Written by Julie Balloo


Old toy syndrome

Julie Balloo once risked being trapped in a house fire to save her beloved teddies. She explains why they still mean the world to her.

Julie with two beloved teds. And a fancy-dan hat.

“No! You can’t just throw him away. Look at his big sad eyes; oh, please can we keep him? I’ll put him away in the cupboard; no one will ever know he’s still here. Please, I love him. Pleeeeeze!”

“Mum, you’re pathetic.”

Sound familiar? Or is it only me suffering from ‘old toy’ syndrome? On two occasions over the past 24 years I’ve managed to successfully clear out the kid’s room without too much guilt.

Once I bundled up loads of one-eyed teddies, buckets of unopened Lego, and outgrown dress-up clothes and carted them off to the charity shop, but I chose the ‘sick and unwanted animal charity’ which made it all a bit less painful.

On another occasion, we donated another 12 boxes of once cherished toys to a children’s after-school playgroup, but when we walked passed a few months later and saw Bananas the Monkey, lying bereft and mouldy in the overgrown garden, we immediately regretted our generosity. Well, at least I did.

I come from a family of hoarders. When it came to clearing out my mother’s house after her death, I found one whole shed devoted to my childhood. Not only was every single greeting card I ever gave her or my father stored there, but also every single birthday and Christmas card I’d ever received. Kind messages from people I couldn’t even remember meeting let alone knowing well enough to exchange cards with.

“I still have a moth-eaten Mickey Mouse, hand-stitched by my grandmother, a lopsided version of the real thing. But would I ever part with him? Heck no, I’m to be buried with him – it’s in my will.'”

My father’s motto was ‘If it’s old it’s good’, hence our charming 1930s three-piece suite that had belonged to his old mum and he couldn’t bear to part with, because every time he sat down his mind was flooded with memories.

See that stain on the arm of the sofa, that’s where your grandmother’s friend Violet spilt her tea when she first heard world war two had been declared.”

We eventually replaced the old furniture with some 1960s furniture that had previously belonged to his brother so the tradition carried on.

Julie’s Mickey Mouse, made by her grandma and who she loves dearly, despite him clearly being fucking terrifying.

My mother was just as bad; many an hour I wiled away playing with her old china dolls. They were heavy and bloody ugly with big holes in their heads where there should have been glass eyes but because she told me how much joy they’d given her as a young child growing up between the wars, I pretended to like them just to please her.

My problem is humanising the toys, especially stuffed animals and teddies. I christen them with silly names and spend ages searching for exactly the right appellation to suit. On more than one occasion I’ve heard myself say – I think he looks more like a Jeremy, don’t you? Referring to a toy baby seal.

Once when our house was under real threat of fire I refused to leave until I’d filled two boxes with my toys. There I was: leaping flames on one side of the house, smouldering ash on the other, but my only fears were for my precious teddies.

This syndrome climaxed when visiting Disney World Florida a few years back. Chowing down in the ‘Fat Momma’s home-cooking restaurant’, I was approached by an American dad and his eight-year-old daughter, Kelly Jo. The little girl was clutching a toy panda bear, brightly clad in a Hawaiian shirt and sun hat with a little nametag tied around his neck, announcing him as ‘Toby’.

The deal, the dad explained, was that Toby was a project for his daughter’s class. He’d overheard us speaking in an English accent and wondered if we could help.

” I had visions of Toby dumped in a filthy bin covered in manky old fish skeletons and broken eggshells, forlorn and forgotten… ‘I’ll take him!’ I shouted.”

Apparently, Toby needed to travel to various countries around the world, have his picture taken under a recognisable landmark, write a witty and informative letter to his owner’s classmates and post it before jetting off to yet another exotic location, cramming as many in before finally making it home in one piece. He was to be passed to stranger after stranger who was willing to carry on the experiment, a human – whoops there I go again – toy chain letter if you like.

I shuddered at such a responsibility: what if something terrible were to happen to Toby? My mind raced. I had visions of Toby dumped in a filthy bin covered in manky old fish skeletons and broken eggshells, forlorn and forgotten and never being held in Kelly Jo’s loving arms again.

