… in the early 1960s, I remember how shocked I was when I saw something I had not noticed before. Walking down a street in the middle of Durban, South Africa’s most racially mixed city, I passed a boy carrying a wooden transistor radio. It was about six inches long and two inches wide, with a wooden handle and a hinged wooden dowel antenna about two feet long tapered to a small knob at its end. On the top of its body, one of three square wooden buttons was pressed down. A slit of broken glass covered a rectangular dial behind which was a piece of an old paper calendar numbered one to twelve. A red pointer was stuck on three; it could never move. Although it looked like a Braun transistor radio, this object never produced sound. I asked the boy about it and he said: “It can’t play music, but I sing when I carry it. One day I’ll have a real one.”
From that time, quite suddenly, I began to see objects that had been invisible to me before.
… Everywhere there were objects of emulation and imagination. Often they were copies of sophisticated machines now made by hand out of recycled, thrown away material: Honda motorcycles made from panels of sheet tin taken from Castle beer cans; a dark green Isuzu Trooper 4×4 made out of a single piece of wood; wire Volkswagen Beetles with engine covers that lifted up; a snout-pointed fighter plane with a South African flag on its rudder; a large helicopter made of wire with a working AM radio in its belly. In the mute transistor radio family, there were silent wooden Sony cell phones useful only for dreamed conversations.
Cheaply available, highly visible, and linguistically subtle, material from products carrying popular brand names and out-of-context messages (Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Fanta, among others) adorned tin lunch pails, cloth jockey caps, miniature delivery trucks, and almost everything else.
I’m kind of shocked that Beinart was shocked; he’s never noticed toys before? Or maybe he has never noticed the power of toys before.
My previous post from this collection is here.