Tuesday 28 August 2018

The Black Hand Gang - A Bit Of Nostalgia

I was talking the other day about favourite childhood reads and mentioned The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang, a collection (of four stories) written by H. J. Press.  I decided to have another look through the book and, opening that beloved cover, I realised it was the 1978 Methuen reprint, making my copy forty years old this summer.
I got my copy from the Rothwell Juniors Bookworm Club.  Translated translated from the German by Barbara Littlewood, it was first published in the UK in 1976 with the paperback appearing the following year.  The original book, as Die Abenteur der ‘Schwarzen Hand’, was first published in West Germany in 1965.

Hans Jürgen Press was born on 15th May 1926 in East Prussian Masuria.  During World War II, trained as an unarmed sail plane glider pilot, he was captured in France and transported to the US where, held at Fort Russell in Texas, he painted detailed murals of West Texas mountain scenes.  After the war, he moved to Hamburg and began illustrating for Sternchen, the children’s supplement of the magazine Stern.  In 1953, he created Der kleine Herr Jakob, a strip about a little man with a moustache and bowler hat who never talked, through the comic had comment in verse.  The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang, a combination of story and illustration, was published in weekly chapters, the solution to the week’s riddle given in the next edition.  Press was one of the inventors of  "Wimmelbild", a genre of illustration where the picture was deliberately overcrowded with detail, to entertain children as they searched for certain items.  His books have been translated into more than sixty languages and his son, Julian - also an author and illustrator - not only looks after his literary estate but publishes similar mystery stories.  H. J. Press passed away on 19th October 2002.

My copy looks beaten up because it was very well read and not just by me - in 1978, my friend Claire Gibson and I set up our own little investigators group and The Black Hand Gang adventures were used as a training aid (as it happens, we never did find any crimes to be investigated, more’s the pity).  Years later, I introduced Dude to it when I still read him bedtime stories and that was great fun, watching the excitement in his eyes as he tried to find the clues (whilst I tried really hard not to lead him to them).

I originally wrote about The Black Hand Gang in a Nostalgic For My Childhood post in 2013 (you can read it here, it’s been quite popular) but as a recap, the book contains four adventures - The Mysterious House (featuring a forger), The Treasure In Breezy Lake (the gang help solve a burglary), The Smuggler’s Tunnel (the gang go to stay with Ralph’s Uncle Paul and stumble across a drug smuggling ring) and A Theft At The Zoo (featuring the hunt for stolen animals).

The Black Hand Gang made its headquarters at 49 Canal Street, “at the top of the house, up seventy-two creaking stairs” and their clubroom was called the ‘Airport’.  Meeting regularly after school, the gang comprises: “Frank, who played the trumpet, was the leader; then there was quick-witted Angela; Ralph, who usually wore a striped sweater; and lastly Keith W.S. and his inseparable companion , a squirrel (W.S. stands for With Squirrel).  Well known locally as amateur sleuths”, their friend is Police Sergeant Shorthouse.

From The Mysterious House:
What was Mr X doing?
What was the stamp called?
From The Treasure In Breezy Lake:

look at that detail!
What had Fraser thrown into the lake?

Which door did Angela mean? (clue - the police are looking for the baddie and think they've checked everywhere)
From The Smugglers' Tunnel:
What was the substance in the cubes?

From A Theft At The Zoo:
How did the thief take the key?

In case you're interested, there's a Facebook group dedicated to the book, moderated by Gavin Worby, which can be found at this link.

Monday 20 August 2018

May The Toys Be With You

As someone lucky enough to be a kid when the first Star Wars film appeared, I was a huge fan of the action figures produced by Palitoy which began to appear in the summer of 1978 (as I wrote about here, for my Star Wars At 40 thread).  Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered the excellent New Walk Museum in Leicester was holding a May The Toys Be With You Exhibition.
We went a couple of weeks ago, the first day of my two-week holiday and combined it with a long overdue trip to the Stonebaked Pizza company (which was delicious) and the opportunity to call into the Leicester Vintage & Old Toy Shop, run by my friend Joe (who sold me the bulk of my 85-strong vintage Stormtrooper army) - when he found out we were going to the exhibition, he told me the legend of the buried Star Wars toys.  Apparently, by 1986, they almost couldn’t give the figures away and Palitoy (whose factory was at Coalville, about 12 miles from Leicester city centre) buried the last of their stock (the 'Last 17' which, ironically, are now amongst the most sought after because of their rarity) in landfill (which the Leicester Mercury reported on here).  I then bought a 1997 Micro-Machines AT-ST off him, we said our goodbyes and trooped up to New Walk and the museum.
I like the New Walk a lot (they have a terrific, permanent Mummy display) and they did a grand job with the May The Toys Be With You exhibit.  While I might have liked more figures (in dioramas, perhaps), it certainly had something for everyone and there were several pieces on display I’d only ever read about before, rather than having seen myself.  Starting with the toys themselves, you get a potted history (most of which I’d already researched for my blog) and a display of all the figures (most in excellent condition, including a lot of carded examples), with their original sculpt and the variant edition.  I explained this to Alison using the Han Solo figure as an example - mine is the original 1978 'small head' version while the later variant has a much larger head but an allegedly ‘better sculpt’ (though not in my opinion).  I was seeing some of those figures for the first time (certainly some of the variants) and there was also a wonderful comparison between the Gamorrean Guard from Jedi (1983) and the re-used body for Friar Tuck, an action figure from Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves (1991).  Most of the vehicles were also represented, a slew of bootlegs (figures and cardbacks) and the astonishing bundle packs, sold in Woolworths in 1986 as Star Wars mania was fading, where you could buy 8 figures for 99p (I wish I'd been interested in collecting when I was 17)!
The Palitoy Death Star playset - constructed from cardboard, to keep the price down, it is now a very rare find in good condition
After passing two Stormtroopers guarding a frozen in Carbonite Han Solo, we moved into the second section of the exhibition, a thorough and varied display of posters, lobby cards and advertising material.  This was terrific, a lot of which I’d never seen and included some huge quad posters as well as the 1982 teaser trailer film spool from when Jedi was called Revenge Of The Jedi.
A surprisingly cheesy "coming soon" for The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This was huge (I wish I'd got Dude to stand in front of it now, to give it scale)!

A cracking collection, this is well worth a visit for any Star Wars fan but of particular interest to those of us (of a certain age) who lived through the original trilogy (the only three films catered for in the exhibition) and I’d highly recommend it.  In fact, Dude & I are already planning to go again!

The exhibition, housed on the first floor, runs until 28th October and is completely free of charge to enter (though donations can be made).

More information on the New Walk Museum can be found here and don’t forget my Star Wars toys blogpost