About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

On selling our children's toys

We have had a busy few weeks selling our teenage sons’ toys. This sounds callous and mean, but the money goes to them, and they will no doubt spend it on things that will bring them transitory enjoyment, and then be put away and forgotten, and possibly sold. That ‘well-known internet auction site’ does provide a relief to the despair we have felt at the awful amassing of goods: we buy, we hold, we pass on, almost as if we leased the toys, and the opportunities they afford to explore stories, from some greater concept – time, life, western culture.

A couple of days ago I went to the post office and consigned a parcel to the post. The toys – a Playmobil jungle set, including rocks, animals, trees, and figures who were meant to be white European explorers and vaguely southern African indigenous people – were made in Germany (which is why they were well-designed, and why they have lasted without breaking); they were bought by a bidder in Canada from me in the UK, and sent to Japan, thus encompassing countries in four continents. It is indeed a global phenomenon of play and mobility. All in all I believe it to be a good thing.

And yet I feel  little uneasy at this particular image that I have peddled on. The white explorers wearing clothes reminiscent of Indiana Jones will continue to explore, facing dangers including crocodiles lurking beneath a bridge with two intentionally broken planks, all the while maintaining the famous Playmobil noselessness and rictus smile. They will meet black people dressed in skirts made from colourful feathers, foliage and leopard-skins, holding spears or banging on drums, smiling, always smiling. Bright birds will sit securely on bright trees while bright snakes woven into coils will sit or swim beside bright lily-pads. An unexplained figure, part fetish part scarecrow will face, across the safely ricketty bridge, a monolith showing unexplained marks referring to an earlier culture, now hidden by a clip-on shower of bright green plants. If the play in any way follows what happened in our house, their meeting will involve surprise, suspicion, conflict, being taken apart, put back together, and ending up in a box under a bed or on top of a wardrobe. The story may be developed (in our case they became involved with pirates and spacemen). The settings will change. Maybe one of the black men will get a white shift and a leopard-skin, and kneel before a young white lady wearing a white crinoline with an extravagant blue sash and a discreet gold tiara with a white ostrich feather, as she hands him a hefty Bible. Maybe there will be a tall white gentleman in a red uniform, and three other figures discreetly shadowy in the background. Of course they will be smiling, but what will they be thinking?

Key in the words ‘explorer’ or ‘jungle’ in the search box on the Playmobil website, and you won’t find the bridge or the drummers or the smiling spear-holders; you’ll see a safari jeep and plenty of animals but not this particular meeting of people of different cultures all smiling that Tony Blair smile. Playmobil has moved on, though for £135 you can replay another smiling meeting of cultures symbolised by a ‘Native American camp with totem pole’ and ‘Western Fort’. The thing about Playmobil is that it is so well made that it will last for a long, long time.