On Saturday, I went to the 4th Worcester Park Scout Group Christmas Fair.
I was looking forward to having a go on the Bat-the-Rat stall. Possibly I was looking forward to it a bit too much.
In case anyone is not familiar with Bat-the-Rat; this was a familiar feature at all 4th Worcester Park Scout Group fairs when I was a child. The stall consisted of a bit of drainpipe fixed to a board. The man running the stall would drop a “rat” (actually a sock filled with cotton wool with a pipe cleaner tail and whiskers) down the drainpipe and the aim of the game was to whack the rat when it popped out of the bottom of the pipe. It was a game requiring razor sharp reflexes and an unflinching desire to kill rats. For a small child, it was incredibly exciting. It was also quite exciting for a twenty-eight year old man. Sadly, there was no sign of it at this year’s Christmas fair.
I was, at least, pleased to see that they still had the “Money Tree”. The Money Tree consists of a giant board with a picture of a tree painted on it; within the “leaves” of this tree are hundreds of holes, each filled with a plastic tube (the tubes themselves were those black plastic canisters you used to get 35mm film in). You pay 30p and pick a tube. Some of them contain a coloured dot, most don’t. If you find a coloured dot, you win a prize. The little shit in front of me, not more that six years old, won a fiver. I didn’t find a dot in my tube. Fortunately, there is a “prize every time” and so, despite not finding a coloured dot, I was allowed to choose between a strawberry chew or 2p. I chose the strawberry chew.
Chewing my worthless prize, I moved on to the “pick a card” stall. The rules here are pretty simple. On the table are laid out fifty-two cards, each with a prize attached. You pick a card from a separate deck and whichever prize is attached to your card, you win. I was hoping for the bottle of Stella or the can of Boddingtons. Unfortunately, I ended up with a Refreshers lollipop.
Feeling thirsty, I went to the refreshments stall:
Even as a young child, I was amazed by the idea that they would sell individual biscuits and cups of squash; 5p a biscuit seems cheap, but the mark-up on those things must be incredible. How much is a packet of bourbons? 40p? They must be raking it in. The squash came (and still comes) in small plastic cups and is available in a choice of lemon or orange. More choice is on offer for the biscuits, where you can pick from bourbon, malted milk or digestive.
I recently re-read Billy Liar and (having temporarily forgotten about biscuit availability at scout fairs) was touched to read how:
The cafe was full of people of the Stamp variety, all making hideous puns and leaning heavily on the I’ve-stopped-smoking-I-do-it-every-day kind of conversation. Rita was serving chocolate Penguins to a mob of cyclists at the other end of the bar.
I was also surprised when, buying a morning croissant from Crispins Food & Wine, I spotted that they still sell Club biscuits.1 I can’t really imagine ever going into a shop or cafe and buying an individual Penguin or Club. They seem like they should exist in a different world. They should only exist in a world of A-Team lunch boxes and cartons of Five Alive.
This all related to one of the two major revelations I had at the Museum Of Brands recently (both of which are related, yet stand facing in opposite directions). On the one hand, it is deeply shocking to discover that brands you so closely associate with your childhood weren’t specifically created for your own enjoyment (how dare they enjoy Kit Kats in the 1940s, four decades before I entered this world?). On the other hand, I sort of expect all forms of life to suddenly freeze as soon as I look away. I realise that the reason I think all of this is that I do not really consider that there is a world, a universe, which exists and has existed and will exist with or without me. I think of the world essentially as just a toy, which I can pick up, play with, and abandon with both the enthusiasm and ruthlessness of a baby. It is this attitude which has stopped me from progressing.
And so, to see that this world of cups of squash and malted milk biscuits still exists was reassuring. To stand here and hand over 5p and buy a biscuit, I could travel back in time. No-one knew it, but I was suddenly eight years old again. Obviously, I was quite tall for an eight year old, and dressed somewhat oddly; the stubble was also hard to explain, but here I was. I was a child and I was happy. Again. At last.
But as this gangly child looked around, things started to seem weird. The first prize in the raffle was an 8GB iPod Touch. There was a chocolate fountain in one corner. Outside, an attractive girl was trying to sign up members to a nearby gym. I had one foot in the world of biscuits, and one foot in the world of biscotti. I couldn’t reconcile these feelings. I had to leave.
1 “If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club”, I have never been convinced that expressing a preference for having a lot of chocolate on your biscuit is a strong enough basis around which to form a club. And where does that leave Choco Leibniz? They are apparently “more chocolate than biscuit”; are people who like Choco Leibniz allowed to join the Club club? Is there an upper limit to how much chocolate people are allowed to like on a biscuit before the people who oversee entry into the Club club decide it is too much? I would propose that the precise boundary where a chocolate biscuit flips from majority biscuit to majority chocolate would be a sensible starting point.†
† You might question whether that previous point was really worth making, and I’d say probably not. The truth is that I had wanted to say something and decided to add it as a footnote but then I couldn’t decide if the footnote marker should go inside or outside the full stop and by the time I’d come to a decision, I’d forgotten whatever it was I wanted to say originally; however, by that stage, I was committed to the footnote and there was no turning back.
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