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H.G. Wells' Floor Games
A Father's Account of Play and its Legacy of Healing
By Barbara A. Turner
Temenos PressCopyright © 2012 Temenos Press
All rights reserved.
THE TOYS TO HAVE
The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor, and the home that has no floor upon which games may be played falls so far short of happiness. It must be a floor covered with linoleum or cork carpet, so that toy soldiers and such-like will stand up upon it, and of a colour and surface that will take and show chalk marks; the common green-coloured cork carpet without a pattern is the best of all. It must be no highway to other rooms, and well lit and airy. Occasionally, alas! it must be scrubbed — and then a truce to Floor Games. Upon such a floor may be made an infinitude of imaginative games, not only keeping boys and girls happy for days together, but building up a framework of spacious and inspiring ideas in them for after life. The British Empire will gain new strength from nursery floors. I am going to tell of some of these games and what is most needed to play them; I have tried them all and a score of others like them with my sons, and all of the games here illustrated have been set out by us. I am going to tell of them here because I think what we have done will interest other fathers and mothers, and perhaps be of use to them (and to uncles and such-like tributary sub-species of humanity) in buying presents for their own and other people's children.
Now, the toys we play with time after time, and in a thousand permutations and combinations, belong to four main groups. We have:
(1) SOLDIERS, and with these I class sailors, railway porters, civilians, and the lower animals generally, such as I will presently describe in greater detail;
(3) BOARDS and PLANKS; and
(4) a lot of CLOCKWORK RAILWAY ROLLING STOCK and RAILS.
Also there are certain minor objects — tin ships, Easter eggs, and the like — of which I shall make incidental mention, that like the kiwi and the duck-billed platypus refuse to be classified. These we arrange and rearrange in various ways upon our floor, making a world of them. In doing so we have found out all sorts of pleasant facts, and also many undesirable possibilities; and very probably our experience will help a reader here and there to the former and save him from the latter.
For instance, our planks and boards, and what one can do with them, have been a great discovery. Lots of boys and girls seem to be quite without planks and boards at all, and there is no regular trade in them. The toyshops did not keep anything of the sort. (We don't, as a matter of fact, think very much of toyshops. We think they trifle with great possibilities. We consider them expensive and incompetent, and flatten our noses against their plate glass perhaps, but only in the most critical spirit.) Our boards, which we had to get made by a carpenter, are the basis of half the games we play. The planks and boards we have are of various sizes. We began with three of two yards by one; they were made with cross pieces like small doors; but these we found unnecessarily large, and we would not get them now after our present experience. The best thickness, we think, is an inch for the larger sizes and three-quarters and a half inch for the smaller; and the best sizes are a yard square, thirty inches square, two feet, and eighteen inches square--one or two of each, and a greater number of smaller ones, 18 x 9, 9 x 9, and 9 x 4-1/2. With the larger ones we make islands and archipelagos on our floor while the floor is a sea, or we make a large island or a couple on the Venice pattern, or we pile the smaller on the larger to make hills when the floor is a level plain, or they roof in railway stations or serve as bridges, in such manner as I will presently illustrate. And these boards of ours pass into our next most important possession, which is our box of bricks.
(But I was nearly forgetting to tell this, that all the thicker and larger of these boards have holes bored through them. At about every four inches is a hole, a little larger than an ordinary gimlet hole. These holes have their uses, as I will tell later, but now let me get on to the box of bricks.)
This, again, wasn't a toyshop acquisition. It came to us by gift from two generous friends, unhappily growing up and very tall at that; and they had it from parents who were one of several families who shared in the benefit of a Good Uncle. I know nothing certainly of this man except that he was a Radford of Plymouth. I have never learned nor cared to learn of his commoner occupations, but certainly he was one of those shining and distinguished uncles that tower up at times above the common levels of humanity. At times, when we consider our derived and undeserved share of his inheritance and count the joys it gives us, we have projected half in jest and half in earnest the putting together of a little exemplary book upon the subject of such exceptional men: Celebrated Uncles, it should be called; and it should stir up all who read it to some striving at least towards the glories of the avuncular crown. What this great benefactor did was to engage a deserving unemployed carpenter through an entire winter making big boxes of wooden bricks for the almost innumerable nephews and nieces with which an appreciative circle of brothers and sisters had blessed him. There are whole bricks 4-1/2 inches x 2-1/4 x 1-1/8; and there are quarters--called by those previous owners (who have now ascended to, we hope but scarcely believe, a happier life near the ceiling) "piggys." You note how these sizes fit into the sizes of the boards, and of each size--we have never counted them, but we must have hundreds. We can pave a dozen square yards of floor with them.
