Jonathan Meades: Dear me, toys really 'R' us

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The Independent Online

Sometime in the next few days my youngest daughter will give me a list written in her own hand and, apparently, in a language with which I'm hardly familiar. Basque? Finnish? Has she been covertly teaching herself the Welsh of her greatgrandparents? Does she suffer a recessive linguistic gene which enables her to speak her grandmother's Danish? Every November she reveals herself to be a closet polyglot. Or maybe it's that she is a champion of spelling reform. If only.

Pokémonintendosylvanianataribarbiekenplaydoh. The names of toys are a cause of indignant bemusement in sentient adults. Who are the brainstormers and nominative consultants who invent these monikers? I look back down the long years to my childhood. Baby-boomer boys played with a gamut of martial and aspirantly masculine devices which bore such names as... And then one realises that it was not so different then. Tri-angdinkymeccano.

We take for granted the existence of commercial stratagems to confine children to a specifically infantile ghetto, to prolong the age of play, to emphasise their separateness, to profit from an exclusive and imposed subculture. Yet these stratagems are of comparatively recent foundation. They devolve from the invention of childhood. They are conditional upon mass fabrication, the separation of home and work, the statutory compulsion to submit to education after the end of physical childhood. They protract childhood, they inhibit its elision with adulthood. Not least because what follows is of course another commercially determined niche age, an even more recent created parenthesis: when my parents were teenagers there were no such persons, they often reminded me, as teenagers. We are persistently shocked when our children go straight from Lego to legover. We shouldn't be. The 'us' in Toys 'R' Us is adults who are perennially keen to maintain children in stasis, to freeze them at whatever stage of development is sentimentalised as "such a lovely age".

When, after they had both died, I sold my parents' house, I got rid of a cupboardful of toys which had collected decades' dust, and a bookcase of Eagle annuals, Tiger annuals, Buffalo Bill annuals and so on. I picked through tins of broken pens and perished erasers. I excitedly anticipated the past to come rushing back. Each of these rusty, tarnished pieces of metal or plastic is, surely, a potential madeleine, a mnemonic of some bright day in 1959. They were, however, doggedly mute.

It took time in that house to realise that this was a pitiful and self-pitying exercise: I was trying to freeze myself, to transport myself back to the land of lost content which had, actually, been no such thing. I was trying to do to myself what parents do to their children. I indulged myself by keeping two toys. A Hornby 00 model of the A4 Pacific Mallard because my 11-plus essay had been about its designer, Nigel Gresley, and a Dinky tank transporter. I hung on to the latter for this reason. Having saved 17/6d I went to a toyshop called Wilton's and bought this extravagantly solid boxed object which the owner, Mr Kidwell (names determine trade), wrapped in glazed, striped paper. As soon as I left the shop I removed the paper in order to admire this possession which I had so coveted. Gazing at it I walked down the road to WH Smith, to browse comics. As I left the shop, which in those days sold toys, I was grabbed by a pointy-faced woman who accused me of having stolen the tank transporter. The manager was called. The police were called. The copper was no more inclined to believe me than pointy-face had been. My mother was called. Mr Kidwell was, eventually, called, and confirmed my purchase.

It would be preposterous to claim that that false accusation still rankles. But it is salutary that toys can mean what they were never intended to mean, that they can summon our earliest misadventures, our initiation to the cruel vindictiveness of adulthood. That tank transporter now stands flanked by My Little Pony (baby blue) and My Little Pony (eau de nil). Mercifully I shall not be privy to the banal horrors fomented by my daughter's rediscovery of them after I have been taxidermised.