by Judith Skilleter
a whisky mac - for cold dark days
Jigsaw puzzles. I did lots of 1000 piece jigsaws. I was bored during lockdown one and I started by getting old jigsaw puzzles down from the dusty depths of the loft. There was no thought of them becoming a habit at this stage – they would be a time filler, a thinking process, until something better came along or, ideally, Covid 19 went away. These rediscovered jigsaws had been bought for my children 30 years ago and used possibly only once – if at all. My kids never seemed to get into jigsaw puzzles but I have to admit they were always an easily wrapped present for others. Perhaps that is why we had them – we had been given them by unimaginative wrappers.
So from the loft our first jigsaw attempt was a French market scene, all very jolly and colourful, and cheerful until we discovered that one piece was missing, possibly eaten by a dog now long dead. When a picture its incomplete it takes the edge off the achievement somehow. I remember when I did jigsaws when I was young with my much older brother he would hide one piece so that he could see my disappointment because the picture was incomplete. He would then double my disappointment by producing the last piece as if by magic, a piece that had been hidden in his pocket all the time. Of course, he would then have the pleasure of inserting the last triumphant piece. He always was a git- and still is. Therefore we have jigsaw requirement one - they should not encourage unhappy memories.
The loft also produced a puzzle of a posh lady wearing a posh frock sitting in a posh chair in a very posh interior. This was very boring and I think the long dead dog must have also found it boring as there were no pieces missing. The colours were pale greens and lemons and beiges - yuk. There were no themes that made us want to dive into the box of pieces to find certain colours so we could make a solid and confident start. Is this my second requirement for jigsaws? They need to have colour, lots of vibrant colour, lots of vibrant colour in reasonably identifiable blocks but not obviously so as there also needs to be splashes of those vibrant colours scattered throughout the picture to continue interest and the overall challenge
Then we found a Van Gogh - a real challenge. I think I bought it years ago after an inspiring exhibition probably at the National Gallery in London or even in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh Museum. The challenge was that the bottom six or seven rows were all wheat, all yellow wheat, all patience-draining golden wheat. There were no easy ways to do this bottom strip that probably added up to one third of the entire picture. One by one the pieces had to be tried and then discarded and so on until success and then you start again. It was a test of patience. It was one by one trial and error. But oddly enough there was a lot of satisfaction in completing this jigsaw. It was something familiar, a painting I knew and loved, and I have to admit to a personal thrill when the last piece of yellow wheat was put into its allotted place. This VG was VG in every sense. Requirement three, the final completed picture needs to have given pleasure both in the doing and the completing, pleasure in bringing back happy memories of holidays and experiences long ago. I include here also pleasure in the areas that you think will never be finished and you get so fed up you could quite easily put this jigsaw into the dustbin rather than back in the loft
A MC Escher was opened and tried and we completed the frame. But it was all black and grey and white and there were similarities in pattern throughout the picture, similarities that would baffle and frustrate rather than satisfy. It was complicated but boring. It was doable but not happily doable. Each piece would have required endless time and patience and the final result, had we ever got there, would have been a tedious black, grey and white pattern. No completion satisfaction and MC Escher went back upstairs without completion. So we have another requirement for jigsaws. Number four is that they need to tell a story where slowly but surely the story emerges. Do not buy jigsaws that do not tell a story – they are meaningless.
Then we found a view in the loft’s murky depths. It was a rather lovely view of Lake Como, a gorgeous picture, a lake-scape with tricky reflections in the water and lots of trees and greenery. This puzzle was both fun to do and pretty to look at during all stages of its completion. Requirement five – the final result has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Although I dare say it would have been even more pleasing had George Clooney made an appearance in the top right hand corner next to the large but very elegant building that I am sure he would be happy to live in if he didn’t live there already.
Will this lockdown ever end? We have run out of loft supplies. The jigsaw collection has been found, and all completed successfully apart from the MC Escher. And they have all been put back in the loft to be re-rediscovered in thirty years’ time.
So I had to buy some.
I am now in charge of the jigsaw puzzle buying. The husband bought one - never again. He chose a battle scene, Napoleonic I think, all browns and greys with the occasional burst of fire as the dead, dying, injured, and maimed and healthy soldiers waiting to be dead, dying, injured or maimed tried to take control of about three square yards of ground. Is this requisite six -the story has to be reasonably happy and certainly not one that will suggest the frailties and weaknesses of man and the futility of war. Also this jigsaw was a nightmare to complete as all the soldiers littering the bottom two thirds of the picture were all wearing the same uniform and were all, more or less, facing in the same direction in their dead, dying, injured and maimed conditions. It was not a fun jigsaw to do and it most certainly did not meet requirement five. The final product of weeks of work was not an aesthetic delight.
