I remember when all this was fields.
I don’t. I came along after all this was fields, when all this was roads and houses. Recently I found pictures online of this estate mid-construction, when diggers were still gouging into hillside meadow and builders were still assembling the houses. It’s eerie – unsettling, even – seeing a gaping maw fringed with grass and wildflowers were today there’s only brick and tarmac. The view from the hill remains unchanged but the place it’s viewed from is half-formed. Portakabins line the kerbs along which homes would later be built. A nearby close is close to completion; a few roofs are missing but it otherwise looks complete. It’s the intersection of two worlds, old and new, but it looks more like two realities clashing – one civilised, one wild and unpopulated – with a dimensional rift separating the two.
It’s difficult comprehending that once, long ago, this place didn’t exist. It’s like imagining time before time itself began.
I’ve been messing with LEGO a lot over the past couple days. I’m not a LEGO person and I keep telling anyone listening this is the case. Truth be told I’ve always thought LEGO fans were a little weird. Other people’s geeky pursuits leave me feeling uncomfortable. That shouldn’t be the case – geeks unite! – but having tastes that are slowly being embraced by the mainstream I generally don’t consider myself a geek at all. Video games are cool now. Comics are on the big screen. Otherwise regular people get worked up about science fiction and fantasy. It’s how horror fans must have felt in the early eighties, when Stephen King hit the bestseller lists and slasher movies brought the horror genre to a wider audience. All those Universal and Hammer fans, as indignant as they were about this gaudy new crimson wave must have been at least a little satisfied that at last their favoured genre had been accepted by a the general public.
Philatelists are weird to me, and ornithologists and trainspotters. I look at LEGO fans and think “But they’re playing with toys.”
“What’s wrong with that?” the LEGO fans say in response. There’s a threatening undertone to their query: the sound of skin trapped between bricks; the image of stray piece of LEGO lurking beneath the unwary footfall of a bare and vulnerable sole.
“Well, it’s just . . . you know,” I say – and I’m just as bad as all those people who sneer “Comics?” when I’m talking about Blankets or Pride of Baghdad.
I downloaded the LEGO Digital Designer software. It’s an officially-sanctioned CAD program used to design LEGO models, the blueprints of which can be printed off or uploaded to the Internet – you can even buy the models you design in kit form from the LEGO store. It’s such a wonderful piece of software I would have thought everyone with even the vaguest interest in LEGO would own it.
Apparently they don’t. If this sounds like something you’d be interested, search it out and download it now.
I spent the best part – very nearly the total part – of yesterday playing with the LEGO Digital Designer. I’m not a visually creative person but I like these kinds of programs, where you can create strange vehicles, buildings and characters with minimal effort. The game Spore is largely remembered as an over-hyped squib, but I’ll always remember it fondly for the many hours I spent making DeLoreans and robots and retro-future mushroom cities with its design tools.
I tried making my own designs in the LEGO program and immediately lapsed to my childhood and assembled a sleek spaceship overloaded with rockets and weapons. After, I sought out classic LEGO patterns on the Internet to follow them and build models designed in the ‘70s and ‘80s. These were models I’d seen in pamphlets that came with the LEGO sets I’d owned back then. I’d been a Space guy, with a lot blue and grey Space LEGO sets built up over Christmases and birthdays. I had a miniature monorail set; a command station in the shape of a robot with snaking, snapping arms; a white starship with a front piece that disconnected while LEDs flashed and sirens beeped. I kept the pieces all in one box and spent more time rummaging for – and cursing – the pieces I needed to build them.
I never had the space station I built yesterday morning, nor the castle village square I built in the afternoon, but I’d seen them in those catalogues a long time ago and though I’m not a LEGO person I enjoyed building them. Even as an adult who should perhaps know better I see the appeal of LEGO now. I’d quite like to have those LEGO Winter Village sets the company releases annually; I’d like to have them assembled and stored in a glass display case to be taken out each December and used as a table centrepiece. My wife’s aunt and uncle have rows of little wintry cottages they line on the mantelpiece at Christmas, and a glass-doored dresser they fill with nutcrackers and angelic figurines. It’s the kind of thing I’d have loved as a child; the kind of thing I still love: a Christmas collection built over years, filled with the memories of festive times past.
In one of the Digital Designer’s view modes there’s a button that allows you to blow up your creation. I pressed it and was immediately panicked and remorseful. It didn’t matter that I could press another button and have the model restored or that it wasn’t a very good model, that it was only rockets and guns snapped together. I didn’t like seeing my work destroyed in such an off-handed manner. With real LEGO pieces you have to dismantle your models otherwise you’ll soon run out of block, but some people delight in smashing up theirs and others’ work – I’m not one of those.
But we, the human race, are equally fascinated with construction and destruction. Crowds turn out to watch buildings be demolished: explosives are primed, the handle’s turned and a chimney, a hospital, a tower block tumbles in billowing clouds of debris. Kids tear branches from trees, or pull grass up by the handful just to throw it and watch it spill in the wind.
This week I’ve been playing Thief: Deadly Shadows. It’s a great game set in a very interesting world. There are two factions in the game you can ally with: The Hammerites and the Pagans. The Hammerites are a fanatical religious sect who worship The Builder, god of industrialisation. They build clock-towers and churches, and the skies above town darken with smoke from their forge.
The Pagans worship the Trickster, the chaos god of nature. Lumbering green elementals, gnarled roots brought to life patrol Pagan camps. They believe in overgrowth; that one day nature will reclaim the cities and heal the Hammerite scars. They are the moulds and vines creeping from forgotten sectors of the city to choke townsfolk who’ve trespassed against them.
Maybe I’ve reached the point in life where I look for a third route midway between all of life’s dichotomies – a mid-life crisis, if you like. Overgrowth, over building, over population. I want to have a kid at some point in the future but I can’t fully ignore those who say there are too many people on this planet as it is. One way or another doom seems right around the corner; we’re running out of resources yet still we build, still we consume without any sign of slowing down. Is this where the Pagans win; is this where every work mankind ever wrought becomes fuzzy through lichenous cataracts? Or is there another destiny for us – so far away it’s science fiction, an impossible, amazing story. Might we one day escape our own smog to build structures in space like awe-filled children playing with toys?
These are difficult times, when even a post about building blocks can turn into a sermon concerning the fate of the world – for that I apologise. Perhaps, under the circumstances, you can forgive me and my new-found interest in LEGO.