This hand is around 50 years old and washed up on a Cornish beach during the February storms. As the strongest gales of Storm Ciara coincided with high spring tides, waves dragged much of the sand offshore, releasing buried plastic that was decades old.
Sorting through those finds recently in lockdown, I realised the hand looked familiar. So I texted the photograph to my brother – an Action Man fan in the 1970s – and we were soon reminiscing about the time he took his Eagle Eye Action Man on a family walk along Shellness beach. Almost back at the car, he realised it was missing a foot. About eight years old, he was so distraught that all of us had to go back and hunt for it, along half a mile of pale shell sand almost the same colour as the foot.
Attempts to date my flotsam hand then led me off into a world of vintage toy collectors, where I learned that the first Action Man was sold in 1966. At the time, making (dressable) dolls for boys was a risky and controversial idea, and in company discussions the word ‘doll’ was banned. Yet Action Soldier, Action Sailor and Action Pilot were an instant success: the 1966 ‘UK Toy of the Year’.
With help from a collector, I learned my flotsam hand was an original ‘hard hand’, dating from 1966 to 1973. Unfortunately, their inflexibility left Action Man unable to hold his weapons, which needed to be held in place with elastic bands (or glue at the trade shows). So in 1973 the old hard hands were replaced with ‘revolutionary’ vinyl ‘grippy hands’ – one of the reasons Action Man went on to become the 1970s ‘Toy of the Decade’.
Scrolling through the collector websites, I soon realised my boxes of beachcombed finds contained other Action Man parts and accessories. Along with several ‘pineapple hand grenades’ (1966-84), it turned out I also had a hard, flesh-pink ‘hip section’ (1966-78). For although Action Man was produced until 1984, in 1978 the original pale naked Action Man was replaced by tanned ‘Blue Pants Action Man’.
On the phone recently to my mum, I mentioned the lost foot and the chat with my brother. I laughed at how clearly we’d remembered the Eagle Eye Action Man he’d brought on the walk (including the knob at the back of the head to shift his eyeballs from side to side). She remembered the foot incident well.
‘We didn’t find it,’ she said. ‘But it wasn’t Action Man. It was Luke Skywalker’s foot.’
With thanks to Robert Wisdom at the wonderfully informative
There is more on the ‘Travelling Museum of Finds’ here
and reviews of Rag and Bone (John Murray, June 2020) here
The hardback is available to pre-order at Waterstones, Foyles, Blackwells and Amazon. Best of all, particularly in these difficult times, do use local independent bookshops. Or try Hive, which allows you to support them.
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