Requirement six therefore is obvious - choose your own, do not let others interfere with jigsaw choice. And I did. Three Breughel’s – Children’s Games, the Fight between Carnival and Lent and the Census at Bethlehem - all made in wood. Requisite seven – buy wooden jigsaw puzzles. Each individual piece is so solid and lovely to feel and place in position with a very pleasing thunk.
And Breughels meet all the above requirements. I have wonderful happy memories of visiting galleries in Europe, and the US to see these wonderful masterpieces, (requirements 1 and 3), they are full of colour (requirement 2), they gave pleasure (requirement 3 again) throughout their assembly. They told a story (requirement 4) often a story of real life all those years ago and it was lovely once an area was complete checking up on Google what was happening and seeing the picture (requirement 4b they can also have an educational and intellectual function). It goes without saying that the three Breughels were pleasing (requirement 5) to look at once completed, there was just so much to see and try to understand that it was so sad to break up the finished product and put in back into box ready for a trip to the loft. That end process really did not seem fair with the Breughels. And as for requirement 4 there was always a darker side within these stories waiting to be discovered, but it was never overwhelming or detracted from the pleasure of the story within the picture. My next Breughel purchase will be Dutch Proverbs. I have looked at other paintings including The Night Watch by Rembrandt but it was too dark. Any suggestions?
As for requirement 6 where I decided that I would always buy my own jigsaws from now on, I have to admit that we were given two jigsaw puzzles for Christmas. One was a snip – only 500 pieces. It was a cartoon view of the Lake District and was really nice to do – nice in the sense that it was not challenging during the Christmas period when there were so many other things to do and good TV to watch. It was easy enough to put in a couple of pieces and then leave it for a couple of days and then start again. Christmas jigsaw puzzle 2 was a view of Paris, 1000 pieces and lots of lovely colours and bars and flowers with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Gorgeous – a careful composition. Both of these presents met most of the above jigsaw puzzle requirements and were really nice surprises even though the mean thought crossed my mind that my family is made up of unimaginative wrappers. But I will give them the benefit of the doubt; the puzzles were bought because they thought or even knew that we would like them – which we did. So instead of always buying our own jigsaws perhaps we could have a list of approved jigsaw buyers - people who could be trusted to buy well and sensibly.
So our secret it out. The husband and I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles and we have Covid 19 to thank for this. We have coped much better with the restrictions and imposed lockdown knowing that an interesting challenge was taking place on the dining table. Where on earth would the guests have sat had we been able to have dinner parties? And worse still would they have seen what we were doing and sneaked in pieces of the puzzle without asking permission. The bounders!
I have to say though that had we not been doing jigsaws the husband and I would have visited Australia, Croatia, and France. These were last year’s plans and do not include the spur of the moment getaways.
My daughter would have been married in sunny Australia and I would have been the proud mother of the bride in my new m-o-t-b outfit. We would have visited a dear old friend in Croatia who is in her late 80s. She might not be around when we can all fly again. And the husband and I would have started our long planned drive round the whole of France.
I would have seen my grandsons in the flesh. WhatsApp is all very well but it is not the same as a proper cuddle and knowing that when you stay that the youngest will come into your bed at 2 a.m. in the morning and you then end up on the edge of the bed with one hand on the floor so that you don’t fall out.
And not forgetting the real impact of Covid 19
- · children and young people would not have had their education so badly interrupted.
- · economies throughout the world would not have suffered.
- · families and individuals would not have lost their livelihoods – their homes, their jobs and been hungry.
- · more than 100.000 people in the UK would not have died lonely, painful, unnecessary deaths.
So despite the delights of jigsaw puzzles and whatever else people have reluctantly filled their time with over the past year, I think that I and everyone else in the world have much preferred a world that had been Covid 19 free.
P.S. We have just discovered that a visiting dog has polished off two pieces of the Paris scene. Requirement 8 – do not let dogs anywhere near jigsaw puzzles.
About the author
Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social
work and teaching. Her first children's novel will be published
shortly. She is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire 45 years ago
and is married with nearly three grandchildren