Familiar follies amid the holly

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most unseasonal sights I saw recently in a children's hospital ward was a smallish room that was stacked ceiling high with thousands of pounds' worth of toys, all neglected. It was not that the children were too ill or bed-bound to play. But en masse, those sheer cliffs of toys were overwhelming.

This played directly to my feelings of deep scepticism about toys: so much play is really about learning new skills, and you don't need toys of unsuitable design for that. I'm not a Scrooge, but the perfect present for my eight-month-old baby would not be the Santa Claus jingly toy I've bought but a real telephone all his own to tinker with and a pile of newspapers and magazines to tear into shreds over the carpet without anyone protesting. One of the toys (apart from computer games) my children have used most has been a wooden Brio train set which has to be put together rather like a big jigsaw. It is not cheap, but, unlike plastic, is pretty indestructible, and superbly easy to take out and enjoy without help from an adult.

A key reform for the toy industry would be for it to provide durable, well-designed containers so that toys can be stored simply: in real life flimsy boxes break easily, and key pieces from jigsaws and games go missing. Responsible toy manufacturers should supply plenty of spares, too. I am sure these factors help to explain why the classics - Lego, Duplo and Monopoly, with its sturdy box and wads of fake money - go on and on.

My particular dislike at the moment is the Big Loader, a Tomy toy bought last Christmas. The key point of the Big Loader is that it ingeniously transfers tiny balls around the track, but there is no safe place for them in the box when the loader is having a rest. Twelve months after purchase, all the balls have been lost, rendering the game pointless. My children are no more careless than many others.

But the real unreported nightmare of modern toys, bedside tape machines and hand-held computer games is the way they devour huge numbers of expensive batteries of all different sizes: if you don't have children, just think of trying to keep up the supply of 10 different sorts of light bulbs in a large house. Worse, battery-operated toys are often sold without the vital batteries to make them go when they are opened. In desperation we have stacks of rechargeables at home, and a recharger on the go constantly, but I never keep up.

This goes a long way towards explaining why I am certain the Christmas spirit has got to me. Father Christmas is giving the four-year-old (provided she doesn't open any more presents prematurely) a battery-operated puppy that gambols and yaps, but freezes when you clap or shout, 'Sit, boy]' behind its left ear. Just as Blue Peter used to have Bonnie for all those children whose high- rise flats didn't have space for a dog, our mock puppy is a consolation for living in a now petless home. It has to compensate for the recent deaths of rabbit number six (a fox) and a hamster (cause unknown - was it neglect, rough treatment or old age?). But I am absolutely certain the puppy will join the redundant battery-operated hamster that used to amuse us by waltzing around the floor, the walking dinosaur, and the bath-time frog now crippled after losing a leg: none of them worked for long, even with new batteries. But still, they were fun while they lasted.

CAUGHT UP in the rampant Christmas frenzy in our home, I momentarily dropped my guard last night, and arranged piles of presents from friends and relatives around the tree. It was also my tribute to the way other people seem to wrap their parcels so stylishly with tinsel bows, ribbon and expensive tags. It seemed a shame to leave such glorious creations locked in the study, away from small prying hands. I also hoped this glamorous heap would raise my packing game, inspire me when I finally got round to the task after supper and their bedtime.

Sipping a restorative glass of wine in the kitchen, while my eldest, responsible child tucked holly around the hall mirror, the folly was immediately exposed: in came the four-year-old with a half- unwrapped parcel. 'That was how I found it,' she claimed.

We went back to the tree together: almost every parcel had a little hole in it, as if a nosy mouse had been having a nibble. 'I know, I can stick more wrapping paper on them,' said my daughter. So while I sipped, she spent an hour with scissors and tape, cutting up more wrapping paper to cover over the spy holes. At the end of the exercise the parcels were looking a bit sad, and definitely not glamorous, but she was radiantly happy.

WHEN did you last see a carol singer? With Christmas upon us, I realise something has been missing from the seasonal experience. There have been plenty of makeshift choirs singing at stations: in fact, my daughters joined one such group. But the days when small clutches of children on the make used to knock on the door and then warble Good King Wenceslas tunelessly through the letter box in the hope of getting a few coins, while you giggled inside, seem to have gone. I suppose it's yet one more example of the way crime and the fear of going out after dark have suppressed a tradition. What parent would dare encourage their children to revive it?