Thursday, 22 December 2011

Sniffing Glue at Christmas

In the comments to the previous post I wrote: "There's a film (can't remember which) where someone says that Christmas, for them, always smells of oranges. For me, it always smells of Airfix glue... I always imagine thousands of small boys, high as kites on solvents, bent over plastic model kits on Boxing Day."

That set me off down a very pleasant seasonal chain of associations, and I spent a couple of idle hours googling in the World Wide Curiosity Shop -- surprisingly successfully -- for items from my own personal remote past. It's shocking, really, how much easier it is to retrieve trivia like toys from oblivion than it it is to find, say, the actual friends you used to play with. Anyway, think of this as an Idiotic Hat Christmas Special, reeking of butanone.

I'm pretty sure my very first "plastic assembly kit" was a Frog brand WW2 propeller-driven American fighter aircraft, the Republic Thunderbolt, which someone must have bought me for Christmas around 1960. Going on six years old, I was clearly too young to build it unaided. It was the sort of unthinking present for a minor relative that is snatched off a peg in Woolworth's at the last minute (well, we've all been there). Nevertheless, it happened to spark a lasting enthusiasm.

My father, being a practical man with a love of engineering, was only too ready to help. He was still young enough to feel the attraction of toys, and he liked the novelty and precision of combining the tiny plastic pieces into "assemblies", in a way which mimicked real-world engineering. I adored my father, and we spent many happy hours hunched over the dining room table together, sticking Part A to Part B. I think those times, with him patiently explaining the differences between jet and prop-driven aircraft, or the significance of the wooden construction of the De Havilland Mosquito, were probably the closest moments we ever spent together. There was also the added thrill of learning that the tiny 1:72 representation in his hands was the self-same Stuka dive-bomber or Messerschmitt ME-109 that had attacked him repeatedly and in deadly earnest 20 years previously. I have no idea how he really felt about this, but he didn't seem to take it personally.*

Above all, there was the shared satisfaction of getting it right. My Dad was a bit of stickler for doing things properly, and model-making was an ideal opportunity to induct me into the ways of bloke-ish perfectionism. To blow gently on a propeller and see it spin freely, or to get the undercarriage to set at just the right springy angle, or even simply to attach a cockpit canopy of clear plastic without smearing it with tiny gluey fingerprints was, I came to see, a source of deep and lasting satisfaction. After a couple of years, I was ready to go solo.

But we kept up our Christmas ritual for many more years. One of my most-anticipated presents would always be a special model kit, which we would make together over the long holiday afternoons. I can still remember most of them: the Red Knight of Vienna, a Bald Eagle with spread wings atop a mountain peak, a Mammoth Skeleton (crikey, that one was fiddly!), the Revell HMS Beagle, the Renwal Ontos tank, a pair of duelling pistols, and, our final outing together in 1968, the Revell 1:32 "Werner Voss" Fokker DR1 Triplane. After that, girls and records were all I wanted for Christmas.

It's only in retrospect that I realise the intensity of my engagement with this hobby; not so much with the objects themselves, but with the processes and peripherals. I came to love the analytical flair and representational clarity of a good sheet of instructions, for example, and still do. No words needed.** Is there anything more insightful, more brilliant in its just-right simplicity, than a carefully-drawn "exploded" view? If nothing else, it was all a good preparation for IKEA self-assembly furniture in adult life, I suppose. But, actually, I think you learn a lot about analysing a problem from such things: how a large problem can be broken down into its constituent parts, and how these parts relate to each other, and in what order various processes must be completed. This is not trivial stuff.

There is also poetry and art in model-making. There is the rich vocabulary of engineering in miniature: fuselage, nacelle, chassis, strut, cockpit, canopy, sprue, sprocket, propeller and aileron. Wonderful, evocative, precisely-meaningful words. Done properly, you also learn, literally and metaphorically, what is "fitting" and what is not. You learn the functional poetry of form, you acquire the ability to interpret and honour the intentions behind a design, and -- in time -- you learn the pleasure of going beyond those intentions to create something new, even if it is merely to paint your Spitfire pink.

You also come to appreciate the artistry of the original model maker, too, as well as the finer points of manufacture. The better modellers would pay close attention to matters of texture, surface, volume and moulding, and the better manufacturers could manage to convey this in pieces of mass-produced injection-moulded plastic. As it happens, my own favourite thing was often the little sheet of transfers (decals) that came with most kits, to enable insignia and other markings to be added to the model. These were often masterpieces of design, and items of pop art in their own right (before cutting them up!); variations in branding (nationality, arm of service etc.) might have to be accommodated on the same sheet, resulting in complex, interlaced layouts with exciting bold patterns of echoes and symmetries.

