One of the presents I got for Christmas was a 1000 piece tube map jigsaw. Of course it was.
I started it last Saturday, and rattled through the tube map part fairly quickly. Coloured lines helped a lot, as did knowing the names of all the stations and their locations. Next I assembled the key and the roundel, then I worked out how all the bits of the River Thames snaked across the map, and then I worked out where all the floating National Rail symbols had to go. I was quite pleased with myself.
But all the remaining pieces were white, and I'd only got to this stage...
Why on earth am I doing this, I asked myself. Approximately 300 of the jigsaw's pieces were blank, that's over a quarter of the total, surely the sign either of a badly designed puzzle or a product targeted at masochists. I ploughed on. Usually the edge pieces are the best place to start, but in this case only 20 had anything printed on them and the other 106 were white. I knuckled down, patiently worked out what must connect where, and completed the jigsaw's outer border late on Sunday.
This left numerous holes of varying sizes all across the map, the largest west of Ealing, north of Edgware and east of Stratford. Any of the remaining 170 pieces might potentially fit anywhere, a truly staggering number of combinations, and finding the correct configuration would be a ridiculously arduous task. I considered abandoning the task at this point, scrunching up the pieces and dropping everything back into the box.
Instead I persisted. Here's how far I'd got by Friday. Only 147 to go.
One of the things making this difficult is that the tube map depicted is a pre-2015 version. It doesn't have the Overground out of Liverpool Street (which would have filled the gap between Cockfosters and Epping), it doesn't have the trams (which would have simplified most of the southern holes) and it doesn't have TfL Rail (which would have assisted on both flanks of the map). On the positive side, the tube map depicted on the jigsaw isn't the horribly squashed version of the diagram it was about to become, so the eventually-completed version will be aesthetically more pleasing. A pre-Overground map would have had loads more white space, making it been hugely more problematic to complete, so maybe the 2014 version hits the sweet spot between practicality and complexity. I'm also pleased to see that TfL provided an accessibility-free version of the artwork, so there are no blue blobs anywhere, and wouldn't it be nice if they provided a similar easier-to-follow version of the real thing?
Something else that's not helping is that virtually all of the remaining white pieces are approximately the same shape - two opposite lugs out, two opposite lugs in. There are plenty of subtle differences, like asymmetric bumps, varying widths and lengths, uneven indentations and miscellaneous curvature, but nothing that makes the remaining pieces easy to classify. Even when all four surrounding pieces are in place and you'd think it'd be relatively straightforward to identify the one in the middle, it really isn't because there are still well over 100 to choose from. The most impressive thing is that even in a jigsaw with 1000 pieces every one is unique, and when you do get one right it fits into place with a satisfying click. A very basic rule has turned out to be "If you're not quite sure whether it fits or not, then it doesn't". And with every piece that goes in there's one fewer to check against next time, so I'm hoping the task will get sequentially easier as I continue. It doesn't feel like I've got to that stage yet.
What started out as a task based on reconstructing the tube map has become something else entirely. When the only pieces remaining are white, and there are dozens and dozens of them, what you need to develop is a system. I started by laying out all the leftovers inside the box and the lid, then oriented them all the same way to make scanning through a bit easier. Sometimes I've got lucky and spotted one straight away, or been able to narrow down the field to "quite thin, with a bigger lug on the left than the right and sort of nudged off-centre, so it must be one of these ten", but that's by no means foolproof. The only reliable strategy has proven to be picking a gap and then trying every single piece, in sequence, until one fits. That's also horrifically inefficient, so in fact I've ended up trying each piece in about ten or so locations before putting it back in the box, and gradually, slowly, the larger holes eventually shrink. It's been a total slog, but oh the joy when one suddenly fits.
The thing about doing a jigsaw is that it's an essentially pointless task. Someone's chopped up a design into an unnecessary number of pieces, and you get to spend an unnecessary amount of time putting it all back together. There is ultimately the satisfaction of completion, but unlike assembling an IKEA bookcase you don't end up with anything useful at the end of the process. In an age before social media a jigsaw was always a useful means of filling time, say a quiet winter's evening or a rainy afternoon. Jigsaws were for people who didn't want to read a book, knit a scarf or kick a ball against a wall. They were also great for bringing together a group working towards a shared goal, ideal for 'family time' or for sitting down and doing something with grandma. We've lost that somewhat in an age of Xboxes, Westfield and Netflix, which is probably for the better, but the humble jigsaw is always there to provide a personal challenge. There'll be several in your local charity shop, hopefully with no bits missing.
I'm not one to give up on a pointless task, so I intend to plough on until my tube map jigsaw is complete. My mum would be well proud, or amazed, or both.