Unfashionable Pursuits: Can We revive Childhood Hobbies?

Christopher Fowler

I wasn't capable of building models without gluing my eyelids.

Like many of my friends, I grew up without a television. My grandmother
disapproved of shouting and running on a Sunday, and never bought a TV because she thought it would irradiate the brain and destroy the art of conversation. When she finally succumbed, she hung a cloth over it and put a vase of flowers on the top, as if hoping to disguise her vulgarity from the neighbours.
The television set in my other grandmother's house had shiny wooden roller doors designed to hide the screen, as if there was something shameful about exposing a naked cathode tube. I was sometimes allowed to watch Torchy the Battery Boy
after which she would shut the roller doors with a bang. If books hurt your eyes, the thinking went that TV hurt your brain.
As a consequence, indoor hobbies were more popular among us. My favourites were model kits, mostly warplanes and aircraft carriers that took weeks to build ('I've lost an aerial mast!'). I recall attempting to construct a hovercraft, very sixties, and a galleon ('I've lost a topsail!') while getting covered in skeins of rock-hard glue and stabbed with razor-sharp knives for cutting balsa wood. I wasn't capable of building models without getting glue on my eyelids. That peculiarly light wood proved to be the go-to product for all model-makers, sold in sheets and blocks everywhere, especially for use in gliders, which required brushing thinners over stretched paper, all for that one flight - straight up, straight down and smashed to bits. There was also quick-setting plaster to be poured into moulds, a veritable poisons cabinet of chemistry sets which were capable of detonating reasonable explosions and polystyrene blocks that you could carve with hot wire. It comes as no surprise to find that these are no longer sold to nine year-olds in high street shops. You can still buy safe versions of chemistry sets (boring) and Airfix are happily still going strong, although they seem squarely aimed at adults. Checking out their website I was particularly drawn to models of: Bombed Out Polish Bank Destroyed Italian Town House and Czech Restaurant (remains) I don't know any kid of my age who wasn't addicted to Airfix kits (probably because of the glue), and the neat layout of their parts became iconic. In the big-budget production of the too-clever-to-be-popular stage show 'Made in Dagenham', all the sets were made of Airfix parts. I built every single one of the Aurora monster model kits, and even hung onto one of them. If you click on
and wait patiently, you'll see the clip I just shot (let me know if it doesn't play - new setting on phone). I had hoped this model would be the start of an 'Implements of Torture' series from Aurora but they suffered a big enough backlash from this one, so no iron maiden or rack appeared, sadly.
Children love slightly unsavoury stuff, so why does no-one cater to them now? Can we go back to weird old hobbies now? Why would any child still collect stamps or train numbers when without any effort they can get a greater sense of achievement from blowing heads off in Red Dead Redemption? Under lockdown perhaps hobbies can be reinvented. Some of the more elaborate kinetic Heath Robinson devices YouTubers post must take months to set up - effort, skill and achievement combined - so are there other ways of utilising our extra spare time? Or shall we just box set Scandi-noir cop thrillers?  


Peter Dixon (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 08:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

At about age 10 I got hold of a polystyrene wig stand / head and started using it as a base for making paper mâché monster masks like Frankenstein's monster, The Mummy, Werewolf and Dracula, all heavily influenced by the Aurora kits - although I think my Dracula was based on Christopher Lee. Unfortunately I could never wear them because I wear specs and couldn't see a thing.
Looking through my bedside copy of 'Hobbies 1956 Handbook' I note that fretwork and marquetry were the big thing. I feel the loss of fretwork is a tragedy given its propensity for putting sharp instruments into young hands under the watchful eye of a pipe-smoking father on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately the only place to set the kit up was on the kitchen table , so it all had to be cleared away by 4.00pm ready for tinned salmon sandwiches, tongue sandwiches and orange jelly made with a tin of mandarin orange segments encased like maggots in amber. Sometimes instead of the jelly you would get a bowl of mixed fruit macédoine and Carnation milk .I still have no understanding of the word macédoine.
The good thing about balsa wood was that you couldn't get spelks.

Brian Evans (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 09:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

With the sincere belief that whilst growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional, I still make models for my 00 gauge and N gauge railways. Often using balsa wood.

My Dad forbade me to have a Bayko house building set (made by Hornby) as this required medal rods sticking out of a board and was an accident waiting to happen-ie. they could easily blind you if you tripped and your face landed on one. Can you imagine that being allowed now?

Peter Dixon (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 10:17

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Brian - I have to confess that I have 5 boxed sets of Bayko and I'm still scared to build anything with it.

