The Toymaker

Everybody loves a Toymaker at Christmas.

Today, I heard the strangest story about the most original Toymaker. And it’s real life: you couldn’t make it up.

Once upon a time, many years ago – in 1933 to be exact – a little boy was born to a well-off English family. And in this family, ever since the dawn of magnificent flying machines, aviation ran in the blood.

His grandfather was there at the inception of the plane, in the dawning days of the 20th century; his father trained airborne forces at the beginning of the war. A general produced the troops;  Father taught them to parachute.

The little boy contracted TB, and a plane came to his rescue. His father flew him far away from home to the Austrian mountains, where the air was clear, and he improved.

A mighty world war came to claim the child’s father. He was such a brilliant star that he could not fail to be at the vanguard of the action.

He was deeply involved in planning an invasion, and must fly to North Africa. He refused an offer of a lift from a great world leader, because the President’s plane would be too slow, and then Father’s fast plane suffered a catastrophic engine failure.

The little boy, meanwhile, had been sent away to school in America, and was looked after by his grandmother.

He took the news of his father’s death without trauma, because he had known him so little. But Grandmother, an adventuress who had toured great mountain ranges with a rifle, and written a book which was, a century later, awarded a Booker prize; she was devastated.

The little boy was quite a handful as he grew up. He was sent to Eton, and then joined the Navy. This was easier said than done: for the little boy had grown into a tall young man. At six feet seven inches, he stood three inches above the maximum height for new recruits.

But misdirection gained him a foothold. At the age of 18, he gained his pilot’s license, and carried out his National Service with the Fleet Air Arm.

And that was the beginning of a lifelong love story, on two counts. For on finishing his national service he bought a plane; he flew with the RAF’s 601 squadron; and took up skydiving, a passion he shared with the woman he met and married.

Anne. A woman who loved skydiving and shared the young man’s spirit of adventure. And she gave birth to five children, and ran their family it in a democratic fashion while the young man became rather successful.

He went from the Navy to the hallowed portals of Trinity College, Cambridge. And then, having qualified this side of the channel, he proceeded to study across the pond at Harvard.

He made his way to Wall Street, and began a career among the money men of one of the great cities of the world. For a decade and a year he dazzled, before feeling the pull of this little island’s shores once more, and coming home.

And he came home to preside over a toy company. He was the chief executive; and he ran the toy company diligently, until, after a tempestuous summer, when all the Toymakers in the land watched him steering his company, he suddenly found he was no longer chief. In fact, he didn’t have a job at all.

The Toymaker was past forty. He had a wife, and he had five children. What to do?

“I hung around the house” the Toymaker remembered, later. “I loved designing toys and the kids were a very good research team. And I suddenly had an idea for a toy that turned into the Big Yellow Teapot.”

He had hit on a toy which was a magnet to any self-respecting three-year-old. He knew its worth, and so he founded a company to make it, and made a fortune.

He was a Toymaker, running his company, for 18 years, and some of his toys are ones which you may have trodden on as you walked across the living room. They are tiny dolls with diminutive clothes for every occasion.

And then he retired.

But he was sad. For one of his great loves was in decline.

His wife, Anne, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and he looked after her and loved her with the disease for 13 years.

Today someone asked the Toymaker: when was the moment you thought, this woman, who means so much to me, doesn’t know me any more?

And he replied, with a Toymaker’s simplicity:”I’m not sure that moment ever arrived. I noticed even in those last years of life, when she had ceased really to recognise anybody as far as one could tell, that when I kissed her goodnight, tears would come to her eyes. Even at the very end.”

It was, he said, a very odd disease: and its ramifications are still not properly understood.

While his home life was full of struggle, he had hatched a cunning plan.

With a Toymaker’s mind he had scoped a round engine house which sat derelict in his part of London. Once it had been a centre of the arts: the Toymaker wanted it to be that way once more.

He drew together his toymaking fortune, and sank a considerable amount of it into the little engine house.

And he went far and wide, persuading important captains of industry to donate millions.

The little engine house took 11 years to rebuild. The Toymaker wanted it to be special: it must help local young people. It must give them creative opportunities.

Many scoffed, and said the money would have to be returned to those industrial captains. But The Roundhouse opened, together with a creative centre for young people, in 2006. The Toymaker said he was very relieved.

People flocked to the Toymaker’s Theatre: and eventually news of the little engine house reached important artistic ears. The Royal Shakespeare Company soon came to visit for a season; the theatre hosted vast rock concerts. Thousands of youngsters had undreamed-of opportunities.  And the Toymaker’s cup of happiness was full indeed.

He told his listeners – who by now were legion: “I felt like a kid who had applied for the job and got it.

“I like to develop ideas that have their own legs, and don’t need pushing. I’m interested in almost everything; I have no idea what is going to happen next; I hardly ever look backwards, and I’m very lucky in that.”

Now the Toymaker is 77, and he is an arts impresario as well. He continues to fly an eclectic collection of aeroplanes. The Queen has bestowed upon him a knighthood, and life is still good.

Oh, for the Toymaker’s attitude to life.

Sir Torquil Norman is the subject of this week’s Radio Four Desert Island Discs. The man is an inspiration 🙂

20 thoughts on “The Toymaker

  1. Thank you for writing that. I got in the car yesterday to drive to work, Desert Island Discs was on the radio, wondered who the subject was, facinating story. I wish Kirsty would mention the name more often. Got to work before it ended, had every intention of switching the radio on when I got in the office, but was distracted and never did find out who it was talking- until now. Thanks Again.

    1. Glad you thought it was inspiring, Cindy: I was glued to the interview (click on the last Toymaker to listen) but it was challenging to tell the story properly, and accurately. Lets hope I got it right.

  2. What a beautiful story, Kate. I was gripped from start to finish – such an amazing, special, sad and triumphant life he has led. Thank you so much for sharing this in your always beautiful words.
    Sunshine xx

  3. Haven’t been around for a while. Glad I popped in to read this. What a beatiful story.
    I nursed a lot of people over my nursing years who had various forms of dementia – most had been abandoned by families who either couldn’t cope or didn’t want to.
    it is a strange disease – but i often thought it brought out the true person; many of whom were just lovely people (and of course some just weren’t).
    God bless this Advent

    1. And you, Mum6kids 🙂 Your words are heartening, as his were. The thought that people with dementia still get to keep something of themselves, right to the end: to lose everything of oneself just seems a bit too merciless. Enjoy the rest of Advent- hope the cold isn’t creating too many problems for you.

  4. Dementia takes so many forms and its effects are so awful, but I see so many devoted couples caring for one another in my job, it is wonderful to see. The problem quite often is knowing when to ask for help, or even resisting help, so that the carer becomes totally exhausted.

    Lovely story, well told Kate.

  5. “…I have no idea what is going to happen next; I hardly ever look backwards, and I’m very lucky in that.” What a great attitude! And a lovely and inspiring story… thanks for this.

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