Monday, 6 February 2017

Because A Jigsaw Puzzle Is More Than Just A Good Companion

37. Puzzle: Write about putting together the pieces of puzzles.

My childhood was a place of jigsaw puzzles.

Over the course of several years my family became happy little wheeler-dealers.  To begin with there was no selling.  My dad had built up a collection of model Porsche cars for reasons known only to himself.  Towards the end of her life my mum said she thought my dad might be autistic.  I can't know for certain whether she was right of not but she was right about me and perhaps that collection of cars was the product of an autistic special interest rather than just being a perfectly ordinary collection.  As the collection grew my dad decided that he would become an exhibitor, displaying his cars to the public at various fairs.  We would become one of those strange families at rallies.

If you've ever been to a steam rally you'll have seen similar families lined up along the length of fields.  They sit behind their cars and on the ground before them is a steam engine.  Sometimes it's arranged in some manner that it actually does something - heats a cup of tea, rotates a toy, or moves a little saw back and forth.  Sometimes these little engines do nothing beyond sitting there making a noise with a six inch long piston moving backwards and forwards.  We had a name for these gadgets.  A name I've long since forgotten.  Something like futter-futters because they all make a futter noise but don't do much else.  The people sitting between their futter-futters and their cars don't ever look very bored though.  They love their machines, are passionate about keeping them running and showing them off to the world.  They love each other too.  Many friendships are formed around these unpurposed machines.  Perhaps marriages have been formed too.

For a while we became one of these families.   But NOT one of those?  Oh no.  We weren't like those people.  Dread to think it!  We were of a different sort.  The model car sort.  We had our place at tables in large marquees.  We were more special than the engine people.  At least that's the way it felt to me.  We would sit for the day.  Displaying.  Selling was against the rules.  Unpack a bunch of toy cars (sorry, model cars, get it right) in the morning, sit for the day (I was bored), and then pack up the toys (models) at the end of the day.

Yes.  I did admit it.  I was bored.  I got so bored at one of these rallies that I drew some very bad pictures of people and attempted - without success - to sell them to members of the public who consistently smiled sympathetically but never agreed to part with fifteen pence.  Fortunately, not being an official exhibitor meant nobody told me off for breaking the conditions of my contract agreement.  My dad didn't get told off either.  Through exhibiting regularly he met people.  Fellow enthusiasts for three inch long versions of Porsche cars.  They were envious of my dad's massive collection.  Eventually he began to complete under the table deals, buying model cars and selling them at a profit.  If he had been discovered he might have been cast out of car rally club.

As time went on we gave up exhibiting at those rallies and became bona fide dealers.  I like to think I had something to do with this because I was the first active dealer of the family.  A second hand bookshop opened in the town centre and in its advertising was the statement, "WE BUY BOOKS!"  I considered this.  Considered the books I owned and which I didn't need any more.  And one afternoon took a bag of my books to the shop, selling most of them.  Thoughts churned in my head over the following week.  Especially this thought:  "That shop paid me on average forty to fifty pence for those books.  I can buy books at a jumble sale or car boot sale and often only for ten pence.  I wonder ..."  I wondered a lot.  Would it be possible to buy books and sell them at profit?

I had to try so one weekend I spent a few extra pounds on books I didn't want.  And that week I took them to the shop.  My mum was so embarrassed and she said so.  Said, "You can't do that, it's embarrassing."  The shop didn't buy all the books.  But they bought enough.  I had made money.  I enquired as to which books were most in demand at the shop because I realised my money making could be refined.  Later I learned that the bookshop in the market had a different customer base.  The woman who ran it was very nice indeed and for a while much of her stock came from me.  I was a thirteen year old boy buying armfuls of "women's" romances.  Eventually I was selling more than one hundred books a week. It wasn't really work but I was making far more money than I ever would have done from a Saturday job.

Perhaps my entry into the world of book dealing affected my parents' attitudes.  Perhaps not.  But pretty soon they had booked up to have a stall at a toy fair.  A proper fair at which dealers sold toys.  I believe our first fair was at Henfield.  We had half a stall.  Just half.  The other half was run by one of my dad's work colleagues and his family.  Graham wasn't a Porsche man.  But he was a model car man and when I think about him I wonder whether he was autistic too.  Perhaps his children - it wouldn't surprise me if either of them have sought a diagnosis in adult life.  Autistic head canon is a marvellous thing!

We didn't know what we were doing at that fair.  Didn't quite know what they were about.  So it was an eye opener as we walked round and saw the range of things people were selling - both new and second hand.  My dad managed to sell things though and it hadn't been a bad day.  It was decided that we could do it again.  And if we found more things to sell perhaps we could graduate to the point at which we could have an entire stall.

And that's what happened.  We became toy dealers, raising a little extra money for ourselves.  It was a fortunate turn of events because we weren't rich.  My very posh voice is not reflected by an affluent childhood.  Without our dealing we would have struggled, just as we would have struggled without jumble sales.  As things developed we would have two stalls at toy fairs with specially constructed shelves so we could display the maximum amount.  My dad had one stall devoted to model cars.  My mum had the other, devoted to all the collectable things we had picked up at boot sales.  For a while we also sold at book fairs.  Then there was the period my mum had a big stall at the indoor market in Horsham.  People loved us.  We sold cheaply.  My mum got ill while we had that stall so I ended up having to both find the stock and run the stall.

