Category Archives: Childhood

New money: pound for pound

new pound coinI like new coins.

Some time in June 1982, I got change from a shop that included shiny new 20p coins.

The design was like nothing I’d ever seen before in British money – heptagonal like a 50p piece but much smaller and lighter (the new light 5p and 10p coins were not to appear for another 10 years, and the lighter 50p coins not for five years after that).

I recognised it instantly as a British coin, but a new coin for a different value. I liked it. (I had a similar feeling when the £2 coins first appeared in 1998.) And in 1982, I had had no idea that 20p coins were about to be a thing.

Today, 28th March, new £1 coins appear: dodecagons. We haven’t had dodecagon currency since the thruppeny bit was discontinued in 1971.
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Borders Railway

Borders Railway UnwrappedYesterday, on Saturday 5th September, I took a train from Waverley to Tweedbank: today you can too, for £11.20: the whole trip from the centre of Edinburgh to Tweedbank in the Borders will take you 57 minutes.

A few months ago I was sitting on a bus and an advert popped up on my tablet: 35 Golden Ticket winners and their guests could win a Golden Ticket and be the first passengers to travel from Edinburgh to the Borders by the new Scottish Borders railway: just say why you want to go, in 50 words or less.

For about five years – I think from when I was about six to sometime before my 12th birthday – my parents rented a cottage in the Borders from the Buccleuch Estates. The rent was £5 a year, and the cottage had running water (which had to be turned off in the autumn, before the first frost led to burst pipes) but the only means of heating the water was to have a fire in the hearth in the living-room.
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Magnetic Girls Talk

If you’ve gone anywhere near the Internet in the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen a mocking reference to the pink/purple Bic “pens for HER”. They even made Newsround.

Via Angry Black Lady Chronicles:

  • Before I bought this product I couldn’t write but now I’m an engineer. Mind you, I only design pink, flowery bridges, motorways and sewers. Blue ones would be wrong wouldn’t they.
  • I think this is what they call “product failure.” Gendered razors I get. What woman doesn’t enjoy a nice shaving strip while scraping the hair off their legs? But pink gendered pens? Come on, son. Either come at me with a ribbed-for-her-pleasure pen, or don’t come at me at all. Pink alone ain’t gettin’ it done, IYKWIMAITYD.

Crates and Ribbons also adds pics from Early Learning of their gendered toys, and points out:

Children aren’t born knowing what is expected of their gender. Boys aren’t born believing that it’s shameful to be a girl. Through the toys that we make for them and the messages that we send them, they are taught about their roles and status every day. And when they grow up, they will pass it on to their children in their turn, unless we make an effort to end this cycle and make gender roles a thing of the past.

This kind of thing amuses me and infuriates me in almost equal measure, especially when it comes to childhood favourites like Lego. When the Lego Group knows from its own research that at least 38% of their potential market is girls, and yet they refuse to market real Lego kits to girls because their marketing managers “know” that girls like dolls, not building things, something is deeply wrong. It takes a huge kind of processing error to ignore your own research and act surprised at falling sales.
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Lego: Sexism Trumps Capitalism

If you’re interested in Lego, you can skip the first 10 minutes of this promotional video, which is a rather dull little film about a Danish family of carpenters and toymakers.

In or about 1980, Lego stopped trying to market itself as a toy suitable for both girls and boys to build with, and started to aim itself purely at boys.

Twenty years later:

“The biggest issue we had was in early 2000 where we were actually losing money, coming out of 30 years of constant growth and constant profit growth,” [Poul Schou, senior vice president of Lego product group 2] said. “Then suddenly in 2000 to 2003 we were faced with a number of difficult years. And I think the biggest mistake, the biggest challenge we had at that time was that we actually lost our interest in boys in our core group.”

Pure capitalism would say “Gosh, we used to sell Lego to girls and boys. Now we’ve been trying to cut out our sales to girls for 20 years – just long enough for a whole generation of children to grow up knowing that Lego is for boys – and our sales are down! Maybe we should stop trying to cut our market by 50% and sell to all children, just like we used to!”
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Sporty kids aren’t bullied

Between twelve and sixteen I was a junior member of the British Sub-Aqua Club. We met at Portobello swimming pool – back when there was a salt-water pool. For years, every Monday night, I spent a couple of hours learning how to swim underwater with a snorkel and mask and fins. I played underwater hockey. We did a week up on Skye where we learned how to dive off a boat, and wear wetsuits, and knife discipline.

