Thursday, 24 September 2009

Mystery's Rainbows and Unicorns

ALONSO: Give us kind keepers, heavens! What were these?

SEBASTIAN: A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

ANTONIO: I'll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I'll be sworn 'tis true: travellers ne'er did
Though fools at home condemn 'em.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act III, Scene III)

I WAS NOT AN ONLY CHILD, but I was an only son. I was never interested in my sisters' toys, the few that they had, except for a two-storey dollhouse our grandfather had created from a crate by installing a floor half-way up. My grandfather was not particularly creative, though he was a compulsive collector of bits of wood (and boxes) that washed up alongside my grandparents' cottage in Bermuda. The dollhouse was not painted (protruding nails had been removed, and rough edges sanded smooth) or decorated in any way. It just sat on a stool waiting for dolls to move in. In truth, it remained a crate, but for a few months it was the subject of dreams. Mine. They remained in my head. Eventually the dollhouse, the crate, was filled with other detritus and placed in the basement.

I'd seen wallpapered rooms, chandeliers, finely upholstered furnishings, carpets from distant places (some flown in under their own steam from Arabia), curtains, pictures on the walls, a staircase linking the upper and lower floors, doors and windows and fireplaces.

My first toys can be identified because at my first birthday party they were laid out on my grandparents' lawn, along with a cake and some family friends and relatives, and photographed by my father. I had a large metal horse (painted with lead-based enamel, I fear), a couple of teddy bears, large blocks, a merry-go-round. The horse ended up with Lancaster cousins, the merry-go-round went to younger Eldridge boys; both the horse and the spinning machine made me feel ill.

I was quite young when I was given my first Meccano building set. Meccano toys have been around since 1901, so my father may well have played with them when he was a boy in the 1920s. Metal beams and bars and planks, nuts and bolts. There were axles, cogs and wheels and bits of string. One might build a sky-scraper (I didn't have nearly enough bits of metal to do that, but I had my imagination) or a motor.

Another toy, and this might be the equivalent of a video game in which the boy is to annihilate the enemy invaders by blasting them into cyber-space, or lop off their heads with an electronic axe, was a John Bull Printing Set. I could play at being a compositor, slotting rubber pieces of type into wooden blocks, then printing my great words with an ink-pad and bits of paper. Great words: I only had enough letters and blocks for headlines and "by Ross Eldridge". The stories existed, I'd dream them up. It may have been only about 1955, but I moved comfortably across the Universe. I was into UFOs. We all were; they started appearing about the time I was born.

In the late 1950s I discovered another building system: Plastic blocks very similar to the LEGO System, but made in the UK, designed for building accessories for toy train sets. I'd always wanted a toy train. Happens I never did get that train, but I became a compulsive purchaser of small boxes of wall blocks, or windows, or beams, or roof slates. These plastic blocks were marketed under the name Better Builder. I believe their British patent was eventually sold to the LEGO folks in Denmark. Better Builder did vanish, but not before I'd amassed a considerable quantity of blocks. I'd built tiny cottages at first, a few inches this way and that. Then I built railway stations and platforms for the trains I didn't have. I moved on to shops and mansions. After that, churches and modest cathedrals and castles. And every building had a story.

My Better Builder blocks, jumbled together in a large box, were passed along to my half-brothers when I was at college. I actually rescued most of the blocks when my brothers were too old (they thought) for them, and the box sat in my cupboard until about 1990 when I handed the business over to my nephew, who would have been about five. My sister had other ideas (or, rather, no ideas at all) and the Better Builder blocks, by then an antique of sorts, went in the trash. I still, in 2009, dream that I'm building grand country homes with my blocks.

It may be that my interest in words, as building blocks to language, communication, stories and ideas, began in dreams as I fastened my bits of Meccano or plastic to other bits to create something bigger that was almost out of my imagination's reach. Almost. I've struggled all my life to reach a place where I might be comfortable.

I live in a small town (almost a village) by the North Sea in a part of England that is just full of history. I have been including in my regular reading histories and biographies that chronicle the events, places and people of Northumbria. There are ghosts, if you believe in them, as I do, on every street and by the River and looking out from our castles. Ghosts that once had dreams.

There are also the buildings I have tried to build these sixty years. The fortresses of my dreams that began in books and stories told me by my older family members; the abbeys I had visited with my Nan Eldridge as a boy, and, since then, alone; the stations and museums and monuments I've walked about and revisited in the guidebooks.

I don't really enjoy home decorating programmes on the telly, my mental trips around my sisters' dollhouse were less about furniture and fittings than I thought, for those were always physically unrealised. Rather, my interest is now in the characters that tread the boards in those sets, which play out the games of life and death.

For every church I built with my Better Builder blocks, I invented congregations; for cathedrals there were pilgrims. Stations and halts had the trains full of passengers that I created in my mind. Nothing was empty. My Meccano winches raised buckets to workmen that I really could see for a time, to build higher and higher. Words, fitted together so as to be most pleasing, became stories and love-letters. I was never short of unicorns and rainbows.

1 comment:

suz said...

i LOVE the link between building your train stations and cathedrals with blocks, and using words to build tales. huge click in my head with hermes, whose name means 'heap of stones' and who is also Logios.
and He must love you a lot. few are so blessed with facility and magic in the logios department.
i'm crushed that your sister threw away the blocks.
a few years ago in an antique store i found a knight like the ones richard and i played with (in rare moments of accord) when we were little. they were plastic, but a soft plastic with incredible details, trappings, fittings, and a spike in the horses' saddles that fitted up a hole in the knights' bums to keep them mounted. i ADORED them and was thrilled to find one. it was hard to give it away. stuff like that, beloved childhood toys, are golden.