Nestles’ animal bar

 

These friendly animals used to adorn the paper wrappings of Nestles’ Animal bars in the early 70s.  I have a feeling there was also a dog and a monkey maybe others.

I obviously liked them enough to cut out and keep.

The actual chocolate was fairly slender.

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Cuisenaire rods

I vividly remember these ‘mathematics learning aids for students’ at primary school.  This would have been at the very start of the 70s when Cuisenaire rods were at the height of their popularity.

Until quite recently I’d assumed they were called ‘quizinaire’ having never seen the word written down and only rarely spoken.  They were always simply ‘the coloured rods’ which lived in the bright red plastic drawers at the front of the classroom.

The ten rods measured 1cm to 10cm with each increment represented by a different colour:

White 1cm
Red 2 cm
Light green 3cm
Pink 4cm
Yellow 5cm
Dark green 6cm
Black 7cm
Brown 8cm
Blue 9cm
Orange 10cm

The rods were the invention of Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire in the early 50s.  Cuisenaire found that pupils who had difficulty with maths taught by traditional methods learned quickly when they manipulated the rods.  Child centred learning emphasised learning by play and Cuisenaire rods were a central part of the new ethos.

Magpie maths

In truth, my magpie instinct was more drawn to the colour element than the gradations in size.  I linked each numerical height with its colour so strongly that yellow was 5 and orange was 10.  The conflation held its own secret fascination.

I deduced that what the shorter rods lacked in height they made up for in brightness of hue as if each rod were granted an equality in power, balancing height with intensity of colour.  But why was red two and pink four and not the other way round?  Could there be a hidden significance to the order?

I might like to think all of this was some kind of synaesthesia but it was more likely an early manifestation of OCD or an autistic tendency.  Colours and car registration letters, numbers on front doors, the colours of clothes worn by particular people on particular days of the week quickly followed.

Unfortunately my appreciation of the rods failed to translate into lasting mathematical ability.  I obtained an ‘unclassified’ in my O level, the lowest possible grade (not proud of it in a “I’m hopeless at maths!” kind of way, just saying).

Tables or rods?

Child centred learning was central at my primary school.
Certainly in our earlier years, the emphasis was more on discovery not instruction, peer group learning rather than whole class teaching.

I even remember one teacher, straight out of training college, asking her class – did we want to do sums or painting?  Painting always won out so maths was neglected until at the age of ten I had a crash course in learning my times tables.  The class chanted them and my mother made me say them out loud or would suddenly demand over morning’s Golden Nuggets “What are twelve fours?”

But perhaps it was too little too late.

Seeing and doing

Still available but far less popular today, Cuisenaire rods now come in plastic which seems unimaginable as the woody feel and smell of them was very much a part of their appeal.  Rod No 4, the pink one, is now, for some reason, purple.

The most enjoyable thing to do with the set was – and still is – to build a pyramid.

Starting with the orange 10s, use four rods of each colour to form an overlapping square, working your way up through the blues, browns and blacks until you end up with a tight square of four white 1s on top.

Like this:

Cuisenaire company


PlayPlax
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

PlayPlax

I recently rediscovered my PlayPlax set, looking as bright and modern as it did nearly 50 years ago, minus only two squares of the original forty-eight.

PlayPlax (rather pedantically, I thought it should be PlayPacks as a child) was invented by Patrick Rylands in 1966 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.

Ryland’s ‘spatial construction game’ consists of 48 brightly coloured plastic squares in red, blue, green, yellow and transparent.  An incision on each side allows them to be fixed together to form myriad, interlocking abstract shapes or architectural structures.  The Montreal Convention Centre is a real PlayPlax building.

Rylands became chief designer at Ambi Toys and PlayPlax a staple of children’s play during the late 60s through to the 80s with over a million packs sold.

Plastic fantastic

I used to spend many happy hours with PlayPlax, sometimes simply revelling in the bright colours.

The structures I made were part abstract imaginary, part versions of real-life buildings rendered bright, open, transparent and looking even more fantastic if the sun cast stained plastic reflections over the bedroom carpet.

I thought of my buildings as kinds of churches.  They bore no resemblance to a traditional spire and steeple church yet felt inspirational, hallowed in a very modern kind of way.  They would probably be urban art galleries now.

Six years ago, the original PlayPlax was reissued, no doubt with baby boomers in mind, using the same dyes and even manufactured in the same factory as back in the 60s.

I am sure I have seen a circular/cylindrical version in the intervening years but it’s the squares which have stood the test of time.

PlayPlax company
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands


Cuisenaire rods
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

Mythical Kings and Iguanas

The other day I turned on the kitchen radio and after a slight pause heard the opening notes of Mythical Kings and Iguanas, the title track to Dory Previn’s 1971 album.  It was as if I had just pressed play on my CD player:

I have flown to star-stained heights
On bend and battered wings
In search of mythical kings
Mythical kings

Sure that everything of worth
Is in the sky and not the earth
And I never learned to make my way
Down, down, down where the iguanas play

I’ve not heard Mythical Kings and Iguanas – the song nor the album – in perhaps twenty-five years though scraps have played in my head from time to time and I still have the vinyl LP.

