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The simple, glorious pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle

By Andrew Martin

As the second richest man in the world, Bill Gates could have access to almost any conceivable entertainment. Yet whenever he and his wife Melinda go abroad, they don’t enlist boat-sized TV screens or private performances by Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones to keep them occupied; instead, they take jigsaws. Reports have it that they favour this most humble of pastimes, although not the humblest version of it, since theirs are apparently hand-carved affairs costing £12,000 apiece.

Some might dismiss jigsaws as dull, but I can wholly understand why the Gates’ opt for the simple pleasure of assembling a picture piece by piece. Unlike a computer screen, a jigsaw yields a physical result for expenditure of time: once underway, the process is hypnotic, and so one disappears into the world of The Yorkshire Historical Map or Vikings Landing at St Ives (both feature on my puzzle CV).

Bill and Melinda Gates never go on holiday without a jigsaw puzzle Credit: Reuters

I am a fairly recent convert to jigsaws - when I was a boy, and I got a present with that telltale rattle, my cry of “Great! A jigsaw!” was palpably hollow. But in Christmas of 2008, when I was 46, my stepmother (a lifelong puzzler) boldly gave me a 1,000-piecer: Waterloo Station in Peacetime and War, and I found it therapeutic, a balm after the giant migraine of writing a novel on a too-small screen. And it filled up all the Christmas longueurs.

Since then, I’ve done a jigsaw every Christmas - I find in them a refuge from family rows and dreary social engagements, although admittedly, "I’d love to come but I’m doing a puzzle" is not the strongest excuse.

As I set about putting them together, I notice two reactions from my nearest and dearest. First, of course, disgust at my involvement in such a fuddy-duddy pursuit, which is often met with remarks such as, “I don’t know why that’s taking you so long; it looks pretty straightforward to me.”

What’s going on here is jealousy, especially where my sons, aged 20 and 22, are concerned - they secretly wish they were uncool enough to do jigsaws. One of the boys will then pounce, and slap down two pieces in the right places. The implication is that if they were doing the jigsaw it would be finished by now, but I know perfectly well that – bored to death by watching re-runs of Top Gear – they have been studying the puzzle from the margins for some time, and their intervention was not as spontaneous as it seemed. They might then continue with it, in which case they will soon be doing the same as me: trying to cram pieces in by brute force while muttering, “But this has to go there.”

As we close in on completion, tension mounts. Will there be missing pieces? When one of my sons was around 10, and so not yet ‘cool’, he spent much of one Christmas assembling a jigsaw map of Africa. It was a second-hand puzzle, and I had figured out early on that it was incomplete. To put it bluntly, there was no Libya. I let him complete it as far as possible, and I admired his phlegmatic reaction to the unfinished result: “Oh well, it’s quite a beautiful puzzle anyway.”

Puzzles can be a sort of DIY art; you’re doing a painting by proxy, after all. This Christmas, I’ll be taking on Le Pont - I’d walk past it in five seconds at an art gallery, but recreating it in jigsaw form means I’ll be wrestling with Monet’s masterpiece into the New Year.

The most beautiful one I own remains the Cornish Riviera Express, one of 80 produced by the Great Western Railway in the 1930s. The train is going past the Sea Wall at Dawlish; the depiction is so vibrant that you can almost hear the beating of the engine and the screaming of the gulls.

Jigsaws are all about this attention to tiny, glorious detail - though Christmas inevitably means that numerous boxes will be left, barely parted from their wrapping paper, to gather dust atop Britain’s bookshelves.

The staff at Oxfam are tasked with counting every piece of the jigsaws they receive. “It’s the last job anyone wants to do,” one of them told me. If they’ve sold out, which can happen as Christmas approaches, I’ll be offered “one from the basement.” The ones from the basement have not yet been checked. So it’s a risk, the genteel equivalent of buying heroin that might have been cut with baking powder.

But the sorts of people who do jigsaws and them give them to charity shops are not likely to lose the pieces. And if they do, there is always jigsawdoctor.com, which offers the creation of a replacement piece made from epoxy putty.

That sounds an admirable service, but it perhaps obviates one of the character building aspects of jigsaws. They teach patience, persistence, and sometimes a graceful resignation. As I very nearly said to my son, all those Christmases ago, "You will very often find as you go through life, young man, that there is a piece missing."

The Yellow Diamond by Andrew Martin is published by Faber on December 27

Posted By: Elynor Moss
Sunday, September 16th 2018 at 10:40AM
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