There are two things that really get me really riled – Inequality and Climate Change. There are other things too, like Feta cheese in salads, but that’s for another time.
Last Friday I was looking through the books in our office. We’ve got lots. Some old, some new, some inspiring and some, like the three I’m going to share with you now, can unexpectedly make you stop and think.
These three books are all annuals and they were all published in 1975. I’ve taken some pictures for your viewing pleasure but let me share just a little of the joy these time-capsules brought…
The Schoolgirls Annual was owned by Ann Barnes and it was gifted to her by her gran on the occasion of her 13th birthday. We know this because of the dedication Ann’s gran put on the inside cover and the fact that Ann wrote her name there too in a shade of felt-tip that just wasn’t available after 1979. A quick flick through and you’d think Ann was smitten on someone called “Ringo” (can’t imagine who he might be) as on every single page in bic-biro-block capitals the words ANN+RINGO are enshrined. The contents are all glamour and fashion and one or two worrying articles that are not unexpected but troubling nonetheless; “The Man Who Cared” which is all about Dr Barnardo and “Man’s Best Friend” which is all about dogs because Schoolgirls obviously couldn’t have kept dogs in 1975. There’s also a story about a Tiger Tamer called Gerd Siemoneit who did this thing at the Blackpool Tower. Then there’s the standard fayre of cookery, snowing and puppies with a picture story all about “Busy Lizzie” which appears to glamourise housework. Hmmm.
The Schoolboys annual was owned previously by Dean. Dean was 8. The inside cover is WW2 soldiers, military helicopters, footballers, cars and Norman invaders. Three out of five images depict acts of violence. I’m not sure if it is particularly meaningful or responsible for any great upsurge in recorded pea-shooter incidents, but it is interesting that this is what boys were supposed to like. The prose, that should be read with a received pronunciation, covers Steam Traction Engine conventions (which thousands of people attend every weekend, apparently), aforementioned helicopters, cowboys and the birth of the Royal Canadian Mounties. Big machines, indigenous destruction and Empire. Hmmm. Hmmmm.
As with anything from a different time, you can look at things through historical eyes, you can look through comedic eyes or you can look at them through societal eyes. Whichever way I looked at these books last Friday they seemed to me to be important. I think they are important because they pinpoint where we are now by describing where we have been.
This is the media with which my generation grew up. And there can be little doubt that the media to which we are exposed as children plays a pivotal role in developing a world view. These annuals perpetuated a mindset into my generation that had been formed for many, many generations before. Not great.
But salvage comes in the form of the third Annual.
The third annual signified, for me at least, that not everything was Pink or Blue and that change was in the air. It is the “Authorised Edition as seen on BBCTV” of the 1975 Wombles Annual. That’s them there – they are kind of “Yetimice”. They live (still, I think) in a burrow on Wimbledon Common.
100% my favourite growing up and always ahead of their time. The Wombles didn’t just recycle, they reused. They made good use of the everyday things people left behind on Wimbledon common. They lived together as a family, they were empathetic, helpful, considerate and there wasn’t one iota of overt gender stereotyping. And it was still 1975.
The picture of the child with the nameless addition to the Wombles, above, by some weird serendipity, is me in 1976. This was a full 12 months before Kenner and Lucas did their deal that brought us Star Wars toys (and the dangerous envy I had for my best friend’s action figure collection) so my mum made me my own Womble. It’s almost as if the Wombles, these “Yetimice”, with their comically long noses and a knack for reusing and being collaborative, were sent from some far distant future to make sure my generation had some small grip on the potential planetary calamity we now face.
I shared all three annuals with my son over the weekend. He’s 10 and likes Fortnite, YouTube and David Attenborough. He enjoyed the stories in both the Schoolboys and Schoolgirls annual and just couldn’t compute why they were just for boys or just for girls. And as he leafed through the Wombles stories he said they should “re-do” the Wombles. And maybe he’s right. The point he was making was that they were all relevant but the Wombles were relevant in a way that the first two just weren’t.
These books were published 33 years ago. Just a single generation since the end of World War 2 –they were always going to be all “soldiers and cookery classes”. This was also a time that the world began to change – the equal pay and non-discrimination act, the end of the Vietnam war and the realisation that our dependency on fossil fuels would either kill our economies or our children. In many ways we’ve not come very far at all. But in others we have.
Look where our children are taking us, look at how equality, for the very first time, in the developed world at least, might just be achieved in our children’s lifetime. Our children are able to accept the differences that make our world so wonderful, to embrace them and share them and build upon them. By the time my son reviews the books of his time with his children, I don’t think the relevance gap is going to be so big.
And I guess this brings me to what made me stop and think in the first place. And it’s this:
Children’s media today is incredible – in all its forms, online, on-air, print, theatre. It is SOOOOOOO far from the media my generation experienced and there are many reasons for that – but the fact remains that the media diet of our children is part of what informed their consciousness, their attitudes and their beliefs. There are so many incredible creators doing amazing work in children’s media and the work of groups of unsung heroes like The Children’s Media Foundation or the Let Toys Be Toys volunteers (and many many others) is ensuring our children get not just what they need but what the human race needs – diversity, inclusion, respect, inspiration and access.
This gives me great hope that, in another 33 years, my children’s children will be working on other important stuff because equality and the planet are sorted. And that’s really good news as, according to The World Wild Life Fund, Netflix and David Attenborough, we’ve only got 50 years left in which to act.