All divers carry knives, because you may get tangled in seaweed or a net: knife discipline was the senior instructor informing us, in a tone that made clear he meant what he said, that we were each being issued with a knife, that this knife was to stay in its sheath, that if any of us ever EVER took the knife out of its sheath without a good reason or above water AT ALL or were seen messing about with it, that was IT, the kid who did it was never going back in the water again. A dozen teenage boys and two girls listened with awed attention and you better believe that we never did. (That I still remember that lecture thirty years later – he was memorable.)

I loved it, and I was good at it. Women have a slight genetic edge over men in learning how to dive and to swim in cold water, but I mention this just for the sake of smugness: most of it is training. I loved being able to use my fins to zip through the water like a fish. I loved being able to see underwater. Snorkelling was great. I had huge confidence in the water and would have liked to learn how to use an aqualung. It was an entirely new experience for me when the other kids started demanding to be on my team when we played underwater hockey, because my team usually won.
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This strange thing happens to my city every year

My parents never used to throw anything away. Sometime in 1982 I found an Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme from 1964, tucked into a box with a lot of other theatre trivia, and what startled me wasn’t finding a thing like that from before I was born: it was the size. Obviously meant to double as a wall-planner, the programme had been folded out of an A3 glossy sheet of paper: it was a calendar for the three weeks of the Fringe, which then ran concurrently with the Festival, and every show and venue was listed on it. I mean the whole thing fitted on to one side of A3 paper. Twenty years later, supposing that anyone had wanted to print such a thing, you could not have fitted one day on to a side of A3.

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for most of my life, and so for most of my childhood it did not occur to me that there was anything strange about how, every August for three weeks, the city blossomed with theatrical performances. That was just what people did in August, it seemed to me: either stage a show or go to see one.

In the 1970s and 1980s, tickets were cheap, concessions were half-price, and some venues that couldn’t get fire insurance or proper seating dealt with this by offering free shows, entry by donation.

Lavender Menace, Scotland’s first queer bookshop, did some magnificently silly readings of lesbian and gay romances to the tiny audiences that could fit into its basement home on Forth Street; when it moved to a larger venue on Dundas Street, that was where I first heard David Benson “do” Kenneth Williams, and heard Armistead Maupin read from Tales of the City before he was famous.
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Our constitution, July 2012: Cultural Rights

The British are second only to Americans in being the kind of foreigner who is an international stereotype for never understanding any language but English. (An English secretary, who understood French pretty well, travelling with her boss, who spoke only English, took advantage of the situation to eavesdrop on the English company’s competitors discussing the terms of the deal in French, sure that neither boss nor secretary could understand them. True story.) Still, the stereotype holds up alarmingly well: over two-thirds of the UK population are English-speaking monoglots: and thanks to Doctor Who and Star Trek, this is practically an interstellar stereotype.

“To create a constitutional order that reflects a broad public commitment to a more inclusive, egalitarian, and communitarian way, and to mark Scotland out as a ‘progressive beacon’, the following additional provisions might be considered:”
1. Enhanced constitutional rights (c) Cultural rights (ie for Gaelic, Scots)

Cultural rights isn’t just language, of course, but language is likely to be the most contentious of the cultural rights issue, both by those who take for granted it should be English and those arguing for Gaelic and/or Scots.

More and more the international festivals in Edinburgh in August seem primarily for tourists – the days are long past when you could get home from work, decide you felt like going out to a show, and pick something from the Fringe programme that was handy to get to and would cost a fiver or less for an hour or two – and when concessions for students, under-16s, unemployed, and pensioners meant half-price, not “so we’ll knock a quid off the £12 or more we’ll be charging you”. But once upon a time that was do-able: when I was reading Hamlet for Higher English I could and did go to all the perfomances one year on the Fringe, and it didn’t cost my parents their life savings the way it would if an enthusiastic schoolkid got the idea of doing that this year. We should keep the Scottish BBC funded by licence fee. We should be investing in written and spoken Scottish culture.