How utterly we despise the silly little bricks of the toyshops! They are too small to make a decent home for even the poorest lead soldiers, even if there were hundreds of them, and there are never enough, never nearly enough; even if you take one at a time and lay it down and say, "This is a house," even then there are not enough. We see rich people, rich people out of motor cars, rich people beyond the dreams of avarice, going into toyshops and buying these skimpy, sickly, ridiculous pseudo-boxes of bricklets, because they do not know what to ask for, and the toyshops are just the merciless mercenary enemies of youth and happiness --so far, that is, as bricks are concerned. Their unfortunate under-parented offspring mess about with these gifts, and don't make very much of them, and put them away; and you see their consequences in after life in the weakly-conceived villas and silly suburbs that people have built all round London. Such poor undernourished nurseries must needs fall back upon the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even that is becoming flexible on India paper! But our box of bricks almost satisfies. With our box of bricks we can scheme and build, all three of us, for the best part of the hour, and still have more bricks in the box.
So much now for the bricks. I will tell later how we use cartridge paper and card and other things to help in our building, and of the decorative use we make of plasticine. Of course, it goes without saying that we despise those foolish, expensive, made-up wooden and pasteboard castles that are sold in shops--playing with them is like playing with somebody else's dead game in a state of rigor mortis.
Let me now say a little about toy soldiers and the world to which they belong. Toy soldiers used to be flat, small creatures in my own boyhood, in comparison with the magnificent beings one can buy today. There has been an enormous improvement in our national physique in this respect. Now they stand nearly two inches high and look you broadly in the face, and they have the movable arms and alert intelligence of scientifically exercised men. You get five of them mounted or nine afoot in a box for tenpence halfpenny. We three like those of British manufacture best; other makes are of incompatible sizes, and we have a rule that saves much trouble, that all red coats belong to G.P.W., and all other coloured coats to F.R.W., all gifts, bequests, and accidents notwithstanding. Also we have sailors; but, since there are no red-coated sailors, blue counts as red.
Then we have beefeaters. Red Indians, Zulus, for whom there are special rules. We find we can buy lead dogs, cats, lions, tigers, horses, camels, cattle, and elephants of a reasonably corresponding size, and we have also several boxes of railway porters, and some soldiers we bought in Hesse-Darmstadt that we pass off on an unsuspecting home world as policemen. But we want civilians very badly. We found a box of German civilians once in a shop in Oxford Street, near the Marble Arch, the right size but rather heavy, and running to nearly twopence halfpenny apiece (which is too dear), gentlemen in tweed suits carrying bags, a top-hatted gentleman, ladies in grey and white, two children, and a dog, and so on, but we have never been able to find any more. They do not seem to be made in England at all — will toy manufacturers please note? I write now as if I were British Consul General in Toyland, noting new opportunities for trade. Consequent upon this dearth, our little world suffers from an exaggerated curse of militarism, and even the grocer wears epaulettes. This might please Lord Roberts and Mr. Leo Maxse, but it certainly does not please us. I wish, indeed, that we could buy boxes of tradesmen: a blue butcher, a white baker with a loaf of standard bread, a draper or so; boxes of servants, boxes of street traffic, smart sets, and so forth. We could do with a judge and barristers, or a box of vestrymen. It is true that we can buy Salvation Army lasses and football players, but we are cold to both of these. We have, of course, boy scouts. With such boxes of civilians we could have much more fun than with the running, marching, swashbuckling soldiery that pervades us. They drive us to reviews; and it is only emperors, kings, and very silly small boys who can take an undying interest in uniforms and reviews.
And lastly, of our railways, let me merely remark here that we have always insisted upon one uniform gauge. We have adhered rigidly to gauge O, and everything we buy fits into and develops our existing railway system. Nothing is more indicative of the wambling sort of parent and a coterie of witless, worthless uncles than a heap of railway toys of different gauges and natures in the children's playroom.
