Musings of a muddled model maker.
If anyone were to ask me why I would attempt to build a little Spitfire detailed to the last rivet and fastener, I would probably be hard-pushed for a practical or even sensible answer. Perhaps it was for my father, or perhaps Duxford and its ghosts, or because I’m of the first generation to inherit the freedom that is its legacy (now sadly abused in this almost unrecognisable England). Or perhaps it is simply because I have been captivated since boyhood by R. J. Mitchell’s elliptical-winged masterpiece, and to build a small, hopefully faithful replica of the aircraft he never lived to see in combat, is the closest I will ever get to possession.
I was in my mid-twenties when I had my first encounter with a Spitfire. On a chill winter’s morning over half a lifetime ago three young men chose to kill time at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire. The deserted hangar wore the silence of a church, and in a corner the little fighter sat solid, long nose up-pointed, wings outstretched as if in supplication. Our breath fogged the air as we stood and stared, and for a moment we all three fell silent amid the distant echoes of a nation at bay.
I had missed the Spitfire’s finest hour, but not by much. A child of the late forties, I was born into a divided family as well as a world riven by recent conflict – but not so much that I noticed, for I was blessed with a sublimely happy childhood. Even today, I remain deeply nostalgic for things associated with those frugal yet wholesome years.
As I took my first faltering steps, Britain was tottering back into the sunlight. If there were shortages I never felt them, for I was well fed under my father’s roof, and I basked in the adoration of my paternal grandmother and an exiled mother who hardly ever missed her weekend visit. So when the time came to start school – a terrible wrench – I was not overly troubled by the lack of a full parental complement, although I never went out of my way to draw attention to it, and made much by way of diversion of my father’s occupation as an ‘aeroplane builder’.
If I wanted evidence of the recent war I had not far to look: A gas mask and tin hat gathered cobwebs in the garage, ration books hid amid the clutter of the kitchen dresser and vestiges of a vegetable plot struggled on in corners of the narrow strip that was our suburban garden. My route to school skirted prefabs, still home-from-home for some classmates. Further on it cut across a recreation ground where I wondered at the curious, deep-rutted clay, hardened by successive summers and now half-hidden under tall grass. It was only later I learned they were the tracks left by an anti-aircraft battery.
These were my dandelion days: With school cap askew, crumpled navy blazer, flannel shirt and rather long short trousers, I strode out to discover life under a clear, confident suburban sky. And if I was aware, as I basked prone amid the meadow grasses during those long, languid, butterfly summers of the guns that had so recently stained the sky overhead, it was of no concern.
By the time of Korea, when the veteran fighter in the guise of the Seafire climbed to its final duel, miss-matched against machines of a new, terrible age, I had seen four summers. By age eight and Suez I could read the headlines but stayed blissfully ignorant of the implications; but when Cuba happened I was 14, and the world changed forever. I understood fear; and while, during those heart stopping days, a mesmerized media charted minute-by-minute the seemingly unstoppable countdown to Armageddon, like those around me, I cringed, yet carried on exactly as normal. I never recall my family discussing the worsening crisis, at least not in my earshot. I don’t believe it had anything to do with stoicism: the prospect of this new horror was quite literally unspeakable.
I am of the first generation born into a world where total and utter global physical oblivion was reality. The Spitfire, it seemed, had helped deliver us from one folly only to leave us teetering on the edge of a greater abyss. And like so many of my generation, beneath the irrepressible joy, happiness, hopes and vanities of youth, we weathered puberty’s maelstrom feeling vulnerable and betrayed: the Earth no longer quite solid beneath our feet or the planets totally predictable in their paths. Yet the resilience of the human psyche is remarkable, and where we could we sought escape, imperfect as it was. By the time I was in my late-teens we were growing to live with and even laugh at our grave new world as we rode along with Dr Strangelove astride the tumbling bomb, spiralling downward into oblivion.
Perhaps my childhood ended with Cuba, or on the night we returned from the cinema in the dark on the bus in the rain, knowing Kennedy had been shot and killed in a place called Dallas, Texas. When the projector clattered to a stop and the news flashed across the stark, bleached screen, the cinema half emptied. My father, Alex, and I stayed on to the curtain, seeing Shane ride off into his own sunset. Only when we got home to the grey TV pictures of the presidential plane, the blood smeared widow and the gaunt, ashen Texan, right hand raised for the oath, did the portent of what had happed sink in.
