Toying with an idea

To the foreigner, one of the most extraordinary sights of London must be that of grown men solemnly playing with their boats on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. Not that the actual sailing part is the main attraction, apparently. For though the elderly yachtsmen do eventually launch their vessels, squishing round in their rubber thigh boots to greet them on the other side of the pool, and sending them off on the return journey with a sharp shove to the bows, they seem to enjoy, more than anything, getting their boats ready for the water. It takes them hours, literally hours, to set the sails or get the steam up, and they are always surrounded by clumps of admirers.

Perhaps model ships, like model trains, cannot quite be classified as toys. Perhaps they are more the expressions of thwarted boyhood dreams - it being hard to uproot the desire to be a pirate or an engine driver from the masculine breast. All the same it is strange that nobody English thinks it particularly odd if a grown man covers the whole floor of a room with railway lines and plays with his trains there of an evening; whereas if a woman played with a dolls' house she would be considered very daft indeed. Neither do we think it peculiar to see the adult male charging across a field trying to get a kite into the air, and having done so, to stand holding the string (which is really frightfully boring) for a long, long time. No one has ever met a woman flying a kite, nor do I think that women go in much for clockwork fire engines.

It is my contention that however serious-minded an Englishman may be, however important a businessman, savant, politician or soldier - the odds are he has a toy concealed about his person or his home.

One of these days, to benefit a charity, I intend staging an exhibition entitled ''Toys of the Great.'' I picture a large conglomeration of playthings carefully catalogued. ''Plush bush baby: lent by the Lord Chancellor.'' ''Electric crane: the property of the Foreign Secretary.'' ''Clockwork submarine: kindly lent by the Minister of Defence.''

I trust these gentlemen will not have me up for slander, and that all the other distinguished people, the admirals, field marshals, judges, economists, nuclear physicists, churchmen and what-have-you I approach, will not pretend they are not little boys at heart. They may protest they are far too busy to play with toys, and, what is more, are far too grown up. I must remind them that nobody born and bred in England will believe them.

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