I want to break up the stream of essay-style posts and pursue a more creative approach to blogging- be it in the form of lists or prose poems or whatever. After all, “Variety is the spice of life” as I recently told a co-worker who asked if my tastes in coffee were reflective of my tastes in women.
Today’s post is gonna be a straight-up nostalgia trip. I also want it to be as concrete as possible, so expect a slew of specifics; be it objects, brands, places, or memories. My hope is that this will be as visual as possible, serving as a kind of tapestry of my childhood. This is a collage of everything I miss, a treasure trove of relics, and my own personal slice of life from 1992 to 2004. So I won’t be including abstract things I miss from my childhood, like “When being happy was easy” or “When I had self-esteem”. That wouldn’t make for a very good tapestry.
- For me, the only place I can possibly begin is with a TV commercial that ran in 1995 advertising Carling Premier lager. It’s a surreal, dreamlike scene where a guy is stuck in a traffic jam on a hot day. He decides to get out of his car and climb across the roofs of other vehicles until he ends up in this strange white room where a lady hands him a cold beer. As he does this, a song called “Cars” by Gary Numan is playing.
For whatever reason, I’ve been unable to dislodge this commercial from my psyche. I feel like it’s a part of me forever. I didn’t know the name of the song, or the singer, or even that the commercial was about lager, until I looked it up recently online. But I’ve always carried with me this vague image of a guy walking atop a sea of static cars like he’s some kinda pre-programmed Manchurian Candidate-style assassin.
I don’t think I ever watched the commercial live. My memories of it come from the ad breaks in movies that my parents recorded on VHS. As a kid I watched the same films over and over; Jurassic Park, The Lion King, The Titfield Thunderbolt, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Space Jam, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Mask, Dragonheart, The Jungle Book, Little Giants, The Land Before Time, Mary fucking Poppins; and so the Carling Cars ad got embedded in my brain. But I don’t think repetition can be the only reason I’ve held onto it. For the most part I loathe British TV adverts. If “The Purge” was real, the people who design TV commercials in this country would be among the first I’d go after.
Perhaps it’s just the upbeat, optimistic nature of this commercial that resonated with me. The guy in the ad is just saying “Fuck it” and leaving his troubles behind while simultaneously going after what he really wants. I think the advert is also responsible for making me associate the 90s with perpetual sunshine. Most of my vivid memories all come after the new millennium; the 2000s are when I went through puberty and grew up, whereas the 90s have always been hazy- and therefore much easier to idealize. What fragments remain of the 90s are gilded with the same sunlight of the Carling Cars advert. Because that period of my life is so distant, it hardly feels real. And what little I can draw from it, however trivial, takes on a greater significance.
- Birthday Parties where you’d invite the whole class. I miss the birthdays before my adolescence because back then it wasn’t embarrassing to be the center of attention. I didn’t feel in the least bit self-conscious about being doted on and tended to. I was lucky enough to have parents with the stamina and mental fortitude to throw me some awesome birthday parties. On the outskirts of Bristol there was this massive place called “Planet Kids” that we went to on birthdays. It was this gargantuan indoor playground that promised hours upon hours of fun. It had everything; slides, ball pits, you name it. The whole thing was four floors high and divided into these little sections, all the walls made out of netted ropes. Each room had something different. One had these giant inflatable balls, another had these swinging pendulum things with soft padding. And once we all tired ourselves out, we always got chicken nuggets in these party rooms. I honestly think this was my first true “Happy Place”.
- Wembley Singles/Doubles. This was a game my friends and I often played after school, and sometimes on long summer afternoons. There’d be one goal and one goalkeeper. We used piles of backpacks and hoodies as goalposts, and the goalkeeper was more often than not my friend’s dad, since most kids want the ball at their feet. In the Singles version of the game, it was basically all-against-all, and everyone would be chasing after the ball like a chaotic swarm of bats. The Doubles version was better and usually more strategic. You’d still have one goal, but everyone would be divided into pairs. Given that teamwork and physicality were the keys to success, we played this version more during adolescence. All my memories of Wembley Singles are crazy as hell. Back then the best player was whoever was the fastest. I remember people getting mud all over their school trousers. I remember there was always one kid that wanted to be the referee, even though there were no rules and we didn’t keep score. I remember the group getting smaller as the afternoon went on, kids leaving one by one as their mothers called them home.
