My Ultimate Christmas Toys of Childhood

It’s fair to say I had some pretty spiffing Christmases growing up. Being in a family of seven as well, always meant that our living room on Christmas morning was a Technicolor haze of wild wrapping paper strewn abandon, like some sort of elf convention on steroids.

But we also had our traditions as well – we were always allowed one present before church, and then endured an agonising wait in our forever overheating Peugeot – named Betty for reasons best known to my dad – whilst our parents gasbagged to various friends and relations before we could finally get home to unwrap the rest of them.

It’s these memories I always think of most fondly of at this time of the year, especially with my niece and nephew who excitedly tell me about what they’re hoping to get from Santa this year. With this in mind, I thought I’d revert to my 5 year old self for this blog (pictorial evidence of actual 5 year old self napped out on Christmas Day above. I loved that jumper I’m wearing) and unwrap and recall my ultimate Christmas toys from childhood.

I think I may have talked before on this blog about the Christmas when the then Thomas the Tank Engine obsessed 4 year old me got the Hornby clockwork set of Thomas with Annie and Clarabel, with an “Island of Sodor” layout set up by my dad on Christmas morning. 

The following year, I got the big boy electric upgrade, with the classic 4472 LNER Flying Scotsman passenger train set. It only ever saw daylight the grand total of three times during the course of my childhood – and on all occasions under supervision from Dad (although really it was probably just an excuse for him to play too. Needless to say I still have it in our loft in supreme condition to this day.)


That same Christmas that the LNER’s finest steamed into my presents was also the same year I got this bad boy. Pingu was one of my favourite TV shows growing up – I watched my much loved VHS tape of it countless times over to the point that, if you are fortunate enough to meet me, I can do impressions of all the voices from it perfectly.

This playset of his igloo house from the series, along with figures of Pingu, his baby sister Pinga and Robby the Seal meant I could reenact my favourite episodes time and time again, and this was also my “before church” present that year as well. I believe my sisters all had jewellery as their “before church” present. The joys of being the only boy…


People of my age will doubtless remember the eternally grinning, frighteningly insincere Stepford wife-esque Anthea Turner making Tracey Island, the headquarters of Gerry Anderson’s cult puppet series Thunderbirds, out of household items on Blue Peter in the early 90s. 

I had one better however. I had the mini diecast models of the various Thunderbird rockets, but I also had this bad boy, which for some reason was renamed Thundercop 2 despite looking for all the world like the actual Thunderbird 2. An all spinning, rotating, bleeping and LED flashing haze of joy, I had many a happy hour playing with this, pretending I was one of the Tracey brothers – or Brains.


I was always one for a good board game or two over the festive season when I was little – a tradition I really miss and want to bring back in some ways. And one Christmas, my godparents got me what I believe to be quite simply, the God of all board games.

 MB’s Guess Who was a genius guessing game, with you and your opponent using “yes/no” questions as a process of elimination to determine who your mystery person on your tiled board was. (Mine was always Maria, on account of the fact the boy on the box pictured above looked a bit like me, 90s curtain hair and all).

This is on here purely for a funny family story – and by that I mean the stuff of legend and relentless ribbing in our house for several years after. One year – I have a feeling in one of the later childhood Christmases – myself and my sisters all got a furry white clockwork mouse, not too dissimilar to the one you see above.

I was born after Anna, our parents’ beloved Golden retriever passed away, so I, like Harmony Parker in The Queen’s Nose, was always a bit desperate for a pet of my own, to no avail despite my constant pleas to my parents.

However, I was less Harmony and more Lenny in Of Mice and Men when it came to tending for my clockwork mouse. To the point where, an hour after christening it Lawrence (after Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen from Changing Rooms), I wound the clockwork mechanism a bit too hard and broke it. Thus resulting in my sisters renaming him as “Ken Broken”, much to my 9 year old disgust.

What were your favourite Christmas toys from childhood? Leave your comments below or Tweet us @ThePensmith10 and let me know!


They’re moving, they’re coming: my thoughts on the glorious return of All Saints


I’ve spoken many a time on this here blog before about my formative experiences with being introduced to music. And with the return this week of All Saints, the sassier, streetwise and grittier alternative to many of their 90s and 00s pop contemporaries, now seems like a good time to breach this very subject again.

The question ‘What was the first record ever you bought?’, is I find, one that people try and attempt to prevaricate around for fear of not being cool or for having made musical choices that it was completely fine for a nine or ten year old mind to make. I am not one of these people, nor have I ever attempted to be.

