What Did Kids Do Before Computers?
Fivestones, Tiddlywinks and Marbles.
People under the age of about twenty-five will find it hard to imagine a world without computers. Those over fifty will never have suffered a bleak and unfriendly world without the television standing in a corner of the lounge or bedroom, inviting you to switch it on. And people around the half century age will not have known a world without hi-fi, and Technicolor movies and jet travel, much less a world without satellite navigation, computer games and all the other so-called miracles of this age of advanced technology.
But it was only twenty years ago that computers were just coming into general use, and just fifty years ago, it was only the well-heeled who had black and white TV. They would wait another fifteen years before colour television became affordable to the masses.
So what on earth did people, especially the young, do for amusement back then in the dark ages? Well, for one thing, we played some games that have generally faded into obscurity in the 21st century. The ones I want to take a look at today are Fivestones, Marbles and Tiddlywinks. Yes, you say, but these games are still played today. But they are not played everywhere there is a group of kids like back when, they are mainly reserved for tournament play by adults in places like pubs. Once, every kid worth his salt could catch fivestones; had a deadly aim with a marble and could “squidger” a “wink” like Beckham nets a free kick today.
I remember fivestones the best from my youth. Both with pleasure and, once, a lot of pain. I was a member of the local scout group and we amused ourselves by playing fivestones at the back of the hall while all the more dedicated followers of Baden Powell, eyes glazed, were chanting “Dib, dib, dib,” or gazing admiringly at Mr L., the scoutmaster, (it wasn’t until many years later we found he had been gazing rather more than admiringly at those 12-year-old boy’s knees as well…but that’s another story). And maybe the dibs were in the Cubs, it’s all to long ago, Bagheera.
One winter eve, we were in same hall, playing said game, and tuning-out the background noise of dibs, or rubbing sticks together to create fire and whatever else the dedicated were doing. I had thrown the five stones into the air off the back of my hand, scooped the same hand under them to catch as many as possible in my palm, when I scraped along the wooden bench, gouging the wood, and ran a huge splinter right up inside the nail of my middle finger - right up to the quick and on to my elbow! Well, that‘s what it felt like for a moment. My yell stopped the dibs and brought Mr. L running over. Boy! Did it hurt!! I can feel it now. I was taken round to the doctor’s house. Yes, in those primitive times, we knew the doctor’s address and he would get up at any hour for emergencies. A lovely old chap, content with his lot in life, he didn’t clamour for more money for doing so, either. The nail was cut back as far as possible and the splinter - which had taken on the proportions of a plank to my agonized eyes - gently extracted, to the tune of “Ows” and “Ohs” from this cowardly budding journalist.
And the beauty of these simple games is they were available to anyone, not like the involved computer games of 2009, some of which involve buying equipment costing hundreds of pounds, if not thousands. You could play fivestones with five matching stones you found on the beach. Or you could buy a set for pennies in the local toy shop. They were square with a small channel design cut into the sides and in varying pastel colours; I think they were made of some kind of resin, because, no, plastics were not in general use back then either…they might have not even been discovered yet, I’ll have to look on Google.
No little skill was involved in the more complicated games. To start a turn, the player throws five stones into the air with one hand and tries to catch as many as possible on the back of the same hand. The stones that were caught are then thrown up again from the back of the hand where they came to rest and as many as possible are caught in the palm of the same hand. If no stones end up being caught, the player's turn is over.
If, however, at least one stone was caught, the player prepares for the next throw by keeping one of the caught stones in the same hand and throwing all remaining stones on the ground. The player then tosses the single stone into the air, attempts to pick up one of the stones that was missed and then catches the stone that was tossed, all with the same hand. Clear as mud? Like all sports, it’s better demonstrated than explained. The player repeats this until all the stones have been picked up.
That done, the player throws down four of the stones again, throws the single stone in the air, attempts to pick up two stones with the same hand before catching the tossed stone. This is repeated again and a final toss sees the player picking up the last stone. The process is then repeated for three stones followed by one stone and finally, all four stones are picked up before catching the single tossed stone.
For skilful players, the game can continue in an agreed way with further permutations and challenges according to the player's whims. For instance, the other hand could be used to throw, the player may have to clap hands before doing the pick up or perhaps slap both knees. There are games like horses stable where the non-throwing hand forms five spaces on the table and, as the stone is tossed, the other hand tries to put the stones (the horses) through the arches formed by the fingers of the left hand, (the stables). Or “baby in the bath” where the non-tossing hand is held like a cup or bath, and the stones are picked up, one at a time, and thrown in. Then there was “Scoutmaster’s Ear,” where a stone is aimed in the general direction of the scoutmaster…or did I dream that one? Pity, though, the lecherous old sod would have deserved it.
An interesting type of fivestones is played in Asia, using small, rice-filled bags and a triangular cloth. Sometimes sand or seeds are used for a filling. Five stones is played by 2 or more players, using 5 small triangular cloth bags filled with rice, sand or saga seeds. The object is to complete a set of eight steps. The game has also been known as knuckle stones, jacks or dibs.
Marbles, in this context are little spheres, nothing to do with the Parthenon Marbles, which we stole from Greece and should return at once. These marbles has been played for thousands of years, in one form or another, and collectors avidly seek antique marbles that have survived until today, made from glass, porcelain, stone, wood and even semi-precious stone. Marbles vary in size and some are beautifully decorated with whorls and bands of bright colours set into the glass. Traditionally played by kiddies, marbles today has been elevated into a pub game called “Ring Taw” with a set of official rules and played at an annual world marble championship in Sussex.
Tiddlywinks has also reached the dizzy heights of national and international competition, even involving luminaries like Prince Charles, who not only plays polo, but may have learned to wink while he tiddles. The small, flat discs are called the “winks,“ The larger disc is the “squidger,“ which is placed on the rim of a wink, pressure applied until the wink pops out like a lemon pip and either lands on top of another’s wink, or into a plastic cup set at an agreed distance away, depending on which game is being played. The skill, of course, is judging how much pressure to apply to have the wink fly the correct distance. What fun, eh! And you are watching that ghastly Simon Cowell on that silly reality TV! Tiddlywinks is usually played indoors, whereas marbles is generally played in the fresh air, and fivestones is both an outside and indoor pastime. You may see these games as simpleminded and childish, and they undeniably were invented for youngsters, but tiddlywinks today is played in several universities to more involved rules and high-tec
You can contact the English Tiddlywinks Association to get a set of official rules for the modern game, (Cries of “get a life” are unnecessary, it takes all sorts!)
Shame, really, that kids today sit there in a kind of stupor in front of the TV or the computer, or gassing mindlessly on mobile phones. One of the sad things about it is they are not really sharing a fun experience but rather living vicariously, in the main, to the ridiculous antics of cartoon supermen.. Too much of it is inside, away from the good old fresh air. No wonder schools are selling-off or closing playgrounds. Those simpler times won’t come back, that’s for sure, and most of us watch TV and use the computer these days, even if it’s not with the obsession of those born with their noses stuck to the screen. But I wouldn’t miss the childhood memories of those simple games - even that plank behind my nail - for a moment.