Remember the time when attaching propellers to your head meant you could go flying
The Circling Fin
One of my favourite comic books, ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, features a wildly imaginative six-year-old boy called Calvin and his stuffed toy, Hobbes, a wry and playful tiger who comes to life when the grown-ups aren’t around. The growns-ups in this case are Calvin’s parents, light-touch regulators preoccupied with chores and reading the newspaper.
Looking back on these cartoons, it seems to me that the little tiger represents the side of the parent eclipsed by responsibility: the responsibility to cook and recycle, to vacuum and bathe, launder and instruct. But, take away the list of duties, from saving the planet to saving for heating oil, and there is, deep down in adults, still a being who would love to dance and sing, talk about silly stuff and roll around laughing, or dress up in fantastical costumes and stay up long past bedtime. (For proof, Google ‘party pictures’.)
My favourite storyline in ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ shows young Calvin collecting cereal tokens for a multi-coloured cap topped with rotors: what Americans call a ‘Beanie Hat’. As the tokens accumulate, the boy speculates on the reality-expanding possibilities of this magical object. For one thing he will look amazing but, beyond that, he will be able to fly. Finally the beanie hat arrives and, after great fuss, is donned and activated. And then: Nothing happens.
Cue meltdown: For any six year old, propellered headgear means, at the very least, the ability to levitate instantly, ideally to the height of the house but three feet off the ground would be acceptable. But not with this hat – unless a low-flying seagull mistakes it for lunch.
Characteristically, the child quickly finds an upside: The cardboard box in which this useless article has arrived, is perfect for playing with. Six year olds are, by definition, wildly imaginative, and can, if necessary, reenact the Second World War with three old spark plugs.
This is not great news for the merchandising industry, of course. Kids playing with cheap cardboard all afternoon? Not good for business. In fact, the reason we all know Batman or Charlie Brown, even if we’ve never read the originals, is because their authors sold adaptation rights. The descendents of JRR Tolkein know all about merchandising, since an industry has grown up around ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. They harboured doubts for some years about the tat their renowned surname was being attached to, but, when a Tolkein-themed slot machine appeared, they felt that the commercial usage they had licensed was becoming ‘morally questionable’ and pulled the plug.
Merchandising is the slope down which the sublime travels to first become the clichéd and then, once the moneymen have their way, the mediocre. That’s the route pop music took in the 1980s and English Premiership soccer is taking right now.
In the meantime, children, who are incapable of producing mediocrity themselves, have moved on: A new toyshop has opened in Chicago whose only stock is cardboard boxes. There’s not much money in it … but no end of fun.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.