And so, having told you of the material we have, let me now tell you of one or two games (out of the innumerable many) that we have played. Of course, in this I have to be a little artificial. Actual games of the kind I am illustrating here have been played by us, many and many a time, with joy and happy invention and no thought of publication. They have gone now, those games, into that vaguely luminous and iridescent world of memories into which all love-engendering happiness must go. But we have tried our best to set them out again and recall the good points in them here.CHAPTER 2
THE GAME OF THE WONDERFUL ISLANDS
In this game the floor is the sea. Half--rather the larger half because of some instinctive right of primogeniture--is assigned to the elder of my two sons (he is, as it were, its Olympian), and the other half goes to his brother. We distribute our boards about the sea in an archipelagic manner. We then dress our islands, objecting strongly to too close a scrutiny of our proceedings until we have done. Here, in the illustration, is such an archipelago ready for its explorers, or rather on the verge of exploration. On the whole it is Indian in character--comprehensively Indian, east and west and Red Indian, as befits children of an imperial people. There are altogether four islands, two to the reader's right and two to the left, and the nearer ones are the more northerly; it is as many as we could get into the camera. The northern island to the right is most advanced in civilisation, and is chiefly temple. That temple has a flat roof, diversified by domes made of half Easter eggs and those card things the cream cones come in. These are surmounted by decorative work of a flamboyant character in plasticine, designed by G.P.W. An oriental population crowds the courtyard and pours out upon the roadway. Note the grotesque plasticine monsters who guard the portals, also by G.P.W., who had a free hand with the architecture of this remarkable specimen of eastern religiosity. They are nothing, you may be sure, to the gigantic idols inside, out of the reach of the sacrilegious camera. To the right is a tropical thatched hut. The thatched roof is really that nice ribbed paper that comes round bottles--a priceless boon to these games. All that comes into the house is saved for us. The owner of the hut lounges outside the door. He is a dismounted cavalry-corps man, and he owns one cow. It cost ninepence halfpenny--a monstrous sum. If the toy soldier manufacturers had the sense to sell boxes of cows and pigs, his farm, poor dear, would be better stocked. But they haven't; they just go on making soldiers. His fence, I may note, belonged to a little wooden farm we bought in Switzerland. Its human inhabitants are scattered; its beasts follow a precarious living as wild guinea-pigs on the islands to the south.
Your attention is particularly directed to the trees about and behind the temple, which thicken to a forest on the further island to the right. These trees we make of twigs taken from trees and bushes in the garden, and stuck into holes in our boards. Formerly we lived in a house with a little wood close by, and our forests were wonderful. Now we are restricted to a Hampstead garden, and we could get nothing for this set out but jasmine and pear. Both have wilted a little, and are not nearly such spirited trees as you can make out of tamarisk, anonymus, fir, ilex, or may. It is for these woods chiefly that we have our planks perforated with little holes. No tin trees can ever be so plausible and various and jolly as these. With a good garden to draw upon one can make terrific sombre woods, and then lie down and look through them at lonely horsemen or wandering beasts.
That further island on the right is a less settled country than the island of the temple. Camels, you note, run wild there; there is a sort of dwarf elephant, similar to the now extinct kind of which one finds skeletons in Malta, pigs (or rather--confound those unenterprising tradesmen! -- one costly inadequate pig), a red parrot, and other such creatures, of lead and wood. The pear-trees are fine. It is those which have attracted white settlers (I suppose they are), whose thatched huts are to be seen both upon the beach and inland. By the huts on the beach lie a number of pear-tree logs; but a raid of negroid savages from the adjacent island to the left is in progress, and the only settler clearly visible is the man in a rifleman's uniform running inland for help. Beyond, peeping out among the trees, are the supports he seeks.
These same negroid savages are as bold as they are ferocious. They cross arms of the sea upon their rude canoes, made simply of a strip of cardboard. Their own island, the one to the south-left, is a rocky wilderness containing caves. Their chief food is the wild-goat, but in pursuit of these creatures you will also sometimes find the brown sixpenny bear, who sits--he is small but perceptible to the careful student--in the mouth of his cave. Here, too, you will distinguish small guinea-pig-like creatures of wood, in happier days the inhabitants of that Swiss farm. Sunken rocks off this island are indicated by a white foam which takes the form of letters, and you will also note a whirlpool between the two islands to the right.
Finally comes the island nearest to the reader on the left. This also is wild and rocky, inhabited not by negroid blacks, but by Red Indians, whose tents, made by F.R.W. out of ordinary brown paper and adorned with chalk totems of a rude and characteristic kind, pour forth their fierce and well-armed inhabitants at the intimation of an invader. The rocks on this island, let me remark, have great mineral wealth. Among them are to be found not only sheets and veins of silver paper, but great nuggets of metal, obtained by the melting down of hopelessly broken soldiers in an iron spoon. Note, too, the peculiar and romantic shell beach of this country. It is an island of exceptional interest to the geologist and scientific explorer. The Indians, you observe, have domesticated one leaden and one wooden cow (see remarks above on the dearth of lead animals).
Excerpted from H.G. Wells' Floor Games by Barbara A. Turner. Copyright © 2012 Temenos Press. Excerpted by permission of Temenos Press.
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