“I’ll take him!” I shouted.

Thus, began an elaborate plan of intrigue and subterfuge. First off, I took a photo of Toby sitting on a bench outside the Tower of London, knocked off a typically touristy postcard message and sent it back to the school in the States, easy peasy.

Then I rang my elderly aunt in Australia and gave her instructions: Toby would arrive by post in a few days, she was to take a photo of him in her back garden, preferably with a kookaburra or koala in the background then send the photo and the handwritten note I’d already written in a prepaid envelope back to the school, then return Toby safely to me in London.

This seemed to work a treat; but with no one else living abroad who I trusted enough, I instead took a series of photos of Toby in an array of mocked up foreign climes. A small statue of the Eiffel Tower was positioned some distance away in my front garden and, voila, Toby in Paris.

I sat him on the top of the brick wall outside Tesco, held up a poster of some snow-covered mountains behind him and here he was in China, attempting to traverse the Great Wall. Next on the itinerary, a trip to Amsterdam – Toby and I drove out to see Ashby’s Mill in Brixton and Toby, getting used to the treatment now, posed contentedly in front of the faux Dutch windmill, a mini wheel of Edam cheese taped to his lap.

A trip to the local sandpit and a set-up shot with a straw donkey got him to Spain and a strategically placed pose by a small sphinx at the British Museum, passed as Egypt. Job done. I then and only then packed off Toby to his homeland, pleased as punch that he would be safe and sound. Only then did it occur to me that the UK postage might be a bit of a giveaway; oh well, at least I could sleep at night.

I’ll never forget the trauma afflicted on me when my eldest son, then aged seven went on holiday with his dad to Dubai and phoned me distraught from Oman on the way back to say he’d left his toy tiger, the sweetly named Ginger Beer, in a cupboard in his hotel room. I moved heaven and earth to get the bloody thing Red Starred to the UK. When it arrived some five weeks later, I was ecstatic in my welcoming of this artificial prodigal son. My actual son simply shrugged and said, “Oh, I forgot all about him.”

I can only explain my attachment to toys as a hangover from growing up as an only child. My toys meant more to me than sawdust and cloth; in my mind, they were as real as siblings. I still have a moth-eaten Mickey Mouse, hand-stitched by my grandmother, disguised by layers and layers of homemade outfits, even his face is a lopsided version of the real thing. But would I ever part with him? Heck no, I’m to be buried with him – it’s in my will.

“Deep down I know it’s not the damn toy I care about, but what it represents. My childhood, gone but not forgotten.'”

How I sobbed into my popcorn when I first saw Toy Story 2, that heart-wrenching scene when the little cowboy doll, Jessie sings of her love for her mistress and her eventual abandonment when her owner discovers nail varnish and boys. Every time I see that film it sets me off again.

It was one hell of a party…

Every discarded teddy, limbless Action Man and broken Barbie breaks my heart. But deep down I know it’s not the damn toy I care about, but what it represents. My childhood, gone but not forgotten. Carefree summer days when the world was a bewitching, exciting place and there for my taking. When I thought, my parents would live forever and we’d always be like this: me small, them big, looking after me. A land where no one dies and nothing changes and Christmas Eve is the most magical night you’ll ever know.

Now that my children are grown (well, the youngest is a teenager but well past toy stage), I look at the few precious items we’ve kept and envisage their glorious little faces lighting up with pleasure. I remember how important the toys used to be and how much joy they got from them, I recall little whispered conversations along the lines of, “You sleep here Pongo and keep me safe ’til morning,” or “Carter’s sick mummy, I think he needs some Calpol”. Then I step back and realise just how short it all is, and how little they’ll retain.

Even now when I show much cherished photos of teddy bears picnics in the park, they look at me with embarrassed sympathy: “Nope sorry, don’t remember, but I’m sure we had fun.”

I know I must make a trip to the charity shop or even brave the dump and I know that is definitely the sensible, mature thing to do, and I’m damned well going to do it. Right away. Just as soon as I’ve dusted them all off and said goodbye properly and of course, taken several photos so I don’t forget them.


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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.