Wednesday, 18 October 2017

THE 'ORRIBLE 'OUSE OF TERRIBLE OLD TAT #28 - The Coming of the Catalogues


Hello dear fiends and welcome once again to the tottering old pile that is only held up by the tottering piles of tat within its walls! No, seriously folks - if the roof falls in while you are here, we're definitely not liable for damages now I've warned you about it! However impeding death by roof slates aside, let's see what I've dragged out for you today...

Now that teetering pile of thick, once slick, volumes aren't just there to hold the crumbling spires of this ancient edifice up! On no, dear friends, those tatty and dog-eared tomes were once a source of delight and magic, whose mere appearance was a mystic harbinger of joys to come! And while now they are I must admit sometimes serving impromptu architectural supports in this dilapidated wreck of a house, there were in fact the cornerstones of many a childhood in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed were a key building block in many a family celebration. And so what were these arcane volumes of enchantment and wonder? Well, they were mail order catalogues. But wait, come back! These weren't just any old catalogues, these were the fabled Autumn/Winter editions? Don't you realise how important that was? Well then, let me explain!   

We increasingly tend to think that getting our shopping through the post as a marvellous miracle of the internet age. How we laugh at those fools who were stupid enough to be born in the dark days beFore the web, those berks who had to actually GO TO A SHOP and CARRY IT HOME THEMSELVES! Morons right? Wrong! For if you thinkst so, thou are the dullard here! See, I'm so annoyed, that I hath gone all old-fashioned and that on thy hind-quarters! Anyhow, verbal tomfoolery and needlessly insulting the readership aside, the rapidly being forgotten fact is that home shopping has been around for an awfully long time. Alright it's not as quick as the internet, but it was a thing for a lot longer than you might imagine.


Now here in the UK we had a long tradition of shopping by mail, with several big companies enjoying decades of trade by issuing big fat catalogues of their ware that folks could order from. One of the biggest and one of the first was the Kays catalogue, that was founded in Worcester in 1890. Yes, you did read that right! And their big rival Freemans was set up in Clapham in 1905, and even third kid on the podium, Bronze medalist Grattans, started up in 1912! These three firms were the titans of the catalogue world in the UK, issuing huge telephone directory-sized books, featuring literally hundreds of glossy pages, and detailing thousands of products. Plus for many years, the catalogues had an added incentive other than just getting the goods delivered to your door. And that was you could pay off your bill in installments, thereby encouraging customers to do very big shops indeed.

Clothes, household goods, garden equipment, sports gear, kitchenware, bed linen, electrical goods... you name it, and they sold it. And of course, they did toys. Oh boy, did they do toys! In particular, the Autumn/Winter editions were stuffed with page after page for toys and games, catering for all tastes, ages, and interests. And so while the Spring/Summer edition generally could go and die in a hole as far as most kids were concerned, the Autumn/Winter catalogue was a big part of many a childhood.

To begin with, the mere appearance of one of these weighty tomes was a magical event,  and for many kids the appearance of the Autumn/Winter edition  had an almost totemic quality. It was an mystical event like hearing the first cuckoo, but instead of being a sign of spring starting, the arrival of the Autumn/Winter catalogue on the doorstep was the first herald that Christmastime was indeed coming!

As for the catalogue itself, obviously I don't need to explain the appeal of pages and pages of toys and games. It was like having a toyshop window in glossy paper form. And indeed, like Dickensian orphans in the snow, we sat with our noses practically pressed against this papery windowpane, coveting the delights showcased within.


However what it is easy to forget these days, is that back then these toy sections of the catalogues were a prime way we used to discover what new toys and games would be coming out that year. Sure, you could maybe see a new toy in the local stores, or maybe catch a TV ad (if they had made on one at all that is), but an Autumn/Winter catalogue was pretty much an encyclopedic listing of all the goodies hitting the shops - it was like having every toy store in town in your hands!

And this of course leads to the other major reason why these catalogues are so fondly remembered - for writing your annual list of requests for Santa was frequently done while flipping through such a catalogue, weighing up how many things you could reasonably get away with asking for. Now course, we all know that Santa is indeed real, but equally even little kids know that they aren't going to get the entire contents of the local toy shop. Not only did you have to calculate how good you have been, divided by a guesstimate of whether Santa had possibly seen you shooting the cat up the arse with a Nemesis rocket from your Matchbox Raider Command that time last week, but you had to choose wisely...

For however by a certain age, some of us had learnt that all that glitters wasn't toy gold. And you had to chose very carefully... For yes, that particular toy might look and sound VERY EXCITING indeed, and worth worth all those unnecessary caps, but the brief description and pictures in the catalogue could well be even more misleading that certain toys adverts I could mention - yes Tank Command I am looking at you! And stop laughing at the back, Super Flight Deck and I Vant To Bite Your Finger, you time will come, believe you me! Now where was I? Oh yes...

...And if you had <sad grail knight voice from Indiana Jones and his Dad> chosen poorly</sad grail knight voice from Indiana Jones and his Dad>, when you opened the bugger up on Christmas morning, you'd quickly find that instead of delivering the ultimate play experience, it was in fact shoddy and badly thought-out tat. Not a desirable result at the best of times, but you really wanted to avoid blowing your BIG PRESENT choice on something that turned up to be rubbish. As comedian Jack Dee once remarked, ordering things from catalogues is very similar to making a bet...


Of course like many things in childhood, the time when catalogues brought us joy and excitement was all too brief, a short span of years that fall between gaining a competence enough reading level to navigate the densely packed pages and read the descriptions in tiny print and that sad day when toys and games lose their appeal... Of course, the process of growing up does bring the catalogue a second and somewhat grubby renaissance, when the teenage hormones kick in and you realise there's nearly naked ladies to be ogled in the lingerie section, that's an entirely different story! And no, you can't borrow my copy of Kays Autumn/Winter 1983 for old time's sake! Away with you, you filth wizard! 

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