Brooke (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 11:25

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Hmmm. My design is more stable made for volume.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 12:38

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I had Bako, and built houses mainly with it. Those metal rods were frustrating, you got one brick slid into place and the next one fell out because the rods wobbled in the base. Not sure how old I was, but definitely still primary school. We did a lot of skipping at school, group skipping with a long rope, and fancy stuff with shop bought ropes with painted wooden handles. Then hula hoops arrived. End of skipping. Marbles seemed to be uni sex, both boys and girls played with them.
My kids in the 80s had lego of course and playmobil. Lego was my son's choice, playmobil my daughter's. At least you make and create with them.
My ex husband still builds military models, tanks, infantry, mostly WW1 period. They used to be called lead soldiers, and you can still buy old ones on eBay, but lead is no longer health & safety approved of course, so currently made with white metal, allegedly non toxic. You can get supplies and moulds to cast your own. Warning, do not melt the metal in a saucepan that is used for food cooking!
The main hazard of the military models is the small scale of the individual bits. If dropped, they tend to disappear into the carpet and close inspection is required to retrieve them. Even worse, his free range guinea pigs assume anything on the floor is for them. Trying to beat a fast moving guinea pig to a rifle, or leg, or arm, is difficult, and frequently leads to furniture having to be moved to see where the guinea pig has cached it.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 14:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I still make models - though they are never exactly how they appear on the box. I have tons of spare parts, wheels, sandbags, bicycles, etc, and these get added to tanks as stowage, and gives the finished model more 'life'.
I'm waiting on paint so i can make my young nephew a full-stack Space Shuttle model, and a 'Titanic' with which he is obsessed.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 14:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"I don't know any kid of my age who wasn't addicted to Airfix kits (probably because of the glue)"
Were the "drug-crazed hippies" of the 1960s inspired by nostalgia for their innocently and ignorantly high early childhoods?

The attitude to child-safety in the 1950s reflected the father in "Swallows and Amazons." - "Only duffers drown. Better drowned than duffers." Imagine the reaction to that today! The fact that quite a few parents had recently risked death regularly and had had friends and relatives who had died probably influenced them too.

Andrew Jones (not verified) Sun, 19/04/2020 - 18:52

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My grandmother's comment on colour TV was "it's not natural "

John Howard (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 06:51

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Ok, everything in this post took me back to my childhood. From the 'Dope" needed to harden up the covering on the gliders framing to the Bayko set. I didn't have one of those but my mate did so I went round his house a lot. Even making the roof whiled away a few hours. Clipping all those separate tiles together.....
As for making the plastic models.... that was a given. My friends and I had a great advantage I think in as much as we had an overgrown, disused chalk pit only a 10 minute walk away so any ship or plane that we had become bored with was taken up there and, hidden amongst the foliage, we used to set up the odd scenario and burn them all to hell. All good clean fun.

Jo W (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 08:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I always wanted a chemistry set. What did I get? Knitting sets,sewing kits,weaving loom, dolls and more dolls.
But,there were always my brothers' stuff to 'borrow'- guns,dartboards and boxing gloves.
My goodness, but growing up was sexist.

SteveB (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 11:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Leonard de Vries book of experiments had one where you filled a bowl with agar jelly (I think it was) and it various chemicals in which crystallised out into weird coral-like forms. I've never forgotten that.
Keeping boxes of fireworks under my bed probably wouldn't be allowed today either.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 11:53

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Decided to make a cotton reel tank only to discover you can't get wooden cotton reels anymore. Chiz, chiz

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 14:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You can get wooden cotton reels, but they are now sold as craft items, not with cotton on.
Try searching for wooden spools or bobbins.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 15:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cornelia, political correctness gone mad!
I probably won't be allowed matches and rubber bands.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 15:42

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Can you not make this tank out of them plastic cotton reels then Peter? Or does it have to be wood?

Jan (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 15:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Can you not make this tank out of them plastic cotton reels then?

Or does it have to be wood?

