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Thursday 1 December 2022

Airfix Modelling

New Month Old Post (first posted 14th August, 2014).

In 2009, I came across a magazine called ‘Down Your Way’ which published pieces submitted by readers. I was dismisses of most of the content, which was unjust because the best way to improve one’s writing is to write lots, and getting something into print gives the ultimate encouragement. Teenage Son had the right attitude:
“Well, if you’re so good, let’s see you get something in there.”

The result was ‘Airfix Modelling’, published the following year. It may not be entirely accurate, especially with regard to the present day, and there are other things I would change too, but I have resisted the urge to tinker. It seems to be trying too hard to entertain. I also dislike the captions used in the magazine (“model boyhood”, “glued to a hobby”) which were added by the editor.

It was, in effect, the start of this blog, although it did not appear in this form for some years. 

January 1, 1965.  Friday. Made F4 UID Corsair from Airfix, and also a station booking hall.
January 2, 1965. Saturday. Made Airfix station platform.

Most of us remember Airfix, the make-it-yourself model aeroplane kits. There were also ships, vehicles and even, it seems from my diary, railway buildings. The Airfix company flew off the ground, so to speak, in 1955, in a World War Two Supermarine Spitfire. It sold well and became the first of an enormous product range. For a couple of decades, Airfix was a very profitable business. Its faithfully reproduced, 1/72 scale models, came as injection-moulded plastic ‘trees’ of parts that slid and rattled enticingly inside their sturdy cardboard boxes. You broke off the parts one by one and glued them together with clear, stringy, cellulose adhesive, which the instructions called ‘cement’. You squeezed it out of a metal tube, releasing an exhilarating chemical vapour. 

Some parts, such as wings and the fuselage, were fairly large. Others, like the engines, fuel tanks and ailerons (to be an Airfix modeller you really had to get to grips with aero-terminology), were smaller, but still easy to handle. The tiniest parts, such as the pilot’s joystick, the propeller shaft and the machine gun barrels, which in the finished model were all supposed to move forwards, backwards, up, down and round in a realistic manner, usually ended up glued firmly to your fingers in a horrid sticky mess. You knew you were going to be spending the next couple of hours peeling rubbery ‘cement’ from your fingertips, nails, nose, hair, ears and any other exposed and unexposed bits of the body it had managed to stick to. 

You could always spot inexperienced Airfix modellers by what appeared to be globs of mucous matted into the sleeves of their jumpers. The best way to glue very small parts was to apply minute amounts of ‘cement’ with a pin or matchstick, but you needed to have progressed beyond the novice stage to know that.

Kits were graded according to difficulty, but that was not as helpful as it seemed. The easiest kits, with the largest parts, were also the smallest models. What boy, no matter how young and inexperienced, would truly want to build the smallest and easiest models, when the largest and most difficult had the most impressive pictures on their boxes?

For me, the ultimate was the Short Sunderland III Coastal Command’s Fighting Flying Boat, which came in a massive box with an all-action painting of four powerful engines, roaring away on a high-mounted aerofoil above a magnificent white hull, banking to the right on the lid. Once I had one, my younger brother had to have one too. It took my Dad ages to make it for him, about three months of sticky fingered Sunday afternoons, and the ruined sleeves of several jumpers.

You could literally spend weeks making Airfix aeroplanes, and that was only the first stage. Next came painting. The paints were in tiny containers. One brand was Humbrol, a Hull company that had originally made paint for bicycles. Their paint came in delightful tiny tinlets, with little metal lids you prised off with a coin, just like real full-sized paint tins. Airfix’s own brand was in little glass bottles, like nail varnish bottles with a brush fixed to the underside of the screw top. I liked gold and silver best. They looked dense and sparkly against the glass of their bottles, and glittered as they flowed from the point of your brush. 

Sadly, there was not much call for gold and silver. The largest aircraft surfaces, such as the wings and fuselage, tended to be green or blue. I found it impossible to apply the colour evenly over these large areas. I was so disappointed when, after painting a Dornier Do217E, one of the first models I made, a splendid World War Two German bomber with realistic rotating gun turrets and elevating barrels, it dried as patchily green as a forest canopy from the air. 