I also liked Kenneth Roy’s trenchant finish to his three-part dissection of the current state of Scottish newspapers in the Review, earlier this year:

The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media. We are there for the taking. We wait for something better. We long for it every day.
Can this be done by the Johnston Press? Clearly not. They talk not of newspapers, but of products. They have failed journalism and they have failed journalists. Their grave is fit only to be danced on. I suggest the Eightsome Reel. I issue this challenge to the wealthy patriots of Scotland, of whom there are many. Get out there, form your consortium, convince us of your honourable motives, and make a reasonable offer to this lot’s bankers to take a great newspaper out of their hands. Better still, let’s have a trust along the lines of the Guardian’s, safeguarding the paper’s interests and supported by all who care about Scotland.

But what language is our culture? Continue reading

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Toby Young trips up on troglodytes

Toby Young is a man who has always played the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is, but is quite convinced that it’s purely a matter of skill that won him all his high scores.

At my high school, between 14 and 16, timetabling was everything. No one was allowed to do more than two sciences or more than one language: everyone had to do English and Maths: I couldn’t do History and Latin, because the timetables clashed: I chose Chemistry and Biology and so couldn’t do Physics: out of several unpromising options I took Drama, which was offered as an O-Level, and if nothing else let me discover I had an extraordinary capacity for memorisation and taught me the basics of public speaking: but thanks to the rigorous timetabling, I had to do a CSE in the seventh slot on the timetable sheet. (My mum urged me to do secretarial studies or child care, both of which she felt would be USEFUL, and I ended up doing art, which probably wasn’t but I had much more fun.)

Only three years later, I discovered when trying to find out what my grade had been, that CSE grades didn’t matter to anyone except the student and their parents. Nobody could tell me: I don’t know if any record was kept outside the school.
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Bruntsfield Memories, Supermarkets Shopped

I was born in Edinburgh, in the Royal Infirmary. I lived on or near Bruntsfield Place for longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else in Edinburgh or elsewhere. We moved to Hartington Place when I was two, and then to Bruntsfield Place – about three hundred yards away, uphill – when I was five. So for twelve years, that locus of Edinburgh was home to me: I’ve lived in Leith for longer, but ranged from Montgomery Street to Albert Street to Newhaven. The only other street in Edinburgh I feel the same kind of attachment to is Broughton Street.

When I walk along Bruntsfield Place now, the shape of it is the same – except that all the fences are shorter than they were, and the stair doors are different colours. But the shops have almost all changed. The newsagent where I got my first job delivering papers is still a newsagent, but it’s a chain shop, Margiotta’s, not an independent.

The corner greengrocer is now Oddbins, the general grocer’s over the road that sold rounds of tablet for 5p is probably one of the many glossy luxury shops, and I can’t remember what happened to the tobacconist who also sold sweeties from tall glass jars.
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Is your child normal or is he a girl?

A small boy I looked after sometimes had been given a real computer for his 7th birthday – a second-hand BBC Micro, which will tell you how long ago this was. He showed me it, full of pride and joy, and the 5 1/4″ disk full of pre-written games. I told him “Did you know you could write your own?” and he said no, and I said “I’ll show you, it’s really good!” and right then I showed him how to write his first computer program. His attention span for a text-based game did not last long – he wanted to play Chuckie-Egg – but as I was showing him how to enter lines of code that would let him tell the computer to do things, he looked up at me and said spontaneously “I hate girls!”

I had a momentary but profound shock. Then I said “I’m a girl. Do you hate me?” (I was 20, a terribly serious feminist, and would never have accepted being called a “girl” by anyone under the age of say, about seventy. Shut up. I was making a point.)

“No,” he said, looking embarrassed.

His sisters were both years older than him and doted on him. I named them. “They’re girls. Do you hate them?”

“No,” he said, looking really embarrassed now.

“So what do you mean, you hate girls?”

We clarified that he meant girls at school, girls in his class, and without any comment at all I went right back to showing him how to program his computer until he declared he was bored with this and we could play Chuckie-Egg. (I beat him, because I’m mean like that.)

The new Lego for Friends is, by all report, not actually “for girls” except that the kits are in what’s been culturally defined as girly colours and girly kits.

