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Before video games were invented, we had two kinds of toys: real and pretend.

Real toys were physical objects that actually did something. We had penknives for carving and, rather foolishly, throwing, fishing rods for spending a day at the river, balls of all sorts for throwing and catching and losing in the neighbours' gardens, cricket bats to wield inexpertly, kites for flying on windy days, and torches (as in flashlights) for roaming the streets after dark in winter. We also had Crossfire, pictured above, where the guns fired ball bearings at the puck, and you aimed to hit the puck in such a way that it eventually slid through the opponent's goal. Of course, this took ages since the guns were simple devices with very low power, and they only held so many ball bearings, so you had to reload. And while you did that, your opponent got his or her own back.

It was great fun and surprisingly, it even had an element of strategy. You could wait, only shoot when necessary, and stockpile the ammo, leaving the enemy in a fix when you made your move. Alternatively, you could both blast away and hope for the best, which is what most kids did.

Having very few toys by modern standards, we looked after ours, so this is the actual Crossfire I played with all those years ago. We had it as a shared Christmas present, and as something was missing, my Dad wrote a letter and the manufacturer sent a complete set of replacement parts, which is why four guns are in the picture although you could only use one each at a time.

Many happy hours were spent in the pursuit of that puck, and many scientific enquiries formulated in order to find which was the best gun, because inevitably, the gun with the best spring would almost always confer victory. But if you didn't get the best one, it didn't stop you playing because there was always a chance that you might win through skill, quick reactions and plain luck.

And as for the pretend toys? They were limitless. I piloted a Spitfire from an old wooden wheelbarrow, made my home in many a cardboard packing carton, and despatched, with the aid of a rifle-shaped stick, whole armies of Nazis, some of them looking suspiciously like the younger kids from across the street. Well, if they were prepared to play the part of cannon fodder, who was I to argue?

I took this on a recent walk in Sharp Tor woods, partly because I loved the textures, but mainly because it's exactly like the scene for the fictional Scaderstone Pit in the Darkeningstone books. In the book, I mention the tree roots springing from cracks in the rock, and this is just the sort of scene I had in mind, although in the pit, the rock face would've been much higher. Yes, I know that some of the plants pictured are ivy creeping upwards, but believe me, one of them is a root from the tree above.

This is me in an ancient quarry in Pickering, N. Yorkshire, which is where I'm from. This quarry was used by the Normans to build a rather fine castle, and since we played in places like this when we were kids, memories of real places informed my writing. In our games, forgotten places like these old quarries allowed us to create whole worlds as we scrambled across muddy slopes. Not safe by today's standards, but we played there just the same.

I still love places like this. Can you imagine quarry workers splitting lumps of rock using only hand tools? The rock is limestone, so not the hardest, but even so, it must've been tough work. Imagine it in winter, ice crusting the rocks, an iron tool in your hand. And further back in time, Neolithic settlers hacked stone from rock faces with crude tools made from antlers. Of course, in my book, Waeccan had two secret weapons to aid his work, and if you'd like to know how he lived, here's a shameless link to the first Darkeningstone novel, Trespass.

If all is working, you can even peek inside the book in the clever Amazon widget below:

Okay, that's it for this post which has turned out to be at three times longer than I anticipated.

Until next time, take care, and whatever else you do today, don't play silly buggers with penknives.

Mikey C


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