Saturday 14 June 2014

Lucky Philosopher - The Airfix Years


The latest installment from:


After Primary School came high school, or The Comprehensive School as we called it, and a new set of friends with a new set of interests.

At primary school my focal interest in friendship was football - and for much of the time I took it for granted that my first job would be working for a few years as a professional footballer, before becoming a doctor-scientist and doing Nobel prizewinning research. 

In retrospect, it seems clear that while I was good enough to get into the school eleven a side team - which placed me in about the top two thirds of the class - I was not picked for the six a side team - which meant I was not in the top one third. The basis for a professional career was... lacking. But the time, I simply felt this as an injustice and a failure to appreciate my specific skills.

Anyway, at The Comprehensive School, it soon became clear that change was desirable. Football (i.e. Association Football or Soccer) was not taken seriously by the teachers (who handed over the selection for the school team to one of the pupils, who came from a different Primary School and picked all his friends); and Rugby was what we supposed to be keen on.

Still, many of the boys played football all through breaks and lunch times, using a stone instead of a ball. Consequently I wore holes in the toes of my brand new school shoes in a very short time - and was told by my mother to stop.

But I was keen to stop anyway, since football caused fights, and I had already been in three fights in the space of the first month. I 'won' two (by popular acclaim) but would certainly have lost the third if it had not been stopped by the end of lunch break. With a kid from the Children’s Home I had met my match - and I can still recall the shock and awe I felt when he landed a punch on my jaw: it was so heavy.

I got out with a swollen eye and a thick lip and decided that enough was enough, and to make some new friends.


And so began The Airfix Years.

The first two and a half years at The Comprehensive were focused on the hobby of making plastic models, mostly of aircraft - and of talking, reading and playing about aircraft. It was a long and avid 'craze' - one of the earliest of many crazes, which spilled-over into my adult academic life.

I was never good at making the kits. At first I did not bother with instructions, but put together the interesting looking items in what seemed like a reasonable order.

Later I graduated to following the instructions - but was always reluctant to make a choice between optional weapons. If cannon, rockets and bombs were provided as options (to represent different uses of a WWII aircraft at different phases of the war) then I would naturally want them all - and since sufficient mountings were not provided, I simply cemented them here and there, wherever there was space.

I was never keen on painting the models, since that delayed construction. Each colour of paint would sometimes require separate application, and many pieces needed to be done before assembly. Much better to make the things, then paint the completed model as best could be managed.

The transfers, or decals, were again usually provided in several versions - but as the model was unpainted or inadequately painted, I felt it looked best if all the transfers - maybe three sets of them - were applied in order to cover as much of the surface as possible. 

I suppose the result must have been a mess, to an objective eye - but my eye was not objective; and the completed model served the purpose of stimulating the imagination both during construction and afterwards in a kind of Neee-Yow play with chugga-chugga sounds for machine guns, chung-chung for cannon, and a sort of Whump inside the mouth and bursting out from closed lips to indicate bomb explosions.


My reading was initially focused on the innumerable Biggles books, which described the adventures of an unageing pilot who fought in fighter planes in both the 1914-18 (Sopwith Camel) and 1939-45 (Spitfire) wars - and between the wars flew around the world having adventures.

Later I moved onto non-fiction and memoirs of pilots (Douglas Bader,  Ginger Lacey, 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham in his night fighter), and accounts of particular campaigns such as the Dambusters and my absolute favourite: 633 Squadron by Paul Brickhill, about the Mosquito bombing raid on a Heavy Water factory - which I once listed as the best book ever written.


It is hard to recall how all this was integrated into our socializing and play - but the key to the era was messing-about and having-a-laugh.

At this stage I had nothing whatsoever to do with girls - although there was always one or two of them I 'fancied' secretly, thought about with yearning, and kept an eye on.

In many respects the early years at high school were a return to childhood after a kind of early and transient pseudo-maturity in the last couple of years of Primary School when there had been a lot of semi-formalized 'snogging' - which is what we called kissing on the lips, mouths closed, eyes closed - rather like in Tom Sawyer.

The snogging mostly took place in kissing games at parties - the most popular was Postman's Knock. I can't remember what happened, but it was a semi-random way of getting boys and girls to kiss but preventing them from choosing each other.

Anyway, all this stopped at High School - and I was generally much happier and cheerier once I had found a congenial group of boys among whom I could be silly.


To be called silly was, in fact, regarded by us as a compliment.

The whole thing was based - so far as I was concerned - upon an ability and a tendency to laugh unrestrainedly and uncontrollably.

I suppose my disciplinary record at school was actually not very good, in the sense that I can remember having detentions quite often, being sent to the Headmaster and the deputy Headmaster etc.  Literally all of these punishments were for laughing.

