I grew up in the 90s and 00s without a TV: instead I built stuff

Throughout my childhood, my family never had a TV.

From the day I was born, until I moved out when I was 19, I had relatively little exposure to TVs or their content.

At primary school, all my classmates talked about Cartoon Network and ‘play-stations’ and I had no idea what it was all about. At the time, I had some kind of Fisher Price play-kitchen so I assumed these “play-stations” they talked of were Fisher Price stations that they all had!

When I was at school, Red Nose Day and Children In Need were these strange events that never really made sense, and my classmates at school couldn’t understand how I didn’t know these popular TV shows were.

Sticking out at school was really rubbish, but at home I was doing other things…

I don’t really understand my parents. I mean, I guess, either they were hoping I’d accidentally die early on in life, or they had taken the somewhat famous Smallows and Amazon’s telegram to heart:


I’m going to assume the latter, but you never could tell, because the things I spent my ‘early childhood’ doing can certainly leave grown people shaky at the knees, even if it did all start very innocuously.

When I was in reception class – just 4 or 5 year old – I took great interest in my dad nailing and cutting bits of wood. At Christmas, I decided wanted to give my favourite teaching assistant a [small] wooden stool to sit on. With a bit of help sawing the offcuts to the right lenth, I nailed it together and gave it her. Apparently she was very touched. That year, one of my Christmas presents was my own, real life, working tool kit (complete with hammer, saw, spirit level, tape measure, etc).

About a year later, I remember playing with hot wax (how to make candles), fountain pens, ink. As I got older, I only got more adventurous and more ambitious, it just went downhill from there.

One of our neighbours was a handyman and woodworker, and would give us his offcuts to burn and so when I was around 8 or 9, I decided I wanted to make a raft – because, heck, rafts are cool.

The problem is that you can easily nail together a platform of wood which floats on the surface of the water, but it doesn’t have enough buoyancy to support anything on it (me!). I didn’t have any oil-drum-like barrels to hand, but I had heard something about 1 litre of water weighing about 1 kilo – and somehow extrapolated that a 1 litre bottle of air would more or less support a 1 kilo weight. By scaling this calculation, you can work out how many 3 litre squash bottles you need to tie to the bottom of this wooden platform, to support a small boy (who’s weighed himself on some bathroom scales).

The wood platform was nailed together from offcuts, with empty squash bottles tied to the underside. Pretty, it was not. It wasn’t even a regular shape. But it’s not like I cared! I had a raft!

Eventually, my parents let me launch it somewhere, and with the help of the son of a family friend (who was a good deal older than me), we found that it floated (great!) and it could support me(bonus!). There were several outings with it, but it’s ultimate downfall was that, due to there being lots of unsealed wood, it gained quite a lot of weight after being in the water for some time, making it heavy to carry back…

Around that time, I decided watercraft weren’t enough, and so in the back garden, I built a treehouse. Not on my own, for sure – I think my dad wanted to make sure it was somewhat safe, and so lent some basic help to make sure there was a stable, sturdy, well supported platform in place around the rather flimsy tree in our back garden that was previously known as “the climbing tree”. After a while, I got bored of the platform on its own, and decided it need a roof, so I with some more offcuts, I constructed walls and a the roof which was covered with some spare tar paper.

Make no mistake, there were times when things went wrong but bruised thumbs and hammered fingers only served as better motivation to avoid hitting them again in future.

Due to the design, the roof even had a “loft” – a bit of space to put things – and it wasn’t long until I put several large 6V batteries up there (in series), hooked up with speaker wire to some low voltage light bulbs I’d rigged up. I even dropped a watertank made from an ice cream tub, up there, with a tube and a tap on the end, which allowed for siphon-powered “running” water.

It was not perfect by any means; for example, due to my expert wood working, there were sort of the ends of nails sticking through the roof which your head might come in contact with if you weren’t careful, but it was a still a great hideout.

Over time it evolved,  and the final iteration had a panel that slid aside to display a window (using some cool tongue-and-groove planks I’d been given) and a similar sliding bolt for the front door so I could ‘lock’ it.

Bows and arrows came next – as my siblings are a good deal older – there weren’t really issues with me trying to unleash any aggressive tendencies at them with a bow. I never really produced anything particularly accurate, but firing a bow and seeing how far you can send your homemade arrow flying is a quite a lot of fun in itself.. There’s an added bonus if you can reliably get it to stick properly into the ground when it lands, but I don’t think I ever truly perfected that. The most developed I ever got was that I figured that paper flights really did make a difference, and that by splitting the narrow end of the arrow, sliding a flight in, and then superglueing it shut, you could get an arrow which tended to fly much better than one with out.

I quite liked cap guns too. I mean, what’s not to like about them? They go bang. That’s pretty awesome. I learnt all about the different sorts of toy cap guns (ringed caps for revolver-style capguns are clearly the best and most reliable, but paper-based caps are still fun). My mum vividly remembers me finding a big bunch of mixed up coils of paper caps. These are kind of coils of 100 or so small charges that go off when they’re hit. I suggested to my mum that it might be fun (with this big mess of caps), that rather than untangle them, to take this big tangle out onto the back step and hit it with a big hammer. My mum agreed, and came to watch. Lo and behold, there was a spectacular bang, (amplified by the very closed environment with two stone walls, which went up to the back garden), and our ears were ringing for some time. Hmmm. Yes. We both learned a lesson there! ;)

My parents weren’t luddites by any means and obviously we had central heating, but we also had an open fire and I’d take a lot of interest in it, which ultimately resulted in building campfires in the back garden. I remember learning about starting fires and playing with matches when I was definitely only around 7 or so. Getting the kindling right, and then piling on offcuts of wood is something of a skill. Occasionally I had friends round who were (somehow) allowed by their parents to join in the fun. I never could understand why people just wanted to hold the end of a burning stick and wave it around when there were so many more exciting things one could do with a fire…

…. like….

