Last night was a very special moment for me, as I was reminded of the years of frustrated delight I endured as a young teenager.

Unlike some teenagers who were frustrated by more biological concerns, mine was a slender book with some stunning paintings and a cryptic narrative. I was a “victim” of the mania for the Masquerade book that seemed to dominate the early few years of the 1980s.

Masquerade-bookFor many people, Masquerade was the equivalent of the the Sinclair Spectrum, the Walkman, the Apple eMac and the iPhone all being rolled into one media frenzy. Indeed, so great was the fuss the book caused that the author retreated into near isolation for nigh on thirty years and only emerged from his self-imposed retreat earlier this year.

Last night, BBC4 showed the first documentary about the man to feature the artist himself – and it was a delightful programme to watch. In a way, it was like meeting a dear old friend you haven’t seen for years and hearing all the tales of what they have been doing in their absence.

Masquerade was published in 1979, and I wasn’t living in the UK then – so I guess it would have been brought for me in 1981, about a year after I moved back to the UK. From that point on, it was something that was to occupy a considerable amount of my time, playing with the clues and eking out each hidden message within the paintings.

Haresoft-Hareraiser-elkThe book was for a lot of people an earlier equivalent of the more recent Harry Potter phenomenon. While recently people have been obsessed with reading the huge tomes that resulted from JK Rowlings imagination, my generation were equally obsessed with a book so slender that it could slide under your door.

I remember being at school when it was announced that the puzzle had been solved, and being utterly devastated by the news. Looking back on it though, that one tiny book probably did more for my mental development in thinking and learning the thrill of the chase of solving a tough problem than the school I was in at the time ever did for me.

Did I want to win the golden hare? Yes, absolutely – and while you needed the prize to be worth seeking in its own right to lure people in, once you became hooked on the puzzle, the value of the prize became irrelevant. It could have been a scrap of tatty paper with a scribble on it about winning and I would have still been delighted to have dug it up.

Truly, the game became more important than the prize at the end. In a way it was reminiscent of an earlier age. The book was quite small, about 20 pages in all, and the prize was nice, but not really that valuable in terms of materials used. I suspect such a mania today would need a very valuable prize to catch peoples attention, and would be solved online in a couple of weeks via wiki pages and web forums.

Long gone is the age where each person sat in a room alone, or with just a few close friends and pondered the meaning of every syllable in the text and hidden meaning in each painting.

Sadly, the tale has an unhappy ending, as the “winner” got there by fraud. However, earlier this year, Kit Williams got to see the golden hare for the first time in nearly 30 years as it was put on display for one night in a London gallery. At the gallery was one of the two-man team who solved the puzzle legitimately, and you could just about see him about to cry when it was unveiled.

I think I would have had a tear or two had I been there as well – such is the fondness I have for that book, and the years of pleasure it gave me, and millions of other people.

The programme will be shown again on Sunday evening – or via iPlayer.

Yes, I do still own the book.

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2 Comments

  1. OH!
    I vaguely remember these books here in Oz, we all went nuts trying to get the school librarian to buy them :)

  2. I’m running a puzzle competition based on solving puzzles hidden in a deck of cards… it’s fair to say that the thing wouldn’t exist without Kit Williams.

    My puzzle – it’s called Army Of Zero – is being attempted collaboratively on-line by a group of people at tweleve.org, but they haven’t got there yet!

    Your point about the internet making it easier to solve these things via a collaboration is an interesting one, and before we launched I was worried about the same thing. But I reckoned that we had to embrace that rather than fight against it, so we blog and we twitter and we facebook (if that’s a verb) to engage with the solvers.

    From my point of view, it’s very interesting – and rewarding – to watch the group attempting to figure it out, and it’s tremendous fun when someone successfully figures something out.

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