At the toy fairs we sold whatever we could sell.  The paraphernalia related to TV shows and movies that passed through our hands would today be worth a fortune.  In the 1980s it was easy to find all kinds of amazing material that you just don't see today.  We all collected too.  For reasons I didn't quite understand I was a Man From Uncle collector for a while.  My mum's Magic Roundabout collection was very impressive until she suddenly decided the didn't want to have it all, at which point it was sold.  At a profit of course.

Then there were the jigsaws.  We bought and sold them too.  I think our jigsaw life began as a result of that first toy fair in Henfield.  It may even have been billed as a "Toy and Jigsaw Collectors' Fair."  The man who ran it was at that time the local vicar and he was a jigsaw lover.  The fair was an overflow for his passion and many jigsaw freaks attended and exhibited or sold.  Tom was a force of jigsaw nature and began the national society for jigsaw lovers, The Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists.  Honest.  It really was called that.  My mum joined up straight away.

From that time on we had a house and garage filled with jigsaws.  I thought about them just the other day.  For several months our dining room table (a misnomer because it's in the kitchen) has been covered with lots and lots of junk that needed sorting and either putting away or throwing away.  In the week just gone I got the table clear and the thought crossed my head, "It's clear enough for a jigsaw, just like when I was a child."  As a child there was very often a jigsaw in progress covering the dining room table.  It would be placed on a large wooden board so it could be moved if we wanted to eat a meal.  And then it would be returned.

Those jigsaws.  Hundreds of them.  Possibly thousands over the years.  When my mum died there were at least a hundred of them still in the garage waiting to be completed and/or sold.  Still there, even though she hadn't completed a jigsaw for some years.  Jigsaws were a part of our lives.  I remember them well and getting lost in puzzles was one of the better parts of childhood.

The situation was often the same.  My mum would sit on one side of the table.  The jigsaw would face her and she would be at the bottom.  This meant that I had to be on the other side and had to stand or I wouldn't be able to reach.  I was at the top and the main consequence was this:

I became a grand master expert at sky.

If a puzzle contained lots of sky it was me who had to put it together.  A billion pieces, all nearly the same colour!  If there was a railway scene I'd be putting together a big section of smoke.  My mum got the colourful and varied bottom section.  I got the always-less-exciting top.  But I didn't particularly mind.  I liked the challenge.  I liked the feel of the pieces, each bobble and dent a sensory joy.  I liked the sensation of putting in a correct piece where sky met sky.  Knowing that each piece had its place, that everything fit together, was a calming influence.  The jigsaw became a symbol of the ideal life.

Sometimes of course I got the chance to complete a puzzle on my own.  I got to do the pretty sections and that was my relaxation.  Nowadays everyone is into mindfulness.  Jigsaws were a very mindful pastime for me.  There's been a craze for adult colouring and even adult dot-to-dot books (I own one) but if all we adults could just agree that play is a good thing then there would be no need for crazes.  We would just play and be a lot healthier as a result, dropping all our ideas of "that's just for the children."

My favourite jigsaw puzzles were the Good Companion series.  Especially the Type A and Type B puzzles.  They were numbered, an essential for the happy collector.  We weren't jigsaw collectors but if I had been it would have been the Good Companion puzzles I would have hoarded.  They each had a picture I loved, of transport, markets, a television studio, a rocket workshop, all skilfully painted in the Good Companion style.  The pieces were excellent to handle and the puzzles had a very reassuring smell.  They were also the ideal number of pieces.  You knew you would have lots of enjoyment.  But you also knew you would finish the puzzle on the day you began, that three weeks later you wouldn't be wallowing in frustration and desperation with a thousand pieces of sky still to fill in.  A Good Companion had over 400 pieces.  That's what the box said.  We knew though that each puzzle, if complete, contained exactly 408 pieces.  Useful knowledge indeed!  We would count the puzzle before attempting it.  If it had 407 pieces we could still sell it, at greatly reduced price.  But if our jumble sale purchase only contained 406 pieces there wasn't any point continuing.  Another jigsaw for the bin.

The image at the top of this post is a Good Companion.  It's number 61, Air Display and I took the picture, without permission, from  That page has a list of all 177 numbered puzzles - though of course the first 80 are best.  I think in my childhood every one of those 80 and many of the rest passed through my hands.  Complete.  It would almost be pleasing to have a complete set now.

Almost, but not quite.  That was a part of my childhood which is good for reminiscing.  It's not so good for repeating.  But who knows?  Maybe I'll see some Good Companion jigsaws in a charity shop soon.  Maybe they won't have decided that since they're not brand new they must be worth a stupid amount of money - which they aren't.  And maybe one day I will complete Air Display again.  Who knows?

[2236 words.  Ouch.]

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