The plan was simple and it worked – well almost. We, that is my grandson River; his Dad, Joshua and I (‘Gar’) would browse in Hamleys, ‘the world’s biggest toy shop’. We would start on the seventh floor and work our way down and, on the way would not be tempted – we would buy nothing.
River, who will soon be two, finds toys fascinating, and with 50,000 different toys on display – or so we were told – it would be heaven. Each floor was packed and the descent was slow. We were there to see, touch, play, or ride on or in; there was a lot to get through.
In many ways the shop was like a mediaeval fair. In crowded shopping aisles sales assistants, mostly in their teens, shouted as they displayed their wares. Drones, aeroplanes and odd-shaped boomerangs flew overhead. Magicians passed money through the heads of unsuspecting customers – in one ear, out the other. Rabbits hopped around under our feet. And, in addition to all this, from floor to ceiling there were shelves of toys; some to look at, but most to be removed for close inspection.
River liked some toys more than others, and when he found something special would often bring it to me so that I could share in his pleasure. Amongst his favourites were the model cars, lorries and aeroplanes in glass cabinets, seen from up high when held in his father’s arms. Another favourite was a train set laid out on the floor with its adjustable wooden tracks. And then there was an irresistible cabin of a bus, or was it a fire engine, into which he climbed, turned the steering wheel and pressed buttons that made loud street noises – bells, hooters, sirens etc.
After almost two hours we reached the ground floor and were standing on the pavement outside. Joshua did in fact break the rules by buying an ingenious fish, but compared to most of the other temptations on offer, it cost next to nothing. River, however, treated the outing as though he were at a children’s zoo. He looked, he played, but he never asked to buy. He already understood the difference between wanting to see and wanting to have.
Back in the street, I was exhausted; weighed down not by the family but by the excess of toys and the ceaseless pressures to buy. It was, however, now time for hugs and goodbyes – River saying “bye bye Gar” it is very touching – and for us to go on our different ways home
On the train it was impossible not to think about a retrospective exhibition I had visited a few days earlier at the Royal Academy of Arts which, by chance, was no more than a mile from Hamleys. On that occasion I was with my wife, Rohan and we were there to see sculptures by Antony Gormley.
When I see any sculpture I have several levels of involvement. Initially it is a cursory look. Then, depending on how I feel, I either walk on or stop and stare. I am never sure what I am looking for but with some works I quickly lose interest, while with others I find myself absorbed even mesmerised and compelled to stand and reflect.
As we left the exhibition Rohan spotted outside in the distance a small, grey-black lump on a forecourt paving stone. I had missed it on the way in which is what most people were doing – only a few of those in the courtyard were stopping to look.
We walked over and there, face down on a granite slab, was the sculpture of a curled up, naked, life sized, newborn child (see illustration). Cold, alone and vulnerable, Gormley’s ‘Iron Baby’ did not even have the comfort of a label. Here was a baby unloved, forgotten and extraordinarily moving. For Rohan, the feeling was so real that she wanted to pick it up and give it a cuddle. For both of us, leaving it felt wrong.
It is perhaps unfair to compare a work of art with a busy toy shop fulfilling the customs of contemporary Britain, but the two images tell an important story. Side by side there exists a world in which excess seems to be encouraged and where, as a result, there is a real risk that children will be indulged and spoiled. While, not far away, is a baby in a world in which there is loneliness, poverty and deprivation with children left isolated and at risk of dying.
On the same afternoon, an enjoyable outing with my grandson and the moving memory of a sculpture at a gallery triggered two very different thoughts. The disparity they revealed could hardly be more distressing.
The illustration shows a photo of ‘Iron Baby’ face down on a granite slab in the courtyard in front of the Royal Academy of Arts. The sculpture was made by Antony Gormley in 1999 and measures 17 by 28 cm
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank River, Joshua, Rohan and Vivien