each other with short wires, and she had to be gently folded backwards and forwards to fit back into her box.  I remember questioning why there was a complete skull but one side only of the body, and I don’t think I was ever given a satisfactory answer.  To this day, I still wonder what happened to her other side, and whether premortem Gladys’ skull had belonged to the rest of the bones, or to someone else…   As an aside, I learnt a year or so ago that Gladys is still with her now-retired doctor custodian, who took her to Canada when he emigrated in the mid-1960s.

Of course, I dreamed of one day becoming a doctor too and that Christmas I was given a proper nurse’s outfit with a red plastic doctor’s bag filled with lots of useful instruments and accessories – I wasn’t quite a doctor, but I was still thrilled to bits.  My brother received a cowboy outfit with a silver cap gun and holster, and I don’t think he took off the hat for a couple of years despite being warned that it would make his ears stick out.

Black and white photo of a young child wearing a nurse's outfit and carrying a toy doctor's bag
Me c1963 with my nurse’s outfit and doctor’s bag
Black and white photo of a young child proudly holding a teddy bear
Me c1962 with my teddy

I was not interested in dolls at all but, like so many other children of my generation, I had a much-loved teddy bear that someone had given to me when I was born.  She had cream-coloured fur and, when new, had jointed arms and legs that could turn, brown glass eyes, a stitched nose and mouth, and a growler inside that made a strange groaning sound when her tummy was pressed.  I adored her, she was my constant companion and my best friend, and I knew I could always talk to her in absolute confidence.   However, the more she was loved and hugged, the more she became worn: her eyes fell off and were replaced with navy blue wool, her nose and mouth were repaired with black wool, and then her growler failed and started to leach rust into her fur which made her smell weird.  Of course, it was time for me to take action, so I performed an emergency appendectomy with a pair of sewing scissors, removed the growler, then stitched her up with a darning needle and some light grey wool.  Fortunately, the operation was a complete success and, apart from scarring from some quite large stiches down her tummy, she made a full recovery. 

I also realised that her paws were wearing out, but I knew that graft surgery was beyond me.  I took one of my dad’s ties, which was slightly ribbed and very nice shade of dark red, and asked our neighbour if she could help me.  Of course, I assured Mrs Thomas-from-next-door that my dad was most sympathetic to the treatment plan, so she made a neat job of grafting on new paws, but when my dad found out his tie had been sacrificed as the donor site, he was not best pleased.

I still have my teddy, though she is really showing her age as most of her fur has rubbed off, her arms and legs are immobile as they had to be sewn onto her torso when their wire links gave way, and one ear had to be reattached at some point too, however her paws are still perfect and the same rich glorious red as they were sixty years ago when she came out of surgery.  I still know that I made the right decision.