- Mini Milk ice lollies. Even though Solero is my favorite all-time ice lolly, the one I feel most nostalgic about is Mini Milk. They’re so simple in their design, but they make me think of summer days out, like a field trip to the zoo or something. I loved milk as a kid, and right up until I went to university I drank a mug of milk every night before bed. So just seeing the word milk in the name gave me happy vibes. And the lollies do include a lot of milk in their ingredients. There are three flavors: vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. But the vanilla was so perfectly white, I called it “Milk flavor”.
- Nothing was more exciting to me as a kid than sleeping over at a friend’s house. I went to- and hosted- so many sleepovers that I can’t list them all here. The one that sticks out most vividly in my memory is a sleepover I attended at my friend Artie’s house when I was 10 or 11. We set up a tent on his front lawn, and me, Artie, and his two brothers Daniel and Penry spent the night in it. The tent had plenty of room and we spent the whole evening eating junk food and howling with laughter. In fact we were so hyperactive I remember my throat hurt from laughing so hard. The Galaxy chocolate bars we ate gave us all the shit-shits, and I have a distinct memory of sitting on the downstairs bog and hearing someone thunder up the stairs screaming “I NEED A POOOOOOO” at the top of his lungs. At the time, I considered this the height of wit. I had never found something so funny in all my life.
- HASBRO action figures. I used to play with toys all the time when I was a lad. Do kids even play with toys anymore? I got no idea. My American roommates and I were in Target one time and we stopped at a small section devoted to children’s toys. We looked at the action figures for the new Star Wars movies and noted how lousy they were. The Star Wars toys I had as a kid were beautifully designed. I loved how each character came in these little boxes. Everything about the HASBRO “Power of the Force” line in the 1990s, the packaging included, just seemed so intricate. One time I packed some of my Attack of the Clones action figures into my school backpack and showed them to my friends after school. Somehow we got distracted by a game and ended up playing on a nearby swing-set. A friend remarked that I’d forgotten my toys. I looked over to where I’d left them on a climbing frame and a kid younger than me was picking them up and examining them.
“Watch out,” my friend said. “That kid is a Star Wars freak. I bet he likes it more than you do.”
Enraged, I ran over to the climbing frame and screamed “HEY!” at the top of my voice. The kid dropped my toys and ran away, and I panicked about whether all my precious action figures were still there. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten them. I was also angry at the idea that anyone could love Star Wars more than me.
- School plays. I actually loved performing when I was a kid. When I was in Primary School (Elementary school) I took every opportunity I got to do a little acting. Sometimes small groups would perform short plays to the rest of the class. Other times we would do plays in front of the rest of the school during assembly. My proudest moment was playing Indiana Jones when I was 10. I had a safari hat and I used a skipping rope as a whip. My only line (and the only line of the entire play, in fact) was saying “Halt! That belongs in a museum!” before chasing two other kids around the stage like a reenactment of Benny fucking Hill, before tying the skipping rope around their necks until a teacher intervened and told me to stop.
- The Bristol Arboretum. Presumably this place is still around, I haven’t bothered to check. Basically it’s this place outside of Bristol with a whole load of trees. Every Christmas Eve the arboretum would be lit up with all these little lights, and we’d go there in the evenings and walk around. My parents probably loved it because it seemed like such a wholesome activity, and my brother and I liked it because we’d abandon the path and play games in the trees. I have a distinct memory of thinking the dense groves of bamboo were the most exciting things for some reason.
