I was trying to think about some of games that we played when we were little in the late 1950s early 60s and one that came to mind that I have not mentioned was bagatelle. For those who are unsure what this is, I suppose it was the non-electronic origin of the pinball machine. It consisted of a flat board about a yard long and twenty inches or so wide. There was a spring mechanism that would fire marbles into the game board and the purpose was to gain as many points as possible by landing in nailed targets, but the most points came from the small indented concave areas.
You fired your marbles, usually six, and then you added up your score and then the other player, or players took their turns. The skill was in the amount of pressure you put on the spring trigger. You pulled the plunger back and then released it. Too much pressure and the marble would tend to miss everything and land at the bottom without scoring. Too little force and it would either roll back down the firing lane or just exit onto the board and again roll to the bottom without scoring. You did get another go if it fell back down the firing lane.
It was a very simple game and I am sure that many of them were home-made. The patterns of the nails and targets seemed very similar and if any of the nails fell out it was really easy to repair. I believe my older brother got one for Christmas one year. It certainly wasn’t new, but no one cared, and we all got a great deal of fun out of it. It was one of those things that all the family could have a go at, much like the card games that families would sit around and play.
Cards were very popular. They were inexpensive, offered a range from the simplest of games such as Snap, through to the most complex such as Bridge. Adults would play cards at home and often in the pub, where Cribbage, with its board and matchsticks, was popular. At home, apart from Snap, we loved Happy Families. Who could forget Mr. Bun the Baker and the host of other families and occupations? Even if you didn’t want to play card games you could always make towers out of the cards. Towards the end of the fifties home-life was changing dramatically. Originally families would listen to the radio for entertainment or sing around the piano, but TV had started just in time for the Queen’s Coronation and families began to see the breakdown of the need to entertain themselves.
Another of the games that we loved was dominoes. It was a game that you could play at whatever age and adults would play in the pubs where betting was often involved. At home we might sometimes have played for pennies, particularly with grandma in Chapel Allerton. There didn’t seem to be the political correctness that dominates current society nowadays and I suppose it was a way of Grandma giving us a few pennies to buy some sweets. The other additional attraction of dominoes was that you could set them all up and knock the first one down and watch, mesmerised, as they all toppled in turn.
One Christmas I was given a train set. It was second-hand from next door and it was set on a wooden board. It was hidden, not very well, behind the settee in the front room. I had seen it since it was first put there, but I was shrewd enough not to mention it. When Christmas came and I got it I learnt about the drama there was just before the big day. The locomotive wouldn’t work and so my dad had had to rush out to buy a new one. In these more affluent times that wouldn’t be such a big deal but then it was an expense they hadn’t planned for.
The locomotive was a Hornby and it was black and shiny. I didn’t care whether the set was new or not. I loved it! I added things to it over time. You could get little houses and stations and I remember building a tunnel and buying artificial bushes to set it off. I didn’t have a lot, but it allowed my imagination to run riot and I could get lost. The train was controlled by a transformer and there was a knob to increase speed, both forwards and backwards. I never became a big train fanatic, but I enjoyed it and just once I went with a friend train-spotting, but I can’t say I was impressed. The age of steam was fast disappearing and the diesel trains didn’t have the same magic.
At various times I was given Meccano and I had great fun with it. It was quite challenging to make models using tiny nuts and bolts and using small spanners and screw drivers, but it was great for developing patience and dexterity. The metal plates, green or red, had perforated holes and, depending on the kit, you could make all sorts of things. I believe I had one that made a car with a steering wheel mechanism that turned the front wheels. Some kits made cranes that had a hook and by turning a handle you could lower and raise objects. Both my older brother and I had some and I think you could even get electric winches for them, but that could just be my wishful thinking. Meccano disappeared for many years, but has made a comeback and we bought a set for my grandson.
Other construction kits were available and I had a one with a plastic base and there were prefabricated plastic panels that fitted onto thin metal bars. You could add doors, window frames and roofs to build a range of houses and buildings. I can not remember the name, but it lost out to the major winner, Lego. A boy three houses down in Gipton Wood Crescent, I think the family were the Chances (so my older brother informs me), had the most Lego we had ever seen. He had a big box of hundreds of pieces. I used to love going round to play. We didn’t follow plans to build specific projects, we just let our imaginations run wild. We would make spaceships and have battles, or build the tallest towers we could manage before they would finally topple and fall into a myriad of pieces. We would fashion pistols and ray guns and we would chase each other around the house. It was a great time, but the noise must have been horrendous. His mother was always patient and I never saw her get into a state. I think he had three sisters, so boys in the house would have come as a shock. We were often sent into the garden and there they had a wonderful wooden cubby house (den) built by their dad. It was strong enough to climb on the roof and the base was dug below the soil level, so it was always damp, but we loved it. I don’t think they had much of a garden as we would have destroyed any attempt at keeping plants growing.
One thing they did have was the largest white rabbit I have ever seen. It was kept in a hutch at the back of the garage and when they went on holiday we would have the task of keeping it fed and watered. Now you would think this would be an easy task, but then you never met the rabbit! For some reason, it could sense you approaching the hutch and, on signal, it would cock its leg and squirt a stream of urine at you. That rabbit never missed! You could attempt a sly creeping up, or a mad dash, but whatever you tried it was up to the challenge and would get you. It was just the same with my older brother and so you could imagine the arguments we had about whose turn it was to change the food and water. I had forgotten all about this until I started writing, so I apologise for the digression.
One game that I only ever played at other people’s houses was Magic Robot. It was a general knowledge quiz game where the question was selected on one board and then a plastic robot with a metal wand was fitted. You would turn the robot until the wand pointed to the question. The robot was then removed and it was placed in the answer circle. The robot would turn until the wand pointed to the answer. Magic, or at least science. It fascinated me at the time, but now would be very easy to explain.
Other games that came into vogue for Christmas or birthday presents were things like Etch a Sketch. By turning the two knobs simple drawings could be made. They could be removed by shaking the game. It seemed a bit of a development of a cheap cardboard drawing game, which had a clear plastic layer over a sticky backing. You drew with a stencil and a dark line appeared. To clear the picture you just pulled the top layer of plastic up from the bottom, removing it from the sticky backing and you could start again. I have just checked and Etch a Sketch is still available and still popular.
As I got a little older then board games became a focus. Christmas would often see compendium of games, with drafts, chess, ludo and snakes and ladders. These were good fun and with an older brother and a growing younger brother we began to play without adults. Monopoly had become hugely successful and my family would play. There were a lot of social skills involved and probably the biggest challenge was learning to lose.
My older brother had a friend, David Musgrove, and he lived on Easterley Road and they had a new board game called Risk. I was invited to go with my brother to David’s house and he allowed his brother Richard to play. The four of us would spend hours in their box room dominating the world and each other. It is probably one of the nastiest games ever, as pacts were formed and broken in a bid to finally take over the world. It did introduce some basic geography and so I learnt where many of the main countries were. I became quite friendly with Richard and he later invited me to join his Scout group.
There was one game that became a real hit in the sixties, particularly with teenagers or those soon to be, and that was Twister. This game provided an opportunity to contort your body over and under those you were playing with and was a source of great mirth. The spinning of a wheel then directed which colour you had to place your hand or foot on. This was fun at Christmas parties and my grandma would have a go, much to everyone’s delight, and she wasn’t afraid to hitch up her dress and expose her voluminous knickers. We did laugh!
I am sure there are many games I have missed out so I hope some of you will share them. I do wonder if children nowadays are missing some of our simple, but joyous experiences? But maybe that is just what each older generation feels.