Aidan Smith: Missing slings and superballs of 1960s childhood

Warnings over how fidget spinners '˜could hurt someone' don't impress 1960s playground survivor Aidan Smith
In the 1980s, ITV's Saturday morning kids show Tiswas was the TV equivalent of the delinquent child next door.In the 1980s, ITV's Saturday morning kids show Tiswas was the TV equivalent of the delinquent child next door.
In the 1980s, ITV's Saturday morning kids show Tiswas was the TV equivalent of the delinquent child next door.

So there we were on a sunny afternoon in the park, the three kids and me, when we decided to make our catching game more interesting. Instead of passing the Aerobie from hand to hand in the conventional and somewhat boring manner, we were to launch ourselves, Superman-like, at the flying ring and snare it with our heads in a kind of human hoopla.

Now, no-one was hurling the thing like a fearsome, bearded man-woman discus specialist from old East Germany back in the days of unchecked athlete stimulant abuse, but you should have seen the looks we got from other mums and dads. What kind of parenting is that? It’ll end in tears, just you watch. Wouldn’t it be funny if the father crashed into that goalpost? Me, I wasn’t caring. I picked myself up, wiped away the blood and chucked the Aerobie to my youngest, adding extra degree-of-difficulty spin for the hell of it. For this chorus of disapproval, I reckoned, was simply a snap reaction to The Great Fidget Spinner Controversy of 2017.

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Fidget spinners, don’t you know, are the latest playground craze. Or they were last week, crazes only lasting a mere seven days now before the next one appears, as if magic and cynical marketing. And sometimes they only last half a week before schools introduce a ban on safety grounds. Someone could get hurt, will read the warning on parentmail. Or, as Craigiebarns Primary in Dundee put it, regarding the three-pronged, plastic-and-ball-bearing gizmos: “Someone could get really hurt.”

Yes, I suppose they could. And someone could really enjoy themselves as well. You see, it’s difficult for me to get worked up about The Great Fidget Spinner Controversy of 2017, being as I am a survivor of The Great Superball Rumpus of 1967.

The Superball, as the name implies, was an extremely bouncy rubber ball which, if thrown from the top of my school, would have cleared the building on its way back up. I say “was”, although the Superball re-appeared recently. The thing is, no one in 1967 would have stopped us climbing out on to the roof to conduct such an experiment.

There was no rumpus. We hurled our Superballs all day long and no teacher batted an eyelid. When a boy returned to class after morning break unable to bat his eyelid because he’d been struck by a Superball - developed by a Californian chemist, the aptly-named Norman H. Stingley - no ban was introduced. After lunch - delivered in vans, semolina for pudding, tapioca for a special treat - we rushed back into the playground and scudded these lethal rubber pellets off the outside toilet block - no inside loos for us - and too bad if you failed to catch them. We wore our keekers with pride.

The modern Superball comes in a variety of colours; ours were black and looked like blunderbuss bullets - felt like them too. Crazes were crazes back then and the blurb on the packaging is etched in memory: “Wham-O! … Made with new amazing Zectron! … Amaze your friends!” Maim them, more like.

Now obviously no-one wants kids returning for afternoon lessons having swallowed a Superball. But are we policing our kids too much? Covering them in Superball wounds is clearly bad but so is covering them in cotton-wool. Is it right that the Norman H. Stingleys of today, those boffins heavily into rubber, develop soft and squidgy landings for swing-parks and not the successor to the Superball?

The day after fidget spinners were outlawed at Craigiebarns a headline caught my eye and gave me hope: “Live and dangerous kids’ TV returns.” The successor to Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas is due in the autumn and CBBC has promised the show will be “anarchic” in the traditions of such programmes.

Hang on, when was Noel Edmonds ever anarchic? In word-association, “annoying” and “blow-dryed” and “children’s hospital yuletide stalker” spring to mind before anarchic. Maybe his helicoptering on later shows could have been described as anarchic but Swap Shop was a safe, Auntie Beeb-prescribed but diverting-enough way to spend Saturday mornings, wondering if Jimmy from Cowdenbeath was going to be successful in trading “Action Man Scuba Diver (missing one flipper, harpoon gun a bit chewed) for anything to do with David Bowie” and the other transactions which formed the programmes’s premise. Such anarchy as there was came from the audience at home for remaining in their jammies for three hours and consuming seven bowls of Frosties.

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Tiswas was the delinquent child next door on ITV which Auntie disapproved of us playing with, so if you were the right age for custard-pie jokes, phlegmatic puppets and ogling Sally James in her tight leather waistcoat then you switched channels. Even for ITV, even for shows produced in the English Midlands, there was a requirement for some educational content and Tiswas fell foul of this, so its presenters are remembered as heroic revolutionaries - punk rockers with a gunk machine, Parisian barricade-stormers avec Spit le Dog.

I was a bit grown-up for Tiswas, to be honest, but knew how thrilling, wild and dangerous the sound of kids screaming from the TV set could be. “Crackerjack!” was the cry, whipped up to fascist-rally fervour by a small, bespectacled man called Peter Glaze (think Theresa May’s husband if you don’t know who I mean).

The new Glaze, the new Edmonds is to be Hacker the dog who’s funnier than the Bafta-winning Michael McIntyre and, like the best puppets, is mentally unstable in the tradition of Sooty’s pal Sweep.

Arm the mutt with a Superball or indeed a fidget spinner and this could be terrific.

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