Peter Tromans (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 17:36

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Airfix and balsa aeroplanes were a major feature of my childhood. All 1:32 scale plastic model cars, then and now, are ace for conversion to Scalextric. I remember building a house, not sure if it was Bayco. I should have done more; it might have been useful experience for all the full-size ones that we've bought, ugh. Yachts were fun as well; pity our pond is too small to sail one now. However, very soon there should be a great Scalextric circuit in the roof of my workshop and a space for model building. Full size cars and their re-construction will be downstairs. Life is good.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 18:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I joined up with a couple of male nerds (although we didn't call them that) to monkey around with a tiny printing press and a soldering iron. The two did not come together. I practiced soldering (what? don't know) until I could do the ideal balance of minimal seepage and maximum hold. I was admired for this skill.Could I do it now? Don't know. My brother and I did models, although they were nominally his, and we were to use the glue only in the living room or kitchen and preferably with windows and/or doors open. Would that be why I never was attracted to the drug culture? This sounds like a sociology or psychology paper crying to be written.
My husband nodded through this whole entry and tells me that scalextric is slot car racing. He agrees that Peter Troman's assessment of life is definitely correct.
We think the tanks have to be made with wooden spools because you have to notch the rim (?) for the elastic power source. Of course that hot wire would possibly work on the plastic.
I was boiling up stuff with cleaning vinegar and what not to try for ink and currently have a couple of pieces of metal working in cider vinegar for a try at black. Only problem with all those attempts is that I know the acids would eat through paper after a while. I haven't really succeeded yet. The saucepan I use for cooking it all has a ribbon on the handle so I don't use it for food.
Jo, couldn't you have just asked for something other than sewing kits? My mother was raised on a prairie farm and my paternal aunt was the only girl in 4 children and the house was filled with her brothers' friends. Those were possible reasons for my not learning to knit until after I married.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 18:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had to look it up but for those not raised in the English north "spelks" are slivers.

Brian Evans (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 18:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Meccano was a fave of mine. I used to build things on the floor-it was difficult for everyone else to walk round, but parents seemed to put up with it. Also, Matchbox cars. I much preferred them to Corgi and Dinky as I liked the smaller size as they went with my train set. They were cheaper as well. And, to me, looked better. I wish I'd had have kept them as I would now have them displayed in a wall cabinet.

A bug-bear of my childhood was having to play out when the sun came out. I often liked that, and there were a lot of children my age to play with. But there were times, esp with Meccano and trainset that I would have preferred to stay in to solve a knotty problem.

Liz, I was a great fan of the hula hoop craze. 1959 it was. And also marbles came and went as fads, and as you say, uni-sex.
Playing out was another thing. Hopscotch and skipping were much in vogue, with boys as well. I loved rounders-it's the only sport I ever liked. Then roller-skates had a craze. Also trolleys. ie pram wheels tuned into a motorless go-kart. They were called trolleys in one area where I lived-the Wirral but over the River Mersey in Liverpool they were called stearies.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 19:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brian - in the north east they were called bogies, probably because the early railway carts were named that way. Often just pram wheels nailed to a plank.

Jan - the big fun is cutting notches out of the rims with a sharp knife - plastic just doesn't feel right, or have the right weight.

Helen - yes, a spelk is a sliver of wood or metal that gets stuck in your skin and requires tweezers to remove - sometimes also a razor blade and antiseptic.

For 3 years running I got a Christmas present of a bus conductor's outfit complete with tin ticket machine, money pouch, cap and spare tickets. My female cousin got a Junior Post Office outfit. I often wonder whether our respective mother's were trying to guide us toward sensible careers. Clearly to no avail.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 19:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Steeries, I think, Brian Evans, because they had moveable front axles that - theoretically - you could steer, either by pushing with your feet or pulling on a string, Trolleys had fixed wheels on each corner.

Jo W (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 21:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

# Helen, hello!
I didn't ask for knitting or sewing kits. They were what Father Christmas left for me. :-(

Peter Tromans (not verified) Mon, 20/04/2020 - 21:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for reminding me of Meccano. I still have it somewhere. I'd thought of trying to build a ventilator, but then they announced that ventilators don't really help. Last week, I put a robot kit together. It has two modes: one is follow and the other is avoid. They are sufficient to give it remarkably animal like behaviour and I'm embarassed to say that I can pass a happy half hour watching its adventures. Life is very good.

I have done some sewing, but it was to repair some leather car seats. I guess that doesn't rate with cross-stitch?

Jan (not verified) Tue, 21/04/2020 - 05:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I tell you what might be worth trying as a passtime at present.....stargazing this Elon Musk sky train this chain of satellites in the lower atmosphere is going to be visible tonight @ 2100 -2230.

The Lyrids (the seasonal meteor shower) will be visible quite early on you needn't be leaping out of bed @ 3a.m. to see them hopefully be visible from about 0030. Peak night tonight.

Ian Luck (not verified) Tue, 21/04/2020 - 06:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brian - if you liked Matchbox cars, there are several youtube channels devoted to bringing these little works of art back to life. The undisputed 'king' of this is an Australian bloke. His channel, 'Marty's Matchbox Makeovers' was one of the first - if you want to see just how good he is, find the video where he brings a severely crushed Bedford tipper back from the dead. It's astonishing. He larks about a bit, but his work is superb. Then there's 'Matchbox Garage' who very often selects a model fit only for the bin, and makes it beautiful again. The best, in my opinion, is 'Sideways King 75', who does major surgery on toy cars, and they end up looking real. He has a Canadian equivalent, 'Diecast Resurrection', who has phenomenal painting skills, and cuts and shuts all sorts of toy cars as though they were real. The only American I can think of is a guy who calls himself 'Timerider', and his channel is 'Timerider's Wee Little Cars'. He loves Matchbox, and does great work, and also, a great voice - he could talk about cardboard, and I'd listen. Seek some of these guys out - and you'll never look at a toy car the same way again.
Stay safe!

