Strange things to do and make

In 1976, when I was eight years old, my mum bought me two 'Practical Puffin' activity books. The first, Body Tricks to Teach Yourself, was innocent enough and full of games familiar to anyone who grew up watching Why Don't You?: sock puppets, mime games, balancing tricks, juggling, rubbish disguises and so on.

There was just one hint of strangeness, however, in a game where, having pressed your hands down hard upon a friend's head, you were supposed to be able to lift him with just four fingers. 'Now imagine that you weigh nothing at all' the book went on. 'You could float away in the wind.' 

I think the authors might have been hippies.

But this was a mere prelude for the weirdness of companion volume, Strange Things to Do and Make. It would be a challenge to find an odder children's book.

In one experiment you were encouraged to see if plants had psychic powers. You had to grow two seedlings, all the while sending kindly thoughts to one and hateful sentiments to the other. The unlucky plant was supposed to wither and die.

I badgered my Dad to cut me a hazel wand so I could try my hand at dowsing...

...and I vividly remember my disappointment at being unable to attempt the various wart cures: I was already wart-free.

You could try telepathy with a set of homemade Zener cards...

...or if that wasn't racy enough, you could make your own Ouija Board...

...or hatch chickens at home (presumably to the delight of parents everywhere).

My favourite was the experiment on pyramid power. In a rare appeal to academic authority the book suggested that 'some scientists think that the space inside the pyramids might have special powers.' (This was the 1970s, remember, when recently unearthed prehistoric computer stones sent out evil mind-rays that forced all scientists to entertain weird shit.)

There were careful instructions on how to make a scale model of the Great Pyramid of Cheops complete with its very own cardboard altar, upon which you were supposed to leave a small piece of meat.

With the mini-pyramid aligned to the cardinal directions, mysterious powers would mummify the meat and preserve it from decay. Probably. From meat you could move on to preserving caterpillars and butterflies.

I tried it with a dead fly but oddly I can't remember if the experiment worked or not (it's almost as though secret forces don't want me to remember...)

Though it reads like a book from the Scarfolk public library, I can assure you the book was real (and, collectors beware, its second-hand value is rapidly escalating).

But I ask you, growing up with books like this, is it any wonder I turned out the bosky way I did?


  1. As it happens, one of my earliest bits of childhood culture was listening to the 45rpm single of 'Pyramania' by the Alan Parsons Project, a song which satirises exactly that pyramid-related weird shit that your book promotes.

  2. I remember the pyramid thing, I think I even tried it. Oh the 70s, how I miss them! I got the "Out in the Wilds" Puffin when I was 11. I loved it so much...needless to say, I still have it, and even now feel the familiar thrill I did back then at the thought of really going off into the bush and camping BY MYSELF. I think it's probably to blame for a habit I developed, which I still can't shake, of always keeping an eye out for possible overnight kip spots. Which I have never actually needed...but you never know!

  3. I wish I'd had that book as a kid - I would have loved it.

    "you were supposed to be able to lift him with just four fingers."

    Sounds like "light as a feather, stiff as a board" - do they have that game in the UK? A lot of American kids do it, in their ouija board phase. But it's a bit creepier, because first you're supposed to lie the person down and pretend they're dead, and eulogize them. Then you all put one finger underneath them, chanting "light as a feather, stiff as a board" until they lift up magically. I did this one night at a field trip to a historical reenactment farm (there was no electricity, nothing else for us to do) and it did somehow seem to work.



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