By HELEN MacGREGOR
THE annual pre-Christmas great wail about the quality of children's books and toys is audible as usual. " Quite too frightful, my dear," greets these Britain Can Make It offerings, and the sincere parental belief is, as it always has been, that children will instinctively turn from such inartistic offerings. The truth is, however, that the dearest loves of children are those which range from " indifferent to something worse," and that we are wasting our sympathy. Children, though adults are reluctant to admit it, have definitely a debased taste. Could, for example, anything be cruder than a " Jack in the box "? This " shock tactics " toy, however, was one of the most popular in our nursery. Another treasure was a " monkey up the stick," though the stick was usually full of splinters and the monkey of a breed not yet recognised at Mappin Terrace. Not even the most doting admirers of Noah's Ark, either, can honestly claim any beauty for the animals which seem to have been munched rather than carved from wafers of wood, but we loved them as we loved Noah and his wife who, with their ninepin silhouettes and stolid, unassuming plainness, are unrivalled even today.
Modern toy soldiers are, if we are to believe parents, not worth giving to a child. Our favourite toy soldiers were as shapeless as blobs of hot lead dropped into cold water, their colouring a lick of red or black paint. Nevertheless, to us they were as romantic as the Knights of the Round Table must have been to the ladies Elaine and Guinevere. Any adult suggestion that we should throw out a soldier when he had lost both his head and his legs was fiercely rejected. Is there an Edwardian prepared to swear, hand on heart, that the toy horse of his childhood was handsome or true to nature?. But though we soon tired of the " like as life " plush and fur animals which well- intentioned maiden aunts had been persuaded to buy for us, our loyalty to " Dobbin " was unwavering. Untiringly we towed it on its four biscuit-sized wheels. Lovingly we patted it until the black spots were mere shadows. It had a moulting fillet of fur glued on to its rectangular neck as a make-do mane. Its rough-hewn profile was stupid. It was, however, the incarnation of all the most famous horses in our story-books.
I belong to an age when to describe a small girl as "doll-faced" was regarded as- the highest compliment that could be paid to her. But that kind of doll, with its white kid, hair-stuffed body, its wait face which seemed to have been moulded from scented soap, its heavy-lidded eyes which opened and closed, its fluttering fringe of eyelashes, its real hair, was never loved. The doll which was paid the honour of being alternately maltreated and cuddled was a rag one of the kind which made grown-ups say, " What can the child see
in that dreadful horror? " In comparison with the most amorphous modern doll it was almost handsome. It had a face like a paint- daubed scone. Its arms and legs were like pink calico sausages. Its hands and feet were wens. And we adored it.
Ask any woman of my generation if she had a wooden Dutch doll. Mark the gleam of pride in her senile eye ; that is, if she has no children of her own to educate aesthetically. But could anything have been more uncouth? It was, quite candidly, a frozen-faced, rigid-limbed marionette. Its hair was suggested by black enamel, and its complexion was hectic. Anatomically, it was a cross between a wooden mallet and a set of nut-crackers. A Dutch doll, however, ranked second to a rag doll in our affection, with a rubber doll a good third. The rubber doll squeaked, and no Edwardian child would have bathed without it. The rubber was a dingy and unwhole- some grey. The doll had what looked like a varicose vein girdling it longitudinally, where the halves had been joined. It had a tin whistle inset in its back. Its features were wart-like, its scalp covered with " curls " which looked like worm-casts. But we loved it.
Modern parents complain because they cannot buy " pretty " rubber balls. The rubber ball which made a bunion in the toe of my stocking each Christmas would have given them something to think about. One special favourite had an arsenical green background, transferred sprays of roses and forget-me-nots, and, most beautiful touch of all, the inscription in gilt lettering, " A present from Dunoon." Nothing, I thought, could be more exquisite. In fact, it seemed like sacrilege to " stot " it on a dirty pavement. Another year I was given a ball painted in red and green tartan. This was a treasure because it was so like the Winnikin whose " Wags " I followed in the green paper- backed Tales for Little People, price one penny. The Winnikin! There was an enchantingly hideous hero of fiction. He had one eye which could look up at the sky while the other searched for a pin on the floor. One ear was fixed forward, the other backwards. His nose could extend till it was the size of an elephant's trunk or it could be a snub. He had a hundred teeth which could all be taken out separately, either to teach him counting or for playing " jacks " with. Yet the "Winnikin," by the pseudonymous " Aunt Julie," was a far greater favourite than any Kate Greenaway or Walter Crane creation.
All right-minded children of my time revelled in sheets of transfers of raw red flowers and arrogant blue butterflies. I can remembet with joy, too, a sheet of " scraps " with serried rows of angels with raspberry-pink faces and bell-tent robes of mustard yellow, grass green and pillar-box red. The more dazzlingly-coloured a thing was the more we admired it, a fact which manufacturers catering for modern children should bear in mind. Magic-lantern slides, • for example, were a delirious kaleidoscope of Prussian blue and rich crimson. One year an adult hoping to alter what she regarded as our evil taste in art gave us some black-and-white slides showing views of local beauty- spots. We politely " ran them through " once, then thankfully returned to our German slides with their eye-dazzling colouring.
"It's an insult to sell dolls' furniture like that," a young mother said the other day as she shied from a chunky set painted in forget- me-not blue. " Think of the lovely ones there were before the war." I did. Only " the war " to use is the 1914-1918 war; and my dolls' furniture, with the ubiquitous stamp " Made in Germany," cost sixpence a box. One set was crimson fringed in gold. The other was covered with emerald and canary-yellow checked paper with an edging of gilt paper lace. I thought them the most beautiful things in the world. So, I suspect, would that young mother's daughter.