Cook things! Baked potatoes… in fact, baked anything worked pretty well. Sure, marshmallows work, but that’s more of a faff, and and isn’t half as fun.

As a I grew older, fires pointed the way from cooking to much more interested activities. Why bother cooking when you can melt metal? And what can you do with molten metal? You can try to mould it into shapes! And so for a time, I turned part blacksmith, searching for old bits of lead piping in skips, and melting them down in a steel [not-at-all-tin] can. Why lead? Lead melts at a relatively low temperature that’s easy to achieve. Copper piping was also fun, because if you got it red hot, it bent much easier, and so armed with a hammer, you could bash it into fun shapes (the best I ever managed to make was a hook!). Making moulds for molten lead was a bit of a faff – although sand moulds are a thing, sandpit sand isn’t the sand they’re talking about, and so the most interesting thing I ever managed was pouring molten lead into sea shells – which produced nice shell-shaped nuggets of lead. (In general, lead is only poisonous when you eat it. Lead was used for water pipes until not long ago, and is used in shotgun shot. Basically, if you eat molten lead you’re doing something wrong. )

Of course, with a keen interest in building projectile-throwing devices, and with a copy of Bevis in hand, it was only a next step to see whether I could build a gun. It seemed like a fun challenge. I took some hints from muzzle-loading flint-lock style things, and it actually sort of worked. I stopped up the end of a thick copper pipe with molten lead, hacksawed a hole near the blocked end, and then slid an illicit france-bought ‘banger’ down the tube, poked the fuse out of the hole (actually very fiddly!), pointed it in the direction I wanted and lit the fuse.

Without a proper butt, it never looked like more than old copper pipe, and the charges in the bangers were never strong enough to do more than toss a small stone across the garden (10 yards), but it still felt like a great success.

There were also experiements with electronics – taking stuff apart; failing to put stuff back together; a learning experience that involved mains electricity; soldering irons; learning to remove capacitors with a soldering iron; learning that soldering irons are, indeed, hot; and other stories… but none of them really produced any results, other than being able to explain how this old tape deck had previously worked, and how fitting it back together didn’t seem to be working out for me.

But if it sounds like I spent the whole of my childhood blowing shit up, I’d be doing myself a disservice. From the age of 7 or 8, I really started reading, and remember, no TV means no distractions. I used to spend hours lying on the floor, on a beanbag, reading books, cover-to-cover. It was at this point that I developed my interesting style of reading: I have a tendency to skim read, to miss paragraphs or sentences if I think that part is uninteresting or dull, whilst still picking up the main gist. It’s almost like my brain was pre-empting the web. I read a lot – I read twenty of the twenty-one Famous Five books, as many Biggles books, the Dr Doolittle series, James Herriott’s autobiographies, Gerald Durrell and a significant number of others. When the first “long” Harry Potter book came out (The Goblet of Fire), I went through it in a matter of days, leaving me to try to comprehend why my peers were still carrying it around weeks or months later.
Around the time I started secondary school, we got our first computer, and suddenly, I was less interested in building things in real life, and more in figuring out how to do things on the computer – I mean, it could even play DVDs! In addition, exceptionally dull homework started to take its toll, so the amount I read, and the amount I did things with my hands decreased.

I’m pretty confident that this background helped a great deal – once I applied it to computers a “just do it approach”, actually got me work.

A while back, I read on Twitter.

If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. #quoteoftheday

and I think I’d agree.

I could talk about what it was like to miss out on lots of TV, but honestly, I never missed it because it never was there. I was too busy building tree houses in my back garden, lighting fires, melting metal on the fires, making bows and arrows, building muzzle loading projectile throwers…

But here’s the thing: only recently did I understand who Jools Holland was, and why he held cultural significance. But when I think back, and remember that when I once asked for a Playstation for my birthday and got a dog instead, I don’t care.

Because now I know that I had an awesome childhood, and I can still watch TV when I want to.

Thanks to Jonathan and Kim for proofreading.

2 thoughts on “I grew up in the 90s and 00s without a TV: instead I built stuff

  1. A lot of parallels to my own youth here, although my parents did have a TV; it was just rarely switched on, and I was never encouraged to sit in front of it to keep me occupied whilst parents did other things. There was much more of an indoor craft bias compared to your tree-house-building fire-making past, but that was down to the fact that my mother was doing a lot of that stuff, whereas joining my dad in the garage with lathes and drill presses was a far more occasional happening. Nothing to do with being a girl… I think I preferred the garage stuff, but that might have been the degree of novelty caused by it being less often.

    Anyway, I don’t think I noticed quite how out of touch I was during school days, probably because I was too busy reading and not being remotely sociable… One of my exes sure liked to point it out though; lots of poking fun at the blank looks I gave him when he threw film quotes into conversations. Not having heard of the film “The Bodyguard” kind of broke him a little. However, not once did I think to point out in response to this “I can put up shelves.”, “I can give a car an oil change”, “I can mend clothes”, “Given the need for a small replacement part for something that is not readily available, there’s a fair chance I could go into the garage and MAKE IT MYSELF”.

    Ok, I did make those points to him at various times, but I never connected the dots between the two things, as such :)

    What would you rather have? A repository of TV and film quotes, or the ability to pick up tools and make things? That’s not a difficult decision to my mind! Never mind the fact that, for the most part, actually doing things is a hell of a lot more fun than merely *watching* people do things.

    By the way, I envy you the epic tree house. Maybe I’ll build one myself some day… Probably aged 40+… That’s fine, just means I might actually have a budget ;)


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