Look At Life: Crazes

17th November 2017

Fading Fads and the Next New Thing

By Heather Harris

Who could expect us to concentrate on algebra or Shakespeare’s sonnets when there was an electronic pet dying in our school blazer pockets?

To the children of the late 1990s this question will make perfect sense. They were the generation who owned Tamogochi. These small electronic virtual creatures landed in UK playgrounds in 1997 and suddenly children’s lives were consumed by a need to feed, exercise and clean them… neglect them and they expired.

Like all true playground crazes, teachers soon ruined the fun by banning them from school premises, citing the detrimental effect on concentration levels. The trouble was that beleaguered parents were then informed that these beloved ‘pets’ had become their responsibility. Many a shopping trolley or meeting was abandoned, as parents preferred to forego the demands of everyday life rather than risk their child’s wrath at the school gate if they had failed to keep ‘Tammy’ thriving!

I did try to convince my own offspring that the favoured craze of the late 50s and 60s – making paper ‘fortune tellers’ out of pages ripped from our exercise books, to determine such key information as what your favourite colour was or who you were going to marry – was just as exciting and far less stressful. (Tell that to the poor incompatible couple whose future nuptials were sealed in 1968 in Class 4B cloakrooms). My children weren’t convinced.

Crazes can define a generation. Heavily bruised wrists and bloodshot eyes were the product of the lethal Clackers age in the 60s. Suspended on two pieces of string joined at the top, the aim of the game was to make the rock solid plastic balls hit together in the air with a satisfying ‘clack’. In principle it was an innocent game – in practice it was the cause of more visits to the School Nurse than an outbreak of nits. Such was the rising incidence of broken wrists and eyes full of exploding plastic in 1971 that Clackers too were banned. 

Ever since the humble marble began to fall in popularity in the 50s, toy sellers have constantly scoured the globe for the next playground phenomenon to boost their profits faster than a silver Slinky down a flight of stairs.

Hungary was the origin for what is officially the world’s biggest craze – the Rubik’s Cube, with sales of over 350 million units. The success of this block of rotating squares is apparently because it taps into a basic instinct as primary as its colours – competitiveness. No human wants to be beaten by a piece of plastic. Despite reaching the height of its popularity in the 1980s, a World Record time for completing the cubic challenge was set in 2008 – 7.08 seconds.

This same human instinct to compete was also the success behind the various trading cards from the late 70s right through to the 90s. These ranged from Top Trumps to the Panini football sticker cards. Launched in 1961 in Italy, they sold 15 million packets in their first year. My brothers were obsessed, insisting my parents drove miles to a certain newsagent after rumour spread that their packs contained the most ‘shinies’ – the top currency of the late 1970s, demanding an exchange rate of between five and twenty cards depending where the gaps were in the owner’s Panini Sticker Book. My 52-year-old brother still laments his inability to track down Kevin Keegan (Newcastle FC legend) despite his ownership of a shiny Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool FC counterpart).

I doubt if this same nostalgia will be felt for Pikachu, Charizard or any other of the singularly unappealing Pokémon characters that cornered the trading card market in my own children’s schooldays. Cards changed hands for real pocket money, a situation that again soon resulted in letters home from disgruntled headteachers – much to the relief of parents who had been watching their starving offspring squander their lunch money on a Japanese ‘energy fire card’.

It should be noted that not all crazes have negative connotations. Speed Stacking – the seemingly mundane task of placing plastic cups on top of each other against the clock – was hailed as an educational breakthrough for improving fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination, as were the Scoubidou plastic crafting strings beloved by young girls – and boys – for a few months back in 2014.
It seems sad that the only crazes risking confiscation from today’s playgrounds are the latest must-have mobile phone. They may have multiple functions, but for sheer pleasure can they really match a pot of green non-toxic, unscented 1978 Slime?

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