Friday, 8 November 2013


When I was growing up jigsaw puzzles were an important part of the arsenal we could deploy in our protracted war on boredom. Of course it wasn't our first line of defence, and probably lay near the bottom of the barrel: but sometimes that barrel needed scraping (to mix metaphors just a little). When friends weren't around, or if it was raining, or when feeling poorly or unsociable, you could get out a jigsaw to suck up some of the time before that thin sliver of kids’ TV started broadcasting (this was before kids' TV existed as its own entity, and well before it had become a central feature in the repertoire of modern parenting). A jigsaw puzzle in the toy cupboard wasn't something you did once and then passed on: it was something you did endlessly. You had your favourites and the ones you barely tolerated; you had the ones that you had to commit to, and the ones that were probably a bit too easy.
There was something about the jigsaw puzzle that both defeated boredom and felt remarkably similar to it: like a flu jab that gave you a minuscule dose of flu as an inoculation. Jigsawing mimicked boredom in the way it set out to encourage lugubrious dithering, and the way it instilled feckless indecision as the basic response to the world. It gave an ersatz sense of direction to the bored person’s lackadaisical directionless. It felt like the myth of Sisyphus stripped of any grandeur, any tragic dimension. It was like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, employing a tactic for fending off suitors (weaving all day, unpicking all night), but without any of the desperate love, without any of the fear that he wasn't coming home. But of course it also brought with it tiny shards of joy: those fitful feelings of success: Oh that goes there! I thought that was part of the sea, but it’s her nose! These little puffs of pride that pop before they can take shape: clever old you for finding out where that piece goes.
There were one or two jigsaws that went beyond the completion of a task that never needed doing in the first place. These were jigsaws that had a more ritualistic element to them. My The Man from U.N.C.L.E jigsaw was in this category. As you can see it featured a coloured pencil drawing of a scene featuring the unflappable secret agents Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum). The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) was, as far as I can remember, a drama that at the height of the Cold War brought together Americans and Russians (can you guess which was which?) to defeat even more malevolent forces than communist world domination (or rather these dastardly forces looked a lot like the Cold War vision of communism as nothing but world domination). Verisimilitude obviously wasn't the jigsaw maker’s top priority: the flight of the bullet leaves a ruler-straight vapour trail, for instance. But they knew their audience; young boys who might aspire to draw vapour trailing bullets who also loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Doing this jigsaw was paying homage, offering cultish dedication. It was important that after completing the jigsaw you took it apart again, ready for the next votive offering.
Looking at the jigsaw now, I remember that I always expected to enjoy certain aspects more than others. I continually thought that the highlight would be fitting the pieces that represent Kuryakin’s gun as he reclines in his casual-clothing-for-men-catalogue-pose, or placing the pieces that are the dolphin-coloured tubular floats of the helicopter’s feet. But jigsaws have their own logic, their own peculiarities. The best parts, I remember, where finding and fitting the pieces that were the fronds of the palm tree, the loose purple shading of the hills in the background, and Napoleon Solo’s briefcase. 

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