My first recollection of being introduced to the quartet of Shaznay Lewis, Melanie Blatt, and sisters Nicole & Natalie Appleton, was from my best friend at primary school, Jack. His parents were quite well off and as such, he had access to the now defunct Smash Hits magazine as soon as it came out and the latest singles on CD, which were more expensive back then.

I had to make do quite contently with the ex-chart singles counter in Our Price and Woolworths, and the same issues of Smash Hits once they were a month out of date and reduced to clear on the old magazine stall in Chelmsford market. However, having a friend like Jack was cool because he more often then not, let me used to read his copy at lunchtime and keep the songword cards I wanted.

It was on one such lunch time when we were about 8 or 9 that he introduced me to All Saints, and on his Walkman we listened to his tape of their first single, ‘I Know Where it’s At’. Sultry, slightly cool and a bit more R&B led then what I’d been aware of – keep in mind this was late 1997/early 1998, and the Spice Girls (who I also loved) were the dominant playground currency at this time – I was instantly hooked.

A couple of months after this, with my Christmas money that year, I duly went to the big Woolworths in Braintree high street – which is now an Iceland – and marched up not to my usual stomping ground of the ex-singles bargain bucket, but instead to the main, full price singles chart, and purchased their break through UK chart topper ‘Never Ever’ on CD. This was the very first record I bought.

Looking back now it’s a very grown up choice for a 9 year old’s first single, certainly when you listen back to it, as I indeed am whilst writing this very post. Written by Shaznay with the legendary Cameron McVey (Massive Attack, and then later Sugababes) at a time when a relationship with her boyfriend was falling apart, its wistful, reflective nature backed with a rousing, almost gospel like new swing beat was like audial manna from heaven. Even now, when the song starts quite simply with Nicole speaking her lines in a Shangri-La style over the piano melody: ‘A few questions that I need to know / How you could ever hurt me so’, I’m entranced.


Such was mine and Jack’s love of the Saints, that on non uniform days we took to dressing in their common attire of combat trousers and black t-shirts with Timberland boots thinking we were dead cool. In a class topic about mini beasts (read: insects), we also captured, wrote about and ultimately dissected for supposedly scientific purposes, a wasp and a slug that we christened Shaznay and Natalie respectively. (Shaznay and Natalie, if you are reading this, I apologise on behalf of mine and Jack’s 9 year old selves. We were very weird.)

So apart from naming insects for lame school projects and forming one of my strongest childhood friendships, what else did All Saints bring to these ears? Well, as I touched on with ‘Never Ever’, they were always aimed at a slightly cooler and older class then my own dear one. That’s the funny thing about when you’re young: you spend half your time attracted by the idea of being older and more grown up, and ultimately wishing your life away, only to find years later it was all just a lie to seduce you into thinking that way.

Of course, All Saints were happily not all just a lie, and I remained a fan of theirs as the years went on, when they came to release their second album ‘Saints & Sinners’ in 2000, on which lay both of their dream like, ambient and lush William Orbit helmed chart toppers ‘Pure Shores’ and ‘Black Coffee’, when they split acrimoniously over a jacket in 2001 and then branched out into solo careers (duo in the Appletons’ case, for their brilliant 2003 effort ‘Everything’s Eventual’), and when they reformed briefly in 2006 for the criminally underrated and commercially underperforming ‘Studio 1’ and its marvellous lead single ‘Rock Steady’.

Now joining that list of ‘whens’, is the ‘when’ from this week, as after a 10 year absence they unveiled their first new material, ‘One Strike’, off their fourth studio album ‘Red Flag’ due for release in April. Musically, so much of the elements that drew me to buying ‘Never Ever’ with my Christmas money all those years ago drew me to ‘One Strike’ when I heard it for the first time this week. That same poised, Kohl eyeliner stained but majestically harmonised setup is all present and correct.


It nods respectfully to what made them such a runaway hit the first time around, but unlike other music comebacks of recent years, there is something about All Saints returning which feels more like this is a return which has every right to be happening. The second you hear them sing together again, there is a natural and honest chemistry that is undeniable on record as it is when you see them together.

That’s a very rare thing, something that was rare even back in 1997, and to have retained that nearly 20 years on is not only rare but quite special. I’m just kicking myself that their comeback show at Camden KOKO sold out so fast on Friday just gone. Until then, here’s hoping a full tour gets announced, whilst I wait feverishly with anticipation for what I think is going to be one of the pop albums of 2016. All Saints have marched back in, and they know fully well where it’s at.

All Saints’ new album ‘Red Flag’ is out via London/Fascination on 8th April. The first single ‘One Strike’ is available to download and stream now. They play Camden KOKO in London for a one off gig on 4th April, and will play V Festival and Cornbury Festival later this summer. Twitter: @AllSaintsOffic