I stopped playing with Lego some years before I was 14. I can’t be more precise, but when I was 14 we moved house, and if any of us three kids had still been playing with the Lego regularly, our mum would probably have kept it. As she donated it, I’m pretty sure we’d all stopped building with it for years by that time. In our family, toys were usually only the private property of one child if defended with a lot of aggro – and my mum, a traditional-type feminist, was pleased to have her son playing with culturally-defined “girls toys” or her daughters playing with culturally-defined “boys toys”. (She denied the distinction existed, but of course we knew it did.) But Lego never came into that category: like the poster paints and the plasticine, Lego was just something we all built with. Like this 14-year-old girl who could have been me.

I’ve been following the problems friends who are now parents are having with buying toys for their children that aren’t “boys toys” or “girls toys” – a friend swore off Early Learning Centre forever because of the segregation problem:

there are tape recorders and electric keyboards, identical but for colour and decoration (pink with flowers; blue with circle-y things). The packaging on each shows girls and boys respectively; posed almost identically in what is clearly the same set. Look here for a nice clear illustration. The final proof comes at the checkout, by the way. It might be “Cool Keyboard – blue” on the website, but take it to the cash desk in the shop and I’ll guarantee it comes up as “keyboard boys”. I know because I bought Firstborn [a girl] this easel once.

As everyone, I hope, knows, “girls like pink” is a 20th-century invention, as childhood became culturally defined and commercialised in the Victorian era, it got definitely settled that one colour was for girls and one colour was for boys:

As part of this differentiation, there seems to have been an effort to establish characteristic colors for girls and boys. But it took decades to develop a consensus on what those colors were. For years one camp claimed pink was the boys’ color and blue the girls’. A 1905 Times article said so, and Parents magazine was still saying it as late as 1939. Why pink for boys? Some argued that pink was a close relative of red, which was seen as a fiery, manly color. Others traced the association of blue with girls to the frequent depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue.

That’s from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope, who goes on to say that “Nobody really knows” why this happened, or why the colours had come down the other way by the end of WWII.

A mother of a daughter – both Lego fans – discovered that now the new line “Lego Friends” had come out, her daughter had been unilaterally switched to the new “Lego for Girls” version of the monthly magazine, and that from now on, the “regular” magazine would be boys only. She says:

The usual two page spread dedicated to kids’ own creations is still there – but every photo shows a girl. This concerns me, as it implies that the other magazine will never again feature a photo of a girl, they’ll be saved for the Girls magazine. … I suspect this move was simply out of fear that they would lose existing (male) customers by polluting their experience with contagious girl stuff. … To me, the biggest problem is that in producing a specifically girl focused edition, all female content is sidelined there. As LEGO have confirmed, regardless of which version your daughter may subscribe to, if she sends in a photo of herself with her own LEGO creation it will appear in, and only in, the girl edition. While I can see some positives in showing lots of girls enjoying LEGO, this means that the standard edition contains zero girls. They are erased from the male experience of LEGO.

And then there’s that gamer who described overhearing a man trying to teach his son – violently – what a boy ought to like:

Eventually, I helped the brothers pick a game called “Mirror’s Edge.” The youngest was pretty excited about the game, and then he specifically asked me, “Do you have any girl color controllers?” I directed him to the only colored controllers we have, which include pink and purple ones. He grabbed the purple one, and informed me purple was his FAVORITE. The boys had been taking awhile, so their father eventually came in. He saw the game, and the controller, and started in on the youngest about how he needs to pick something different. Something more manly. Something with guns and fighting, and certainly not a purple controller.

The whole pink-and-blue thing isn’t to make girls into girls. It is to set off “what’s girly” so that boys can enjoy playing with their favourite toys without their parents getting freaked that their son is “just like a girl”. Remember the little boy who dressed up in a Daphne costume for a kindergarten Hallowe’en party? His mother writes:

A year later, looking back on the events before and after Halloween, I still struggle to understand what all the fuss was about. The silly thing is that everybody else put far more thought into the costume than my son did. He loved Scooby Doo the cartoon, but he had already dressed as Scooby Doo, the dog, for a past Halloween. He looks just like the Scooby Doo character Fred in real life, so he didn’t see a lot of costume potential there. The obvious choice, to him at least, was Daphne — orange wig, purple outfit — can’t get much more fun than that.

But from comments left and right, it matters.

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