The gist of it was, you get randomly paired with an artefact from the V & A Museum of Childhood and then you have to write a personal response to it.
The tricky part? You’re only allowed 62 words – what they’re calling a ‘sestude’. “Write whatever you like,’ they said. “Fact or fiction. Poetry or prose. It doesn’t have to be about the object, just inspired by it.”
Everyone’s got their own unique objects that sum up their childhood. In all honesty, if I was asked to sum up my childhood in a few words, three of them would be ‘Caravan’ and ‘Sylvanian Families.’ More on that here.
So it was all a bit bonkers when they told me my object was a Sylvanian Caravan. My first thought was, is this a wind-up? My second was, awesome, this is going to be fun.
I bloody loved those furry little buggers. I still think they’re pretty impressive, to be honest. From their perfectly proportioned accessories, to their names – from Rocky Babblebrook, Hickory Hawthorn to Mortimer Bramble… names so evocative, they’re like the linguistic equivalent of teleportation.
Also, I don’t know if anyone realises this but the thing about Sylvanians is that they’re actually REAL. They have broadband and everything. Go to the website and see for yourself. The person to email at the ‘contact us’ tab is called Rose Timbertop. Seriously – I have proof. She just emailed me.
Nat once told me the best Sylvanian anecdote I’ve ever heard. Her boyfriend (Loftus) once had go with his sister’s Sylvanians while she was out. When she came back, she discovered he’d installed an intricate plumbing system all over the entire Sylvanian house, from the sinks to the bathrooms, upstairs and down. His equipment? Household straws.
Unsurprisingly the system wasn’t watertight. Water went everywhere, and as every child knows, you must never get a Sylvanian wet. They get chronic alopecia and cease to become cute. Loftus, on the other hand, grew up to be a successful product designer, first hired by James Dyson.
Another reason I loved the Sylvanians was the way they all shrink in incrementally equal sizes, like matroskha dolls. Maybe that’s one reason they’re so popular – the way they represent everything that’s good about this world, only a miniature, safe version of it. Other people who are interested in scale (Will Self and Slinkachu among them) speak of the feeling as being God-like, having control over a tiny world that you can rearrange any which way.
That’s the thing. When you’re a kid, no matter how bleak or discordant the world outside can get, everything looks tidy and harmonious in Sylvania. Even when you can hear your parents arguing through the floorboards, or if it’s pissing with rain outside, everything’s just peachy in Sylvania.
The Sylvanian Families shop in Hackney is situated directly next to a weapons shop. Which I think about sums it up. You’d never see guns in Sylvania.
So I had wanted to write about how there’s no guncrime in Sylvania. I had a line ‘no one gets shanked’ but it seemed a bit too harsh. Plus, there was that bloody word limit. 62 words is a very small canvas when you’re used to writing 90,000 word novels or TV ads.
In the end, my 62 words ended up being an exploration of the promise of childhood, as seen through the prism of adulthood.
The title was an ironic reference to my favourite writer Tom Stoppard, who references the phrase ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ in his play – meaning, even in Arcadia there is death. Suffice to say, they’re not the chirpiest 62 words I’ve ever written!
And yet strangely it’s had the warmest response to anything I’ve ever written. Apparently it’s made grown men cry?!
There’s definitely a lesson there about saying less. It’s like writing a really pithy headline or endline. The real skill is in what you chop out. (she says, fourteen pages in). But it’s true – Shakespeare was onto something when he said ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.
And it’s also true what John Simmons (one of the people behind 26) says. Sometimes constraints actually fuel creativity, rather than stifle it. Nat and I try and tell ourselves that when we get told there’s a tiny budget.
Anyway. I’ve rambled on long enough… If you’re so inclined you can see the actual bit of writing here in this Design Week article, along with a lovely piece about Skaletrix by Ian Douglas.
From tonight, all 26 pieces will be on display at the Museum of Childhood/V & A.
Read all about the childhood exhibition here
Or read the nice write-up in the Guardian.
And if you’re anywhere near East London then you can pop along to see it from the 13th October to the 14 April 2013.
It’s just past Bethnal Green tube, down memory lane.