Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Sheffield - Designed By The Bastard Offspring of Le Corbusier and Armitage Shanks. An 80s Gamer's Paradise

Sheffield in 1981 may have looked like the demented sketches of the bastard offspring of Le Corbusier and Armitage Shanks, but it  had a number of outstanding toy and model shops. Sadly, all except one no longer trading and the remaining one is, I am sad to report a shadow of it’s former self. 

Even local the suburban shopping area of Firth Park half a mile from where I lived, boasted no less than two toy shops, both stacked to the rafters with plastic distraction. I haunted these like a lost soul, my long suffering Dad and ever patient Nan and Grandma (when she was back here from her bohemian 'Good Life' existence in Penwortham on the wrong side of the Pennines) indulging my whim. I loved both my grandmother's. They were both kind, but where my Nan had a sharply defined manner, defined by her strong Methodist background, my Grandma Hides, had a more indulgent and attentive way, made her own wine and was a hedgerow forager of no mean skill. In short she was almost witch-like - in a good way of course - all very alluring to a daydreamy boy. Sadly some never explained family feud meant that I was not to see her for several years until I got  my dander up in the late 80s and got the family talking again. She passed away not too long after and by then I was so obsessed with the trappings of youth, that I squandered time that I could have spent with her, as I did with my maternal grandfather a few years later.

 I digress...

The city centre was where the real action was to be had, with:




and Hopkinsons situated on The Gallery (more of which later, but here's a taster of what it looked like on a really good day)

In 1981, during the summer holidays, I was making my weekly pilgrimage to Hopkinson’s, a traditional floor to ceiling type of toy and model shop in the city centre. At this time, I was still not allowed into town on my own, or rather not without adult supervision, and so my visits were dependant on the good will of my family and of course my own good behaviour. I was still well behaved and what my Nan would have called a 'good boy', so visits into town were pretty much assured.

Hopkinsons was an Aladdin’s Cave for the true toy connoisseur and Old Mr Hopkinson seemed to live for his store. I never failed to find something that drew my eye or sparked my imagination. I shudder to think the amounts that my family spent on me in there over the years. But, again I digress…

On this day I was starting to despair, having failed to find that essential next ‘must have’, when my innate ‘kid sense’ indicated that some subtle change had manifested in the very substance of this temple to the toymaker’s art. My attention was drawn to a wire display rack in a somewhat stygian alcove to the left of the counter. On it were a number of scruffy card-headed bags bearing the names Ral Partha and Citadel Miniatures in a variety of shades.

Okay… what’s a ‘Ral Partha?’ I mused and, like a shot from a bow - It would not become an elven bow for a few months yet - I crossed the intervening 6 feet to investigate. This was all arcane and forbidden stuff to a molly-coddled, Mummy's boy and had about it the whiff of the decadent and edgy.

Each bag contained one or more tiny figurines made from lead. I was the proud owner of a large number of old lead soldiers and so this was no real surprise to my young eyes. What was a surprise however, was the subject matter. Along with medieval knights, were wizards, dwarves, elves as well as smattering of space-suited figures armed with laser rifles. The majority of them were priced at 30p and unless I was able to secure additional funding via a prayer to the gods of spending money along the lines of ‘Oh go on, pleeeaaaassse…’ that was going to eat into the £3.00 that I received in tribute each week from various parties charged with bank-rolling my childhood.

‘No,’ I thought, ‘I will not indulge myself today.’ After all, 30p was 30p and I was not about to squander it before I knew what a Ral Partha was in greater detail. Besides, I was getting the same response in the crotch area as I did when I looked at some of the older girls at school in their short skirts, with the accompanying musk of bubblegum and cheap perfume.

In fact, Ral Partha was, like Citadel Miniatures, a company producing beautifully detailed miniatures for use with fantasy games. Even 30 years down the line they are amongst some of the best examples of the sculptor’s art you’ll ever see.

 With that firm ‘No’ still ringing out it's peel inside my head, I went off with my Nan and Mum to have a chip butty and glass of cola in the nearby Sheaf Market, in an establishment renowned for it’s skilful presentation of deep fried potato sandwiches. Quickly disposing of lunch via my mouth, I told my Mum I was going to go back to Hopkinson’s while she and my Nan chatted and finished their cups of coffee. I was going to take another look at those tiny figurines that were already beginning to telepathically call out to me.

It was this day that I first really became aware of the youth subculture of Sheffield. Okay, we had diluted, primitive schoolboy versions of Skins, Punks and the irritatingly clean cut 'Trendies' emerging like clip-winged butterflies behind the science block smoking 'Bensons' at break, but it was on The Gallery, a roughly rectangular walkway which linked the markets, several small businesses like Hopkinsons and the upper floors of Woolco and British Home Stores, in a manner redolent of the buildings in Mega City One, the dysfunctional post apocalyptic city in which Judge Dredd patrolled on his Harley Davidson Lawmaster, dispensing parking tickets and death sentences in equal measure. Well, that's how it seemed to me, a kid who didn't need LSD to trip. 

It was on the gallery where the 'senior service' of the sub cultures lurked, each claiming their few yards of turf, using violence with what appeared to be gay abandon. The Skins lurked around the side behind BHS, and were frankly a bunch of 'Grade A' bastards, if popular folklore was to be believed, the antics of one 'Adolf' being youth legend. The Punks gathered thinly between Hopkinsons and Timpsons shoes, but more thickly by the upper front entrance to the Castle Market. This meant a head-down shuffle, for me, trying to look as small as possible because I had to pass a mob of two of them as I made my way up the staircase from the Sheaf Market , the shortest route to toy Shangri-la.

Let me tell you, with a basin haircut, beige flared jeans and a blur jumper with jaunty alpine motif, I must have had the skills of a ninja, because I made it to Hopkinsons without being cut from gizzard to midden, by a cutthroat razor.

Sphincter winking out a nerve induced morse code to my adrenal glands, I calmed myself somewhat by standing open-mouthed with the returning of that odd stiffening of the groin, which for years would cause confusion if I looked at a mate's porn collection whilst also discussing the day's figure purchases.

What was apparent even this early on, was that I was obviously a youth of taste and distinction. Ten minutes later I had spent the considerable sum of 75p after much soul searching and hand wringing. In possession of a paper bag containing two dour dwarves carrying a dead comrade on a litter made up of two shields and a pair of spears, I returned to my Mum and Nan, a little tingle running up and down my spine.

That day something had changed in the world. It was almost imperceptible but at the very moment that I took possession of the paper bag containing those models, I felt that I had crossed some line into a secret world, filled with dystopian danger, bohemian excess and the allure of sexual pleasure. Certainly, none of my mates at that time knew - or probably cared - about this new phenomenon, and I felt that I was indeed marked out for greatness, the leader of some new and exciting pastime, if I could only discover what that pastime was. I had high hopes as I'd cracked the code which was Ral Partha, after all, so it was a just a matter of time wasn't it?

 Very shortly, I would find out and then nothing would ever be the same.

All around me Police and disaffected youth were fighting in the streets, the I.R.A was continuing it's campaign of terror on the British mainland, Thatcher was doing to the working men of England, what they would only do to their own wives or favourite girlfriend, and in the midst of this, besotted with a newly found taste for the truly strange, I didn't give a bugger!

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