Brian Evans (not verified) Tue, 21/04/2020 - 08:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks Ian,

I really appreciate the tip-off. I'm going to look at it all later today.

I like the crack that he could talk about cardboard and make it interesting.

Thanks again.

Jan (not verified) Wed, 22/04/2020 - 04:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well that was a very cold and drafty 0345 -0500! I was too idle to get out of bed that bit earlier and we are pretty far south here with a massive hill to the west but (relatively) flat to the east so it's gets light EARLY. I knew I should have aimed to get out- and back in - 20 mins in front of the times given. Never mind not to worry saw a few shooting stars really long plumes so nice watching. Must say as well that its often been my experience that peak viewing night blows out pretty much and the best experiences are in the night's before and afterwards.

Never saw Mr Musks sky satellite chain will try again tonight for that.
Does this qualify as a hobby? Been following meteor displays for years quite often sleeping outside during the summer meteors periods + never really thought of it as a hobby thing.

Just to ice the cake its a really red sky this morning. Might save the washing till tomorrow.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 22/04/2020 - 05:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Love meteorites but we have a streetlight that blocks the perseids, the best ones for us. We were at my parents' one August and told Mother we were going to lie out and watch the perseids from her perfect yard. She was horrified to learn that they could be predicted - they were supposed to be a lucky spotting - but she was willing to watch. They arrived right on time of course and Mother called to my Dad to come and see. He muttered that if he was going to come outside it had better be worthwhile. As he came onto the veranda there was a huge meteorite that flamed across the sky.and left us with mouths hanging open. Right, says Dad, that's that then, and went back inside. It was just so perfect and we haven't been anywhere as good to watch from since.
Yes, it's a hobby.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Wed, 22/04/2020 - 10:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen, another beautiful word to describe an attribute of wood is 'shake'. When olde time wooden beams develop splits along the grain over the years, these splits are called 'shakes'. When I go to the Sam Wanamaker theatre I always spend a minute running my fingers across the beams ( stop sniggering at the back!) Not sure if it's a specifically Northern term, though.

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 22/04/2020 - 20:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Having spent a childhood making bogies/go-carts out of planks and pram wheels (and pranging them, complete with contusions and cuts) I was brought up short as a trainee social worker in North Kensington when I attended the case of a 14 year old done for constructing one, as the pram wheels came off the local tip without permission, thus stealing by finding.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 23/04/2020 - 00:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

But that is the prime source for materials, the local tip. I know that many municipalities consider anything picked up by the rubbish men as their property so they can control the removal of dangerous items but great grief! pram wheels?!
Those steering devices relying on a bar across the front need something to make the swing smooth because a sticking bar can result in a major crash. Not sure what is best, a ball bearing motion transfer, lots of grease (what kind?), or a ball and socket affair. Good reason for adults to stay right the way out.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 24/04/2020 - 05:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I made the 'Titanic' model for my nephew - it took me about four and a half hours, and I enjoyed every sevond of it - but I was amused at all the tools I needed - Scalpel, Fine tweezers, Rat-tail files, Steel ruler, Pin Chuck and weeny drillbits, two different liquid cements, and a scriber. When I was seven it was different: Plastic kit - Airfix/Frog/Revell. Tube of plastic cement. All done bar the shouting, in twenty minutes, on a good day. I didn't need to paint the Titanic, by the way; it was a rather high-tech Japanese one, all in the right colours. That's progress. Just hope he likes it.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 24/04/2020 - 05:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Sevond'? That's not even a word. I meant 'Second'.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 24/04/2020 - 18:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have just remembered that I have a Titanic kit here, a Chinese one. It was going to go above the library section on pirates, ocean exploration and wrecks (all the Ballard stuff). Yes, definitely tweezers and files and I will have to paint it. I'll also have to put the instructions under a magnifying lens, let alone the pieces. A 1/720 scale propeller is really tiny.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 25/04/2020 - 02:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pleased to say that my nephew loved it, and had to be dissuaded from carrying it about everywhere by his dad - my brother had to explain that it was for looking at, not playing with, even if it was a birthday present. A small boy who has been obsessed (it's the only word that covers it) with the Titanic since he was four. He's got all the books, seen all the films - including the James Cameron one, for which, my brother told me, his running commentary was perfect, on the lines of:
"That's wrong. That didn't happen", etc. I think the only film he hasn't seen is the beautiful, and classic 'A Night To Remember', which is so much better and atmospheric than Cameron's dodgy version.