If you talk about “Topsy and Tim” to any preschooler parents these days, it’s likely that the first thing to spring to kind will be the CBeebies television show and thus what will follow is a debate about sexism, gender stereotyping, just why it took quite so long for them to move house, mum’s double life and, well, the overall lack of realism in these super-mature preschool children (largely down to the fact that they are played by an actor and actress several years older than their characters!)
I’m not really a fan. But then, I loved Topsy and Tim long before their current television incarnations had been conceived. I loved them so much that I cannot even bear the current illustrated iteration, no matter how closely those colourful pictures resemble the illustrations I remember from my own childhood. I loved the Topsy and Tom that I knew so much that rather than let Thomas read these modern versions, I’ve dug out my own prized childhood collection, comprising dog-eared paperbacks from the 1970s and 80s, many of which were already loved by the time they became mine, picked up at charity shops and the ubiquitous 1980s staple: The Bring and Buy Sale (remember those?)
To my great pleasure, Thomas loves them. But the truth is, I probably still love them even more than he – the books intended audience – does. They capture something of the essence of my childhood, in all it’s glorious retrospective simplicity.
There is something special about those books even for the adult me. From the humour I find in all the tissue wielding and wiping up that mummy and Miss Maypole do to the joy of reading them aloud. They have a simple sentence structure that really lends itself to easy reading and I find myself adopting the same intonation as my own mother, reading them to me three decades ago, something confirmed as I listened to her re-reading them to Thomas recently. The flow of the words is as comforting as a well worn pair of shoes.
And there’s more too. There is social history tied up in those pages. The pictures of pre-privatisation British Rail diesel trains. A visit to the cockpit of a commercial airliner during flight – we all know that it’s been well over a decade since that was a possibility.
In Topsy and Tim goes to hospital, Tim spends a night in hospital after “bumping his head”. My own 1982 edition was a gift during my first ever hospital stay when I was diagnosed with diabetes. Nothing so serious for Tim. A bump on the head and no debate on new evidence of the dangers of cold compresses on head wounds, no simple signature of an accident form and a badly photo-copied “head injury” sheet for Tim. No, back then a full stay in hospital, despite the lack of emergency surrounding the situation as Mummy calmly packs his bag!
And of course, he ends up “romping” around the ward with other similarly un-sick children. “Romping” was one of the words I learned and loved from Topsy and Tim, along with similar wonders such as “crosspatch”, “squodgy”, “old doesn’t-matter clothes” and, probably my personal favourite “oomfy diddlum”.
Of course, along with the aspects of life that have changed, some of the language has changed too. I’m willing to bet that Topsy and Tim wonder which “colourful”, or other such similar adjective, boat they will get to ride in more recent editions of “Topsy and Tim and the Paddling Pool” in contrast to the “gay” boats they wondered about in my 1970s version.
So yes, the new Topsy and Tim just aren’t quite Topsy and Tim for me. The simple tales somehow belong to my childhood, and modernising them feels slightly like trampling on my memories. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and just holding those books again, nevermind reading their contents, transports me right back.
To me, Topsy and Tim will always be children of the 1970s, even though they were actually “born” long before that.
(And if anyone has a 1970s or 80s Blackie Handy Books edition of Topsy and Tim Meet the Dentist that they no longer want, please let me know! Somehow we never had that one in our extensive collection!)