I first heard it around 1987 or 1988 in my early 20s.  Last week it was as if it was playing to me for the first time:

Singing scraps of angel song
High is right and low is wrong
And I never taught myself to give
Down, down, down where the iguanas live

Stopped in my tracks, I put down my plate and my tea-towel, pulled up a chair to listen and for the first time found I understood.

Without any effort on my part, the words arose from the speakers and made utter sense as if they simply couldn’t help themselves.  I realised that, like it or not, I have lived enough to know what the song means instinctively.

 

Embed from Getty Images
Dory Previn

 

Lying with iguanas

Mythical Kings and Iguanas is about embracing the often despised ‘lower’ aspects of being and not losing oneself in fruitless flights of wishful fancy towards unobtainable heights.  Fundamentally it’s about gaining self-acceptance, becoming embodied.

In my 20s maybe I simply liked the sounds the words made, the overall sense of philosophical musing which, in a way, is what she is railing against:

Curse the mind that mounts the clouds
In search of mythical kings
And only mystical things
Mystical things

Buried treasure

In 1987 or 1988, without realising it, I laid a trail between then and now.  Rediscovery in 2017 meant connecting with my younger self and gaining awareness of a kind of unknowing, a certain confusion perhaps, which I couldn’t perceive at the time.

I think there’s real value in this kind of experience which goes way beyond nostalgia.  The feeling of connecting across time, is vivid and poignant, the sense of unlocking meaning without even trying, so powerful.

Had I heard the song for the first time last week, I would have ‘got’ it, been a little moved by it.  But there wouldn’t have been the discovery of buried treasure and finding it richer than I could ever have imagined.  And of feeling a kindness towards the moment of acquiring it so many years ago and someone I once was.

Cry for the soul that will not face
The body as an equal place
And I never learned to touch for real
Or feel the things, iguanas feel
Down, down, down

Where they play

The seeds that you once planted

This epiphany is a little akin to experiences of religion as a child and which organised religion possibly exploits for its own effectiveness.

The words of The Lord’s Prayer or of a particular hymn are planted in young minds at a time when they can be barely understood.  A seed of meaning is sewn with the potential to bear fruit many years later, when an old idea is revisited and subsequently accepted, modified or rejected.

At that point there may be the strong sense of time, growth, a journey, change and impermanence an awareness of being caught in life’s unstoppable flow.  And of a kind of learning which is natural, uncontrived, inevitable.

Could it even be wisdom?

Teach me, teach me
Teach me, reach me.

 

 

Melamine blue

A blue melamine cup…

What is it about that particular shade of baby blue – deeper than powder, softer than steel – which is so consoling, so pacifying, so utterly redolent of childhood?   And when rendered in melamine, perhaps the ultimate soft edged yet unbreakable material, the association is intensified again.

Baby blue featured very little in our 1970s’ household and yet the blue of that cup more strongly evokes early childhood than contemporaneous staples such as ubiquitous brown carpets or a sofa’s pukey orange.

Baby blue

It feels like that particular shade might have been born in the nurseries of the immediate post-war era.  Blue slows the metabolism, calms the nerves…  Like invalid cookery and Boots The Chemist, it provided a hygienic, protective wrap for atomic babies, consolation in an uncertain age.

Embed from Getty Images

 

I half-remember a flashback scene in an early Absolutely Fabulous where cot-bound baby Edina is comforted by a gently cooing mummy June Whitfield.  We see the new antispectic white-tiled world from Edina’s viewpoint but I’m sure there is also baby blue, perhaps in mother’s dress or a nurse’s tunic, for more than anything, this is the colour of the NHS, the diluted authority of a navy police force rendered oh-so comforting.

“I dare you!”

That melamine cup conjures one particular incident:  it’s summer 1969 and next door’s neighbour – a towering giant of an eight year-old – persuaded this five year old, for a dare, to pass through a low, concrete pipe carrying a shallow stream under a main road at the back of our house.   He would meet me the other side.

I don’t recall much of the darkened journey or the trepidation which accompanied it.  I do recall being found out by my mother and sent to bed at 5pm without any tea.  I lay accompanied by my constant bedtime companion, a giant panda called Peter, and on the table beside the bed, a blue melamine cup of tap water.

The words “You could have been killed!” still stung my ears and chilled my spine but all I could actually hear was the loud tick-tock of a (melamine) alarm clock, the swish of an occasional car and the distant chatter of my friends playing on the road.

Light filtered through daytime curtains in the way which only summer light can – unnatural, disturbing, the light of deprivation.  Normally a succour to nightmares, the water in the cup had become prison ration austerity, the ultimate in neutrality and antiseptic punishment.

Yet somehow through this, the soft-hard blue melamine maintained its unbreakable comfort as if it had been chosen to prevent a prisoner from coming to harm.  It was like my mother’s presence in the room, still nurturing even though I had been disobedient.

So there I lay awake for countless wide-eyed hours, gazing into the blue, listening intently to the racing tick-tock of the alarm clock, until day became night and sleep finally descended.