My disappointment was replaced by disbelief when my mother, with real enthusiasm, exclaimed, “Oh Tasker, it looks just like a real one!” Whether it really looked like a real one in camouflage, or whether she was just trying to cheer me up, I still do not know. 

You then had to apply the ‘decals’. You and I would call them ‘transfers’, but the instructions always called them ‘decals’. Looking this up now, I find it is short for decalcomania, derived from the French ‘decalquer’, a ceramic decorative craze from the 1870s, but let us stay with ‘transfers’. They came on a card from which, when moistened, you could slide the transfers on to the model. 

You positioned the German crosses, the RAF ‘roundels’ (red, white and blue rings to you and me) and other markings, exactly as they would be on the original, a finishing touch that made for a highly realistic model, although not realistic enough for some. Perfectionists took things a stage further using a repertoire of illusions, such as filing the bottoms of the wheels flat to give the impression of bulging pneumatic tyres.

There was just one overriding, inescapable problem with Airfix models. They did not actually fly. They were not that kind of model. You could only pretend to fly them. Holding them in your outstretched hand you could, climb, dive, yaw, pitch, roll, bank and loop around the living room, making terrifying explosive sounds and screaming engine noises as you machine-gunned the family cat. Mind you, Sooty the cat had his own ideas about that and was pretty adept at leaping acrobatically up from the floor and smashing the model out of your hand with his teeth and claws, gouging out a couple of strips of flesh in the process. What would Churchill have given for air defences like that in the war? Enemy bombers ferociously snatched out of the air and disembowelled by batteries of enormous furry felines. The Battle of Britain would never have happened, and Churchill’s ‘never in the field of human conflict’ speech would have had to be completely different.

Alternatively, you could admire your models standing on the bookcase in your bedroom, until they got squashed beyond recognition by a busy mother with a pile of sheets and blankets. Or, you could hang them from the ceiling with invisible threads of black cotton, except that the Short Sunderland III Flying Boat was so heavy it would have necessitated a length of steel cable, a Bob the Builder safety helmet, and a rolled steel joist up in the roof. You could end up with a couple of dozen models suspended in perpetual dogfights all around your bedroom, until one day, when light had rotted the cotton, and you had imperceptibly grown a few more tenths of an inch taller, you inadvertently nudged one with your head, sending it crashing to the floor in a plume of accumulated dust that hung thick in the air like smoke, as you accidentally tripped on your model and trod it into the carpet.

To be truthful, there was not a great deal you could do with the finished models. The interest was in the making of them. It taught you patience and perseverance, and gave you confidence in the use of terms like fuselage, ailerons and landing gear, admirable qualities and skills even today. 

It seems hardly anyone makes Airfix models these days. The activity fell into decline from the late ‘70s and the company went bankrupt. Ownership of the rights went through several financial crises and takeovers, with at one point Airfix being owned by Humbrol, the paint company. You can still buy the kits, but at prices that in 1965 would probably just about have bought you the real thing. Those who do still make them are as likely to be adults as children. A fifteen-year-old boy who made model aeroplanes today would need to keep pretty quiet about it to avoid being beaten up at school. 

Maybe the increase in the cost of plastics contributed to the decline, or maybe it was more down to social change and the emergence of computer games. One thing that did not occur to many of us in 1965 was that for some fifteen-year old-boys, breathing cellulose vapour would become an entire pastime in itself, rather than just a small part of the pleasure of model making.

I remember the American Corsair fighter mentioned in the diary as the last model I made. The first had been a Fairey Swordfish, an early World War Two torpedo biplane with fiddly wing struts. But other parts of my diary show that by fifteen my interests were poised to move on, from making models at home to more outgoing things in the real world, although I know now I still had some way to go. 

“You still have,” said Teenage Son, unimpressed.

[Originally published as ‘An Essential Piece of Kit in a Model Boyhood’ by Tasker Dunham in Down Your Way: Yorkshire’s Nostalgic Magazine, Issue 145, January 2010, pages 46-48. ISSN 1365  8506. Country Publications Ltd., Skipton, North Yorkshire.]