The shady cabal of critics, devs, and publishers that controls almost everything you read about games want you to believe that computer gaming is a victimless crime, a fount of pleasure and positivity with no down-sides, no dark secrets. They despise people with long memories and nothing to lose. They hate people like me who are keen to talk about the hobbies that pixels and polygons helped kill. Today in The Flare Path some reminders of what youngsters did with their leisure time before the Space Invaders descended and the screens took over.
Hello Timbo. What are you up to this wet Saturday morning circa 1979? Invading Mordor with a vast virtual army of elves, ents, dwarves and hobbits? Flying a perfect computer-generated facsimile of a Jumbo Jet from LHR to JFK? Playing rocket-car football with people from all over the world?
Hello Rhetorical Device, how are you diddling? None of the above, actually. Because cheap mass-market home computers are still a few years away I've decided to spend the day arranging my collection of Australian postage stamps in chronological order. Would you pass me those tweezers and that magnifying glass?
While Phil Ately is still alive and kicking, he's not half the man he used to be. There was a time not so very long ago when stamp collecting was PC gaming-big. Attracted by the the low price of entry, the eye-catching colours, and the mind-boggling variety of designs, people of all ages cultivated albums, patronised stamp shops, and waited excitedly for that next letter from Auntie Betty and Uncle Bert in Canada. The youngest philatelists were often indiscriminate collectors hoovering up anything and everything that came their way. Maturity tended to bring discernment and specialisation. From now on I'm only going to collect stamps with aircraft on them... stamps celebrating famous scientists... stamps from countries beginning with the letter Z.
How many of today's younglings know how to separate a Machin from an envelope? How many know what a first day cover is, who Stanley Gibbons was, or what 'Helvetia' signifies? Computer gaming must take some of the blame for the tragic decline of this noble pursuit.
The most memorable quest I've ever undertaken didn't feature kidnapped princesses, monster-infested borderlands, or plodding pack animals; it involved travelling around a real country trying to catch glimpses of noisy, malodorous megabeasts with blue flanks and yellow faces. I was a loco-spotter in the UK in the early 1980s and recall the time I spent on platforms and linesides hunting Hoovers, Skinheads, and Cromptons with much fondness. The activity gave me my first taste of independent travel, it cemented a friendship that survives to this day, and left me with a taste for diesel fumes that only another post-steam rail enthusiast could properly understand.
There are photographs of the London termini in the early 50s that show platform ends teeming with notebook-clutching, number-scribbling boys. Viewing such images it's hard to believe that the hobby was then barely ten years old. Kickstarted by Ian Allan, an enterprising Southern Railway employee who realised there might be a market for pocket books listing locomotive numbers, trainspotting's early popularity was helped by low fares and Britain's unusually dense pre-Beeching rail network. As ticket prices rose, lines were lifted, and motive power variety diminished, interest in bagging the ground-shaking Goliaths that congregated at watering holes like Old Oak Common, Toton, and Finsbury Park steadily declined. TV and videogames hammered home the final coffin nails. Today you're far more likely to find a young British train fan driving a fake Class 66 in a cosy bedroom than watching a real one from a wet and windy station.
If the grizzled visage I see in the bathroom mirror every morning wasn't proof enough that my childhood happened a long long time ago, then a visit to www.action-transfers.com leaves no room for doubt. Before Clive Sinclair elbowed his way into my life and changed everything, one of the ways Master T. Stone Esq had fun was by Letrasetting cartoon figures and vehicles onto rectangles of printed cardboard.
Via the eminently affordable magic of Action Transfers you could spend an afternoon recreating Operation Chariot or Alexander the Great's assault on Tyre. You could remember the Alamo or sink the Tirpitz. You could build a Spitfire, win the World Cup, walk with dinosaurs, even go whaling.
Yes, the frame-rate wasn't great (1FPS) and invariably at some point during the creative process you'd discover half of Napoleon or Maid Marian stuck to the heel of your hand, but, gosh, the stories you could tell.
Tom Vinelott's splendid site offers browser versions of several sets including the piratical one pictured above, but trust me when I say Action Transferring with mouse and screen isn't half as enchanting as Action Transferring with pencil and cellophane.
Cigarette Card Collecting
The tobacco industry gets a lot of bad press these days. The anti-cancer brigade love to harp on about the millions fag manufacturers have killed over the years. What they never mention is how many people firms like John Player & Sons and W.D. & H.O. Wills have educated. “Daddy, please smoke faster!” was a familiar refrain in British homes during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Short-sighted laws meant children eager to improve themselves via the medium of cigarette cards (most cards had informative text on their reverse) were forced to rely on the knackered lungs of older relations, neighbours or charitable strangers for their fact fixes.
Would the next packet of Grandad's Woodbines or Mummy's Black Cats contain that 'Uniforms of the Commonwealth' or 'Air Raid Precautions' card you needed? Would you be able to persuade your best mate to trade 'Ships of the Royal Navy' No.12 for 'Famous Hangmen' No.48 tomorrow in the playground? As well as being educational, cartophily offered the thrill of the treasure hunt and the buzz of the bazaar.
Tea Card Collecting
Gavin Greenhough, I'm sorry I ever doubted you. When, after you visited my house after school in nineteen-seventy-something, I discovered my complete set of Transport Through The Ages was missing I really shouldn't have jumped to conclusions. Accusing you of theft before thoroughly searching the sofa (I still don't understand how something can end up inside a cushion cover) was unforgivable and you were totally within your rights to blank me during the school trip to Wookey Hole.
Tea cards can wreck relationships, ruin lives, and bring down governments , but I remember them primarily as portable art galleries, dinky reference libraries, and wonderful excuses for classroom commerce. Brooke Bond, the main provider of Assam-scented trade cards (there used to be a card in every box) commissioned some incredibly talented artists and writers to create their sets. Large print-runs mean many of the classics - History of Aviation, Famous People, The Sea, Our Other World... - can be bought for next to nothing today.
Recently declassified Home Office documents reveal that in Britain between 1930 and 1970 bands of plucky, resourceful children solved almost as many crimes as the police. Particularly popular amongst the offspring of the middle classes, the hobby usually involved mixed-sex groups of up to seven juveniles, often with a pet dog, parrot, or token working class child in tow, roaming the countryside in search of smugglers, counterfeiters, kidnappers, or thieves. As criminals of the era frequently chose abandoned barns, lighthouses, castles and windmills as hideouts and rarely used violence on anyone they captured, thrilling adventures were easy to come by and seldom ended on morgue slabs. The invention of paedophilia in 1975, together with the growth of home computing in the late Seventies, sounded the death knell for this healthy, confidence-building, if occasionally xenophobic pursuit.
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