BBC Radio Four "Home Truths" 18th DECEMBER 1998
Even before Christmas our eight year old son's bedroom was inhabited by dozens of cuddly rabbits, badgers, frogs & foxes, cars, trucks, trains, planes, skittles, blackboards, kites and yo yos, slinkies, walkie talkies, face masks, face paints, CDs, story tapes, magazines, posters, Jenga, Playmobil, and several metric tonnes of Lego.
Add to that several hundred sets of paints, pastels, pencils, marker pens, felt-tips, chalks, crayons, rollerballs and biros. Art materials today are cheap and widely available - especially in our son's room - thanks to birthday parties, school fairs, lucky dips and distraction packs in hotels and restaurants. Every drawerful generates three times its own weight in half-used artpads, colouring books and tracing paper.
Little is valued, none of it cared for. From time to time my appalled partner's instinct for neatness can bear it no longer. She sweeps our reluctant son and his endless possessions into a weekend-long whirlwind of tidying and rationalisation. Toys are sorted, boxes labelled, junk junked and - for several days - the room gleams with rational order. Then a friend comes to play, and within minutes it's back to knee deep comics, models and musical instruments.
We never wanted it to be like this. As first-time parents we planned plenty of books plus a few well-made, well-chosen toys that the child would love and cherish. But we reckoned without the generosity of others.
From the moment he was born we were deluged with presents - and seasonal tidal waves of treasures and trinkets have overwhelmed us ever since. As each orgy of gift-giving subsides we dump duplicate toys at Oxfam by the truckload. Yet all through the year distant cousins or near neighbours will turn up with a working model of Ince B Power Station - or a lifesize Kalashnikov in burnished gun metal - for our lucky son.
It's obscene. The money squandered on unwanted playthings for our kids would probably save the sight of a third world city the size of Birmingham - or maybe prop up an ailing Asian economy for months. Our advance requests not to waste money on presents offend friends and relatives alike - it sounds so presumptuous. Meanwhile, the toy torrent rages on.
It may be a cliché, but things really weren't like this when we were young. A set of crayons was a prized possession, a drawing block something you saved up for. We simply weren't showered with felt-tips and furry toys by every adult of our parents' acquaintance.
This made stern parental strictures about tidiness easier to comply with. Stern they certainly were - I remember cowering at Dad's approaching tread on the stairs - as toys were swept under beds, and covers hastily arranged to hide the unmade sheets beneath. At family Christmases, even in our twenties and thirties, the merry exchange of gifts was rapidly dampened as giftwrap had to be jammed into black bags (and presents hastily removed to our rooms) to forestall parental displeasure at the slightest mess.
Maybe the greatest joy of leaving home was NOT having to tidy our bedrooms. One friend takes this to extremes. At 43 he lives amid mounds of old newpaper and soiled underwear in an otherwise comfortable flat. One shirt flap hangs defiantly outside his trousers as a permanant sartorial challenge. "Don't tell me what to do !" he roars at anyone foolhardy enough to suggest he tucks it in.
No doubt the chaos strewn across our son's carpet likewise defines his separate sense of self. Yet the stuffed cupboards and bulging boxes make his room a potential disaster area - even when tidy. He simply has too many possessions for comfort.
This Christmas he once again ran the gauntlet of relatives, friends, those who know my work - and complete strangers who once met his Grandad on holiday. He gained a 22nd set of felt tips, seventh yoyo and two more £10 Taiwanese walkmen (which was lucky, as the others are all broken). There was the usual struggle to keep track of who gave what; and the blood-from-stone squeezing of thankyou letters from the tip of his latest novelty biro.
As a reward, I let him play computer games in my study, surrounded by - what? Monitors, modems, pianos, printers, synths, scanners, samplers, sequencers, basses, box files, telephones, tape decks, chairs, cables, mike stands, mixers, videos, vinyl, CDs, faxes, photographs and...heaps of letters, lyrics and manuals strewn all over the floor.
Nature or nurture - the poor child hasn't got a chance.
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