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I Went to the World's Biggest Lego Store to Take Back Control of My Life

I built a haven from Brexit Britain in London's massive new toy shop.

by Sam Kriss
Nov 24 2016, 4:40pm

The author, sitting on the Lego tube, with his Lego friends (All photos by Harry Hitchens)

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Probably the most arresting thing about the world's biggest Lego store is just how many adult men there are inside – solemn, sometimes even suited, figures, shambling with a kind of morose dignity between the £400 Lego Star Wars Death Star and the enormous working Lego replica of Big Ben, clearly not buying anything for any children, clearly just here to look at all the Lego. It's hard to blame them.

Outside in the chill and abasement of Leicester Square, all of London's screaming commercial colours are greyed out by the wind and the sheer misery of it all; crowds of sullen shoppers barge into each other's shoulders as the world's worst breakdancers feebly do the worm on the cold pavement to 20 German exchange students; but inside the largest Lego store on the planet, everything is warm and bright and a perfectly-selected soothing yellow. It's safe in there.

There's a big Lego tube carriage where you can sit next to, for some reason, a commuting Lego Shakespeare. There's a Lego red phone box; a Lego mural of the London skyline – nothing too weird, nothing so world-shatteringly bizarre as the vast and totalitarian M&M's World across the square (the strangest object on sale is probably the Lego-man cake mould, the use of which will inevitably require taking a knife and cutting your friendly Lego-man cake right across his neck, like a gruesome medieval decapitation).

This is a place of comforting Scandinavian calm. It has the feel of a reliquary, a place where all of London's treasures are stored in the form of Lego monumentalism, so that long after the nuclear blasts have turned the real Big Ben into cinders its immortal Lego colossus will remain, to show the future what we once built.

Heartening pop music sloshes evenly over the shelves, on which just about every aspect of boring municipal life is reproduced in Lego form. What kind of hapless, defeated adult wouldn't love this place?

You can buy a Lego mobile police unit or a Lego bucket wheel excavator; you can take it home and carefully build it according to the instructions so it looks just like the one on the box. And then you can take it apart, and turn it into something completely different.

Now is a very weird time for Lego to be opening its largest store ever in the middle of London. London is grey, miserable and frightened; nobody knows what's going to happen. Internationally, the average British person's money isn't worth nearly as much as it was last Christmas; people are thinking less and less about a future that's now roaring like a black hole in our faces. In an interview, Lego's CFO is cautious and neutral about the turmoil surrounding all his brightly-coloured bricks. What does he think about Trump? "We're monitoring the situation very carefully." Or his analogues across the Atlantic? "We have to monitor the developments of Brexit carefully."

The world is going very badly; what can you do except try to sell more toys? Something sinister slithers underfoot, a crumbling authoritarianism, employing increasingly repressive measures to hold back the same chaos it's unleashed, something that's already leaving bodies in the streets.

On the same day that I visit the Lego store, the neo-Nazi murderer of Jo Cox is convicted. He gave his name in court as "Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain". This destructive ideology comes wrapped up in a simple message, one that feeds off a problem that's very real: take back control. The world is slipping through your fingers, power is monolithic and abstract, and life is not how it ought to be. Take back control – for a plastic and pliant world you can reorganise at will; for a world that works like Lego.

Roland Barthes, casting a semiotician's tired eye over the children's toys of 1950s France, noted how many of them encouraged children to play at what were, for adults, boring and mundane tasks. Kids get miniature post offices, or tiny freight trains; all these things, he wrote, "are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size".

They train you for adult life, presenting a world that simply is; you can interact with it, but the rules have already been laid down. Building blocks are the exception: here the actions of the child "are not those of a user but those of a demiurge", someone who can create their own reality without needing to give it a name or a function. Barthes saw this type of play dying out, but Lego is in many ways a synthesis of these forms, something genuinely radical: all the banalities of social life are only temporary; the Lego Buckingham Palace always contains the potential to be something else. It's already unmaking itself, its walls and windows churning like the wheels on one of Babbage's engines. It's freedom, and it works as well as you do.

Taking back control didn't work. It was always a lie, the idea that we could give ourselves sovereignty over our own lives just by voting in a referendum or supporting a politician; it'll be much harder than that. For the right-wing it meant a collapse back into childhood: the rosy half-forgotten Euro-America of simple truths and only white people; the promise was personal autonomy, but the real content was the bad childhood, where everything made sense and everyone knew their place.

As a consolation prize, the rest of us get the Lego store. It couldn't have come at a more opportune time: in the centre of London, heartland of the dismayed and disillusioned 48 percent, stuck on this island as it skids into chaos. The world has gone mad. Come to the Lego store and build something better. It's not much, but with everything poised on the edge of the present moment, it's all we have.

@sam_kriss / @harryhitchens

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