Blue comfort

I learned my lesson and never went down the concrete pipe ever again.

That shade of infinitely mid-mid-blue continued to crop-up though less frequently as time went by.  I think particularly of an Adidas skinny-rib T-shirt in 1978.  Now, baby blue is largely confined to NHS logos and sanitary ware products or the textured panel of an Oral B toothbrush.

The memory of that particular afternoon, so confining and nerve-shattering at the time, now raises a smile.

My cup overfloweth.

Birdwatching in the 1970s

birds-in-your-garden-1971Were garden birds so different back in the 60s and  70s?  A blackbird in 2017 seems pretty much the same as a blackbird in 1977 (or my memory of one) though an ornithologist may well beg to differ.

Take The Birds In Your Garden, an RSPB booklet from 1971.  Forty-six years on and it still does what it says on the cover, forming a perfectly usable guide for identifying and attracting garden birds.

Yet times have changed…
birds-in-your-garden-bird-boxes-edit

This photo suggests the RSPB wanted to appeal specifically to suburban bird-watchers (I don’t think they were called twitchers then).

Our ideals of human habitation are clearly not what they were in 1971 though bird boxes cannot be so very subject to changing architectural styles.  I do recall some pretentious ‘heritage’ boxes in the 80s complete with pinnacles and turrets, suitable for the upwardly-mobile blue-tit perhaps.  The boxes above are perfectly in keeping with the pared down, dwelling-unit feel of the houses.

1973’s RSPB booklet, The Birds From Your Window was a rather more elaborate affair with a groovy font to boot:

birds-from-your-window-1973

The illustrations, fine for identification purposes, are not a patch on those by Charles Tunnicliffe for his Wild Birds in Britain 50-card series for Brooke Bond in 1965:
brooke-bond-bird-cards-tunnicliffe-1965

Brooke Bond birds: Waxwing, Long-eared owl, Long-tailed tit, Woodcock

The Birds From Your Window has pages on birds spotted by various well known people in their own gardens.  The choice of contributors – Humphrey Lyttelton, Joyce Grenfell, Robert Dougall and Peter Cushing – makes no concession to a younger audience though I was familiar with three out of four as a nine year old in 1973.  Peter Cushing proffers an elegantly written piece:

birds-from-your-window-peter-cushing-page

birds-in-autumn-winter-1975On to 1975, and Birds in Autumn & Winter is graced with a Tunnicliffe illustrated cover albeit without the decorative background detail which makes the BB cards so lustrous.

Fledgling tweets

I was only ever a casual bird-watcher through windows and on walks in the countryside around Guildford.  The birds were always so damned elusive though my Auntie Wyn was able to identify stray hoots and treetop twitters with casual ease.

My parents tried to interest me in a Surrey Bird Club membership as a Christmas present in 1973.  I didn’t make it to any of the club events but do remember leafing through their unillustrated magazine with its blue and green card covers.  Within, members crowed excitedly over rare sightings of exotic Scandinavian visitors or the occasional bird of prey in Cheam.

Winging it

I also recall a windswept trip to Pagham Harbour in Sussex in May 1978 with a Christian youth group.  This came just after the then Labour government’s introduction of the May Bank Holiday which fell on the coldest, wettest May day for several decades if not centuries.  Pagham too was cold and desolate.  We maybe heard the occasional screech across the mudflats but I don’t actually recall seeing a single bird despite long hours spent clutching binoculars in numb fingers.  A thermos of Heinz oxtail soup and white bread fish paste sandwiches (no crumbs for our feathered friends) helped sustain us through a long, grey day.

I think I went partly out of some misplaced duty to my parents.  As I shunned the numerous sporty events at least I could show I was relatively ‘normal’ by going on a bird-watching trip which was supported by a total of three boys out of over a hundred and fifty.  Well at least it was an outdoor activity…

The spirit of 1970s’ bird-watching is best captured by Martin Parr’s marvellous photos (again, Surrey Bird Club).  These are studies in English eccentricity where the camera is turned back on the middle-classes, patiently at leisure in the home counties.

birds-in-your-garden-bird-watchingFrom ‘The Birds in Your Garden’, RSPB 1971

Dr Who: 1976 and all that…

Thanks to a thread at missing episodes, I’ve discovered there were actually two Dr Who omnibuses prior to Christmas 1976 – Pyramids of Mars on 27th November and The Brain of Morbius on 3rd December, both one hour long and presumably scheduled to fill in the odd mid-season gap between The Deadly Assassin Part 4 on 20th November and The Face of Evil Part 1 on 1st Jan 1977.

An omnibus Seeds of Doom was scheduled to follow the first two repeats on 11th December but was pulled at the last minute in favour of Gerry Anderson’s outer space odyssey Into Infinity.  I’ve heard Into Infinity referred to in the same breath as The Seeds of Doom-omnibus-which-never-was but never quite got the sense of it, assuming that Seeds would definitely have been on 27th December as per usual.  So I’m grateful to Richard Bignell for the correction.

Quite why the Pyramids and Morbius omnibuses have fallen through my memory I have no idea.

Dr Who: the 1970s’ Christmas omnibuses