Andrew Vine: Have the toy-makers lost their marbles?

THERE are only 338 days left until Christmas, so it’s time to start giving some thought to laying your hands on that must-have toy before the shelves are emptied. And if that’s a thought that sends a slight shiver down your spine, having just survived the festive season, then apologies for raising the issue.

But make no mistake, even though it’s only January, the path towards the December 24 scramble for the last remaining garishly-packaged toy that is at the top of every child’s wish-list is being mapped out today. That’s because Toy Fair 2015 opens at London’s Olympia. It’s the annual jamboree at which the toys and games that will flood the shops in 11 months’ time, fuelling children’s dreams and some parents’ despair, are unveiled.

Somewhere among the hundreds of trade stands and thousands of exhibitors will be that absolutely must-have toy, the one that has parents going from shop to shop in pursuit of it, or scouring the internet late into the night, driven on by the thought of a trembling lower lip when the presents are unwrapped if Father Christmas couldn’t get one either.

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It’s an unsettling thought that the whole cycle is already under way again in the month when credit card bills for the festive season just past are beginning to drop through the letterbox.

Having unexpectedly become caught up in a mad scramble for the most coveted toy of 2014 – a Batcave, if you must know – after offering in a moment of weakness to help in the hunt by a friend for her grandson’s main present, the opening of Toy Fair and all it portends makes me a tad twitchy.

One of my most vivid memories of last year will ever be a frantic charge down the aisles of a store near Batley to grab one of the last on the shelves. I could not have held onto anything tighter had I been entrusted with the Crown Jewels.

The disappointment and frustration written on the faces of other people heading down the aisle and seeing the empty shelf as those of us who had secured one headed to the checkouts made me feel slightly guilty.

Only a clairvoyant would venture to predict which of the thousands of toys being unveiled today will fire the starting gun on the retail equivalent of the 100m sprint, but it’s certain to be there.

Maybe it will be a film spin-off, or something so sophisticated in what it does that those of us brought up on the simplest of toys will gasp in astonishment at how far things have come.

But I do wonder if the new generation of microchip-driven toys with far more computing power than a home PC of a generation ago have quite the magic of the hands-on, old-fashioned things that used to be taken to school or shared with friends.

Things like the coiled steel spring that made its way downstairs as if by magic, or yo-yos that used to prompt heated debate – as well as grazed knuckles – about the most fancy way to spin them. Then there were the mesh bags of glass marbles for games in the playground and – at least for the children of more affluent families – the static miniature steam engines fired by a brass tray containing methylated spirits.

Meccano and Lego – still a favourite with children – built the weird and wonderful, and magnetic cases filled with iron filings drew the Heath Robinson plans for them. Chemistry sets turned pennies green and ruined many a teaspoon, much to our mothers’ annoyance.

The marketing whizzkids who will turn what goes on show at the Toy Fair into commercial gold are undoubtedly very sharp, but the appeal of what they push often turns out to be shortlived. For all the appeal of mind-bogglingly clever toys, there’s a heartening sense that the hands-on still has the power to captivate children once Batcaves have been consigned to the loft to join the previous year’s must-have in gathering dust.

A straw poll amongst friends and family found that the presents which have endured into the new year and show no sign of losing even a fraction of their appeal are bicycles and footballs. Neither are toys, but in providing hours of fun they knock the battery-powered and microchip-driven into a cocked hat.

Yo-yos, as befits their nature, periodically have an upswing in popularity and my heart gave a little leap at visiting friends to find their five-year-old son utterly fascinated by a brightly-coloured steel spring making its way down the stairs like a living thing.

This only goes to prove that despite the shiny and new on display today, and bound for the shops in time for next Christmas, timeless toys have lost none of their appeal.