The AFOL Truth

I was never the Lego kid in my family; that was my brother. Over the years, my handful of Lego sets were subsumed into his, leaving me with only one. When it came to toys, my focus was on Matchbox cars and action figures, but I knew the sight and sound of Lego all too well. G. kept it in a divided wooden caddy our Dad had made him, and throughout the summer holidays it would be spread out in the lounge-room somewhere, waiting for someone in bare feet to tread on it.

So there’s some irony in being father to a Lego kid of the 2010s. I’m reliving part of my childhood vicariously through him, but it’s a part that was vicarious in the first place.

W. looked at first as if he would be reliving my Matchbox obsession instead. From ages 2 to 4 he loved toy cars, which are so cheap nowadays that he amassed far more than I ever had. Mine filled a shoebox; his could cover a good part of the living room, which they often did, because for a long time his favourite activity was parking them around the edges of the rug.

When he was three we got him some Duplo, which he enjoyed, but the cars still ruled his affections. But that Christmas he had his first taste of Little Lego (as opposed to Big), sent to him by relatives. After he turned four it gradually displaced all other toys, gathering pace with the arrival of his baby sister and dominating his presents at Christmas and on his fifth birthday—not to mention several minor toy-purchasing opportunities along the way. Now it covers half of our living room, walled off from his curious baby sister by the couch, and W. has experienced the joys of putting his full bare-footed weight onto a 1x1 brick.

We probably didn’t help matters by signing him up for Lego Club Jr., the free quarterly magazine designed to inculcate preschoolers into the cult of Lego. But at least its Cool Creations feature has inspired him to do more than build the models according to the instructions; now he makes all sorts of weird and wonderful things. People who haven’t seen Lego in a long time are often down on all the new specialist pieces, which seem at first to take a lot of the creativity out of it, but they offer much more scope for strangeness than the old 4x2 blocks (which you rarely see in the new sets). Lego has ended up filling the space that used to be occupied by Airfix models, as well as the space that used to be occupied by itself. Thanks to minifigures, it also fills the space that used to be filled by toy plastic soldiers and the smaller action figures. It’s become all toys to all boys.

Another factor that has ramped up his fixation is the DVD we gave him for his birthday of James May’s Toy Stories, where the Top Gear presenter waxes nostalgic about the toys of his (and my) youth. For the past month W. has watched little else, especially the final episode where May builds an entire house out of Lego. He’s even built his own mini version in homage.

After a year of Lego Domination we started thinking about taking him to Legoland Windsor this summer, but it wasn’t going to be cheap, especially not if we stayed in their new Lego hotel for a partial taste of James-May-esque living. And is Windsor such a great deal when we could almost as easily head to Billund instead? We’ve seen Windsor, but have never been to Denmark. Maybe there’s a theme park we can double up with in Copenhagen for fans of The Bridge and The Killing.

Then J. spotted the Lego Show website, and the much cheaper plan of catching a train down to Manchester and hanging out for three days at the Trafford Centre was born. She stayed at home with our pre-Lego daughter while W. and I went on the five-year-old’s ultimate fantasy weekend.

The Lego Show
Click through for more photos.

Probably the best way to explain it is that the Lego Show is run off the back of AFOLCON, the convention for Adult Fans Of Lego. Most of the displays were made by the fans who attended the con, with dozens of trestle tables covered in huge street scenes, train sets, robots, vehicles, and thousands of minifigures. Around the edge of the cavernous Event City venue were stalls selling used and obscure Lego—discontinued sets, individual minifigures and so on—and there was of course an official Lego Shop for converting twenty-pound notes into moulded blocks of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. There were tables set up with piles of random Lego for kids to build stuff, and at the back of the venue was a world-record attempt to create the biggest-ever Lego mosaic. Families could collect a base-plate and a template for a small part of the picture, and fill it in with 2x2 flatties (as W. calls them) from buckets of different colours. There was a Master Builder workshop where you could create a mosaic of 1x1 bricks of your own. There was a video wall showing Lego computer animations and interviews with company designers about upcoming sets. There were previews of new models and displays of very old ones, at least one of which I remembered from my brother’s collection.

In short, it was pretty much all you could have hoped for in a Lego Show. The best part was watching the expression of serious focus on W.’s face throughout it all.

We took some birthday money out of his bank account to spend there, and he managed to avoid the temptation to blow it all on the first afternoon. Giant R2D2s and VW Campervans were out of reach, but he bought his first Lego Dino set and a few smaller things, like skeletons with lightsabres and monkeys with bananas.

We also took advantage of a promotional offer to visit the nearby Legoland Discovery Centre in the Trafford Centre itself, a kind of mini-Legoland. This certainly offered an authentic theme-park experience: we had to queue for an hour just to get in, had to queue again for every ride (which lasted a few minutes each at most), and the biggest thrill for the littlies was a soft-play area like the ones in any UK town. There were some nice large-scale Lego buildings to see (but nothing surprising after the Lego Show itself), and a pool of Lego for the kids to wade in with a sign that read “Please do not jump or dive into the brick pool”. The newest ride was a Forest Police car chase, where the kids got to drive electric jeeps around a track for two and a half minutes; the sign on the police station read POLCE. At every opportunity “official” photos were taken of the kids as they queued for rides, which were later offered for sale to parents at eight quid a pop. A teensy bit extortionate, given the combined entry price for one child and one accompanying adult was £32.40. I was far happier with the promotional entry price of five quid a head.

One if the cheesiest aspects was an introductory “factory tour” which bore little relation to reality, but was actually more of a holding pen for the first ride. Since we got home we’ve discovered a National Geographic documentary which offers a far better insight into the world of Lego and the real factories in Billund and Kladno. Watch that instead.

All in all, though, it was a great weekend, even for an ANFOL (okay, maybe Non-Fan is a bit harsh; a Partial Fan). As with so many aspects of being a parent to small children, it was a chance to relive your own childhood; or in this case, your brother’s. He would have loved to visit a Lego Show when he was five, or seven, or nine, but nothing like it ever came to 1970s Tasmania. I hope W. still remembers the experience when he’s my age.

I did keep one Lego set for myself back in the day. Once I’d assembled it, I couldn’t bring myself to break it up again, and for years it had pride of place on the top shelf in my bedroom. It was a Harley-Davidson Police Motorbike, a precursor to Lego Technic, and at the time seemed like the height of Lego realism. A few months ago I tracked down a PDF of the instructions to show W. (because the bike itself is in a toy box in the loft of Mum and Dad’s house on the other side of the world), and realised just how far Lego had come. My complicated Lego motorbike looks pretty basic and clunky now; at a Lego Show it would barely draw a second glance. But at least the stickers don’t say POLCE.

14 May 2012 · Journal

Added by Kim on 23 May 2012.