But for sheer, open-mouthed, pre-teen, gawping pleasure, there is little to beat the magnificence of model "box art", depicting the aircraft or vehicle in question imagined in context -- guns blazing, soaring through clouds, or crashing through mountainous waves, with every strut and rivet correctly placed. As with movie posters, an evocative painting can seem so much more enticing than a bland photograph of the box contents. All model-making requires a significant investment of imagination to make the thing come alive, and box art is the nudge that most of us need. I understand that artists like Roy Cross, Jo Kotula, Jack Leynwood, Brian Knight, and many others are much admired and collected. Google their names and you'll see why.

Then, of course, there's the glue... Or rather, "polystyrene cement", for as any fule kno plastic kits are welded together by melting the plastic in a solvent, rather than "stuck". Hence that never-forgotten sensation of sliding a lug into an aperture that had seemed too snug before applying the lubricating solvent [That's enough of that! Santa's elves are getting the giggles. Ed.]. Hence also those disfiguring fingerprints gluey young fingers can leave etched into a smooth wing or ship's sail. I have no idea idea how far the absorbed happiness of those long-ago Christmas holiday afternoons was due to being "glue happy". Not too far, I think, as in more recent years I rediscovered that very same sensation of shared, absorbed concentration, when helping my son with his own favourite Christmas treat -- an enormous Lego set, preferably Star Wars related, with a fiendishly baroque complexity of construction. Lego, of course, is famously glue-free.

In the end, happy is happy. I hope that you find some spells of true happiness, however achieved, over the Christmas holiday and throughout the New Year.

* Buying Japanese goods was a different matter. Most Burma veterans felt similarly. Dad would have loved to have driven an Audi, if he could have afforded it, but you couldn't have given him a Honda, free.

** Just as well: in my "girls and records" years, I had a good friend who was still building models, and he would buy some of the classy Japanese imports that were coming onto the market in the late 1960s. We would have hysterics trying to understand the Japlish instructions concerning "supu-rocket wheels" (sprocket wheels) and the like. Great kits, though (but I didn't tell Dad about them).


Jack Nelson said...

My dad had engineering tendencies too and was very particular about everything. There was a process for everything. He had been in the US Army Air Corp and so our models were balsa and fabric planes with engines. You think polystyrene was fun to sniff; the "dope" that shrunk the fabric to the frame was even worse/better. We had many hours together building and then flying the model planes (control line back then; radio control existed but was way too expensive). Thanks for taking me down your memory lane and opening up my old memories. Merry Christmas.

Mike C. said...


I never graduated to the Hard Stuff i.e. balsa, plans and engines, though the friend I mentioned in the footnote did, in a big way. Too oily and noisy for me! Not to mention an acute shortage of girls at the aero-modelling club...

Have a good Christmas,


Frank Harkin said...


What a wonderful piece of writing. As one who also build Airfix models as a by I could appreciate every word of this piece.

Happy Christmas


Mike C. said...

Thanks, Frank, you have a good Christmas, too!


Gustaf Erikson said...

Man, it's been a while since I built Airfix models! They were big toys in the 70s when I was growing up in Malaysia. But I've lost the knack now (I never enjoyed painting them) and my own son has his own obsessions - spelled Nintendo...

Mike C. said...


Funnily enough, I never used to paint mine, either, I preferred the bare plastic finish. Nintendo is big here, too -- I can hear the hooting upstairs right now as my two navigate Zelda's latest adventure.

But I have a bottle of wine to finish, though perhaps I'd better cut the remaining meat off our goose first...

Best wishes,


Martyn Cornell said...

Revell 1:32 "Werner Voss" Fokker DR1 Triplane

Ah yes, the one with the eyes painted on the engine cowl, if I remember correctly after 50 years. (Just Googled - I do, apparently.)

Strangely, although my father was in the Burmese jungle, and mortar-bombed by the Japanese, he had no problem at all buying a Datsun in the 1970s, something his oldest brother - captured at Arnhem, put into a concentration camp after he escaped briefly - could not understand.

Mike C. said...

Boxing Day greetings, Martyn,

Yes, that very one -- strange how these things stick in the memory. There is a poetry to WW1 aircraft, though ... I think of them as being like pre-Windows software, when every designer had the chance to design everything from the ground up, often in a weird and wacky way. Then the efficiency guys got in the act, and suddenly everything looked the same. Same with cars -- there'll never be another Vauxhall Cresta or Ford Anglia ... (so, not all bad, then).

Interesting about your Dad -- I'm wondering now whether mine was pretty much over it by the late 70s, too. You couldn't have bought much by then if you didn't buy Japanese, after all... He did insist to the end on buying Godawful British cars like the Morris Marina, though.

Hope you're finding enough decent beers out there to stay reasonably content,