Wednesday, February 18, 2009

If I Build It...

(OK, so I'm hopeless at routinely writing here :-) I got my copy of Sunken Treasure by Wil Wheaton yesterday and I've been inspired to have a go at narrative non-fiction. Even though I have a story half written for next week's Basingstoke Writers' Circle. Read into that what you will!)

I regressed to childhood a couple of Saturdays ago and spent a few hours rummaging through a huge cardboard box full of Lego. As I raked Lego blocks back and forth, trying to find that last elusive flat, yellow, three stud-long piece I needed, I felt a connection to my six-year-old self, when I built the set for the first time, on the living room floor in 1979.

It all started when Jonathan Ross tweeted a question: “Best toy you ever got as a kid ? Or toys ?” I didn’t really get in to Action Man and the second-hand (or more) Scalextric I pestered for at a jumble sale turned me off it permanently when it utterly failed to work. My dad introduced me to Hornby trains, but to be honest I was more interested in making up stories for them, after a strict diet of Thomas the Tank Engine stories, than I was in running them around the circuits of track. I had Matchbox and Corgi cars, but they didn’t do much apart from roll around the floor, or around in circles once the axle became bent.

No, for me, there were only two toy universes when I was a child. The first was Star Wars. Collecting the toys was a no-brainer really, though I could be called a late starter as I didn’t see Star Wars (OK, OK, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) at the cinema. I remember not being too entranced by The Empire Strikes Back at age 8; I took a toilet break during the escape from Cloud City. It was the toys that cemented Star Wars in my mind. I would recreate the Hoth Rebel base out of the contents of Mum’s towel collection, filling the landing with carefully arranged terry cloth, so I could replay scenes from the movie or make up my own stories, the characters I hardly knew growing and evolving in my mind.

The other universe was my childhood Force, surrounding and penetrating every moment of my playtime, binding all the other toys together.


I’d build Imperial bases out of it (perfectly camouflaged against the snow in vivid red), squinting at blurry, out-of-focus catalogue photos of the sets I couldn’t afford or was too impatient to wait for. Cars would race around tracks with deviously placed Lego obstacles and jumps. Trains would pull wagons filled with one-stud blocks, where I’d run out of little plastic coal sacks, and crash into Lego landslides.

I came to Lego when my parents bought a huge box of it, second-hand. Now I get the feeling there must have been some vintage sets in there, but without the plans, all I had was my imagination. I don’t think I managed to get very far at making my own models. Then I was given Lego sets and there was order in my life.

I’d never seen this much gray Lego before, but somehow it was absolutely right for a spaceship. The bags had been emptied across the light-brown, coarse living room carpet, over my usual play place by the bookshelves, next to the hi-fi. The instruction book was open, plates aligned in front of it matching the drawings on the paper. I have no idea of what was going on around me; I had fallen so deeply into a world of building that all I can recall is adding blue blocks to gray plates, putting hinges together and growing ever more excited that I’d soon be flying LL928 around the house. I knew instinctively it would fly; it was shaped like a dart, it had four, *FOUR* massive engines with another three underneath, it had guns, it had a tail which came apart so the cargo bay could open. At age six, that was all it needed to fly in space.

At age thirty-five, I know that a Borg cube is as able to fly in space as the Galaxy Explorer. Thanks to the World Wide Web, I also know that it is called the Galaxy Explorer. As I settled down to build, the instructions were arranged on my MacBook Pro, rather than on paper, the originals lost to time like some ancient Egyptian papyrus. But that was all that had changed in thirty years, once I delved into that cardboard box of Lego and began building LL928 again. The noise of Lego bricks cascading over one another filled the room, the sound of creativity that I’d known all my childhood surrounding me again. I am a husband, a home-owner, supporting my family by working a 35 hour week, bearing my responsibilities on (hopefully) strong shoulders. By the time I began arranging the grey plates on the beige, spare room carpet though, it had all fallen away from me. The worries, the doubts, the stresses of grown-up life had all been replaced with the simple need to add an eight-long, two-stud wide plate in the right place, to find six black and three yellow plates in a mound of Lego. Counting with a finger along the image on the screen, making sure I had each piece exactly positioned. Pushing unattached plates together to make sure I didn’t forget one or, worse still, attach one wrongly. Scrabbling in the box for what seemed like every single gray, three stud long plate I owned, finding other pieces that brought back snippets of memories. The pure, joyful simplicity of following the instructions and making something carried me along for three hours, until the model was complete.

Of course, thirty years is a long time. Tail fins had broken. Hinges had snapped. But what would once have made me give up simply made me roll up my sleeves and think, “how do I fix this?” I suppose that’s the benefit of growing up. When we’re young, the unexpected stymies us. When we’re grown up, the unexpected is, more often than not, what we have to deal with every day. From now on, though, whenever I need a break from it all, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and rummage in my Lego bricks.