We would whip each other into such a frenzy of laughing - usually by picking on some small incident, some very small incident of almost inconceivable triviality, and repeating it with exaggeration, in a funny voice, or with fantastic elaborations - until we were all literally rolling around gasping for breath and unable to speak.

I can recall being told off for kicking a piece of wood around the playground - this piece of wood had been broken off the arm of a slatted seat - but not by us: we just found it. The 'humour' of the situation was that the teacher had accused us of 'kicking wood around' and 'Wood' was the surname of a boy in our class - and so that was it...

Eventually we were lined up and told to be silent, in an area outside the official playground and near to the Staff Room and school offices.

As we stood, not talking, various of us would make deniable 'noises' (without moving mouth, without change of facial expression) - such as sighs or peeps or, whatever - but this kept us all in a suppressed state near the edge of hysteria.

Then the ancient Deputy Headmaster - nicknamed Gobber, because he spat when talking - lumbered out to give us a telling off; and something about the way he lumbered broke the dam for me and I launched into such an hysterical outburst that I was unable to speak, unable to answer his questions; and in short disgraced myself.

All I can remember is looking up to find the Deputy standing right in front of me, asking why I was laughing - which was, of course, the one thing I could not tell him - and anyway by that point I could not say anything. It was taking all my best efforts to remain standing. 

Nothing bad happened to me - indeed I think the teachers were remarkably tolerant; since there is not much more annoying than a bunch of boys laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate times - especially when they are laughing at you.


But that was life. Everything was grist to the mill of making a joke - and it is amazing how many I remember.

There was a special status, a kudos, for the skills involved in having a laugh. For example sound-effects. Boys who could make funny or realistic noises, or enact little scenarios, were popular.

One new boy became an instant success in the space of a lunch break for doing an impression of a man being lifted up by a crane with a hook through his nose; he just went from group to group demonstrating this fascinating drama.

First the hook was made with a thumb, and the crane was indicated by whirring sound and robot-like movements of the arm; then there was some palaver of engaging the hook into the nostril; and the great thing was when the hook started going upwards, apparently dragging the distressed man onto his toes, hauled by the merciless hook...

This chap soon after became my best friend - so it goes to show how important these things were.


At a lower level of skill, another boy was 'famous' for barking-out the work BOC! in situations where we were supposed to be silent.

The word Boc came from a drama lesson, where it had been used as the sound made by an axe felling a tree. We thought this was amusing, and were looking for some way of using the word.

The breakthrough came when everybody was sitting at desks, heads-down and supposed to be writing, in the school library; when someone (it may have been 'Wood') shouted BOC! - very short and sharp; without making any movement or change of expression.

Presumably, the librarian (an extremely tall, skinny, bald American) looked up to observe a motionless sea of bowed heads and no indication whatsoever of who had made the sound, nor even where it came from. Understandably, but unwisely, he demanded "Who shouted Boc?" and that was it, chaos ensued - and the business of shouting Boc! became a craze, guaranteed to provoke a mini-riot of hysteria.


So, the main thing in life during the Airfix Years was these incidents, which could then be recounted again and again - elaborated, extended in fantastic ways.

This was life - until at the age of thirteen over the pace of just a few months; something changed inside me, almost palpably - and simultaneously new vistas opened-out with The Lord of the Rings.



Nicholas Fulford said...

It sounds like a great experience of school. That your tales are vivid and funny to envisage suggests a certain joviality to those years. No doubt tragedies also occurred - some major and some merely made so by one's youth. Even so, what shines through is exuberance, and that form of humour which is intoxicating to boys - silly, irreverent and sidesplitting.

I love your model building exercise, as I remember doing something similiar. My brother and I upon having to prepare to move from our childhood home on the St. Lawrence river to some landlocked location took out his prized model of a WWII battleship which had batteries and a small electric motor to make it move and re-enacted the sinking of HMS Hood. Sneaking some gasoline from the lawnmower, and adding lots of firecrackers it made for a convincing re-enactment to my 9 year old and his 13 year old eyes.

Nancy said...

You had me laughing uncontrollably there for a bit!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nancy - I spill-out the story of my life - and you laugh!...


Wm Jas said...

Not only was I laughing uncontrollably while reading this, but the effect lasted through the whole day. From time to time I would think of the "Boc!" incident and find it impossible to suppress a smile.

JP said...

Ah, Airfix. I remember it well. Got my first kit at age 5 and built them obsessively all the way until age 18. Have to say though that I was the type who wanted to get the paint and the decals "perfect" (i.e., historically accurate).

Biggles, Tintin, Asterix & Obelix, and Look & Learn were the staples of my childhood reading.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - "Biggles, Tintin, Asterix & Obelix, and Look & Learn "

- much the same - but I must admit that after a few weeks of subscription my perusal of Look and Learn was confined to The Trigan Empire.