- The Simpsons. But wait, you ask, isn’t The Simpsons still ongoing? Yes, I’d reply, but they haven’t had a good episode since my balls dropped. I used to freaking love this show back in the day. The first ten seasons can still make me laugh as hard today as they did back then. I used to try and emulate the style of The Simpsons cartoons in my own drawings. I was also obsessed with emulating Bart Simpson in real life. I gelled my hair up to imitate the spikes on his head, I bought a skateboard that I half-heartedly tried once and then never used again, and one time I even told the teacher to “Eat my shorts!” while dropping my pants to my ankles.
- Saturday morning cartoons. I’m putting this in a different category to The Simpsons, because the latter was on at 6pm and wasn’t targeted at kids specifically. The Simpsons had a little something for everyone, and as I said, I still enjoy the classic episodes today.
What I want to celebrate here are the more whimsical, child-oriented cartoons I’d often watch on Saturday mornings in my pajamas. My favorites were as follows: The Smurfs, Arthur, Rugrats, Looney Tunes, Recess, Dragon Flyz, Scooby Doo, and Hey Arnold!
- Horrible Histories. These were a series of books aimed at making history interesting to children. I loved these books as a kid, and they served as the gateway drug that got me hooked on history as a subject. Before I encountered these books, I never considered that learning could be a pastime. I realized that despite the education system’s best efforts, history was really exciting. One thing I’ve always loathed is the way teachers ruin academic subjects for kids, and discourage the quest for knowledge. When you remove the filter of school, you realize that things like literature, geography, science, and especially history, aren’t just rewarding pursuits, but fun ones too. The Horrible Histories are a perfect entry point for kids because they’re light-hearted, full of interesting illustrations, and they focus on the parts of history that kids will find engaging. And once I’d read several of these books, I then started to collect more serious history books and encyclopedias, because now my interest in the subject had been established. So looking back, I feel like I owe this series a lot. If I could give the next generation of children a message I’d tell them their teachers aren’t good for shit. I agree with the author of Horrible Histories, Terry Deary, that schools “don’t educate, they just keep kids off the streets”.
- The Rasmus. This was my first memory of getting a CD for a band I liked. In 2003, Finnish alternative-rock band The Rasmus released an album called Dead Letters. I kept seeing adverts for the album on TV and asked my parents if I could get it at some point. Fortunately I was given the CD as a present, and I listened to it non-stop. I put the disc in a portable CD player and I just jammed to it. My friend Artie had seen the same commercials for the Dead Letters album and when we found out we both liked it, we jammed together.
- K’Nex. Although I did play with Lego now and then as a child, I never really got into it the way everyone else seemed to. I did, however, get a lot of joy out of a construction set called K’Nex. It’s composed of a variety of plastic rods and connectors, and there’s so much you can do with them. I spent hours just sitting on the floor in my pajamas and building things I would then play with the same way I would action figures. I had a friend who lived a few doors down from me that enjoyed K’Nex too, only he saw it less as a toy and more as a means for making contraptions with real world use in mind. I’m pretty sure he built a working car motor or something crazy like that. I’m not sure exactly, but I find it amusing that while I was using K’Nex to build myself more Star Wars toys, he was probably using it to build himself some kind of mechanical exoskeleton with a working jet pack.
- Goosebumps. Man I couldn’t get enough of this franchise when I was a kid. The books, the TV show, the Horrorland board game. I was all about that shit. And what’s strange is that I loved it while simultaneously being terrified of it, and I’d often turn off the TV when an episode of the show got too scary for me. I think I loved the cover art more than the stories themselves. One day I want to collect all the Goosebumps books just to look at the covers. They would always have these resoundingly imaginative monsters and the texture was pleasingly lumpy.
- Roaming the countryside. As much as I was a feeble indoor kid, I really enjoyed going on adventures with my brother Francis through the countryside. My favorite place to go was Dolebury Warren, an Iron age hillfort situated on a limestone ridge in the Mendips. It’s pretty high up and you feel like you’re walking among the clouds. There was just something misty and wild about the place that captured my imagination. I also liked that the trail we went on was divided into visually-distinct segments. There was the uphill walk through the woods, the hillfort itself, the quarry, the pasture full of cows, and the set of woods at the end that my brother and I used to play in.