While incredibly Lee Oswald was cut down in turn in the glare of the world’s media, and while Mississippi burned and gaunt GIs stared their 1000-yard stare all the way from the Mekong Delta, my generation looked on at a world once more tumbling out of control; so we too lost control, doing what came naturally and unnaturally with an intensity that became a creed. But while a generation on both sides of the Atlantic grew their hair and turned out to barricade, barrack and burn, I remained aloof, disdainful of my own generation and smugly self-contained in my collar and tie. I suspect now that it was disingenuous, complacency born of ignorance and vanity. I have had time to regret not being an angry young man, because now, when the students are as emasculated as spring lambs, I am an angry old man, and I feel alone and impotent.
Along with good basic healthcare, my generation enjoyed the post war advantages of tolerably sound schooling. I was a sickly child, prone to head colds and occasional truanting. A favourite refuge was the Science Museum at London’s South Kensington. The model ships in their fine cases drew me like a magnet. One in particular, C. Nepean Longridge’s magnificent replica of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, dominated the museum’s Shipping Gallery. Time after time during my unauthorised excursions I would stand before it in wonder. I fancy my obsession for detail is not without Longridge’s influence.
Despite patchy progress through secondary school, I surprised even my parents with a fist full of O-Levels. A-Levels started well until fecklessness set in and it all came undone: in the end I never even turned out for the exams. If I showed one redeeming grace, it was that I knew the magnitude of my folly, and without informing anyone, I signed myself on at a College of Further Education and began the process anew, gaining acceptance from Queens University, Belfast, conditional on modest grades. I was tempted afterward to blame those closest to me: my grandmother, Ethel, for getting dementia; the wrong choice of company; the continued drinking and carousing, but that would be less than honest. The flaw was within, and as my ship threatened to sink without trace, it was my mother, Joan, who came to my rescue, and I owe to her whatever I have made of myself since.
During most of my childhood, Joan remained overshadowed, if only by distance. After the marriage failed she returned to her parents and stayed to care for them in their dotage. It was Alex, and my grandmother mother, Ethel, who brought me up. Like his father, George, Alex descended from a family of bagpipe makers who had built a reputation for high quality workmanship. The last family proprietors, John and Robert Glen, sold the Edinburgh-based business in 1954, and I was astonished recently to discover on an American website that the firm continued until the early 1980s, when it finally closed after 150 years. I saw the shop off Princes Street just once, but I never went in.
George, made models of just about everything, from a carved copy of his Royal Naval Air Service cap badge to tiny steamships about the size of your thumb. He had a passion for building steam locomotives, and was a devoted disciple of the Model Engineer magazine’s immortal columnist who wrote under the pen name of ‘LBSC’. He completed three live-steam locomotives, but I believe he started on more. He worked slowly and painfully, hunched over an ancient treadle lathe and an oil-blackened bench, scoured and grooved by countless toolmarks. He had a good assortment of hand tools but little else – not even his health. During his late 20s he had fallen victim to chronic rheumatoid arthritis, and for the rest of his life could stand only with the aid of crutches. Effective drugs were unavailable then, and he experienced much pain and incapacity. I suspect it was his model making and perhaps the Codine he took that kept him sane, and my grandmother who nursed and stood by him to the end.
George never earned a wage after his disability set in and had no service pension, but to view the workmanship he crafted with hands contorted by disease was humbling. When he died in the late 1960s I was in my teens, and his locomotives were sold for I know not what. All I have of his today are his tools, his foxing Model Engineer magazines and a 2 ft. 6 in. long electrically powered model of an Admiralty pinnace that someday I want to restore. But I inherit his love of making things. I can’t help thinking now that had I chosen to stand for longer by the side of this old man in his dingy workshop, I would have been the richer for it: A Highland childhood; schooldays on the great plains of Canada; native Indians; kinsmen in Highland regiments; the RNAS and a wartime marriage... he had much to tell. But I was very young during those sun-filled summers, when the rumble of the worn, old lathe spilled from his open window – a sound as much a part of my childhood as the murmur of bees, and the apple blossom on the ancient tree at the end of the garden. I see him yet, dust coat, heavy flannel trousers, snowy hair and strong features diminished by pain and disability – an old man bent on wooden crutches, working a lathe with frail, contorted hands, a wooden pallet to keep his feet from the concrete’s chill.
His model making proceeded in fits and starts because the pestilence in his blood returned like a tide to inflame and bloat wasted limbs or turn thin lips blue, while he shook with uncontrollable ague. Children are intolerant of such things, probably from unformed fears and the natural repugnance of strong, young blood to chronic illness. In turn, the sick man vented his spleen on the child. All that is a lifetime away, and the door to an old man’s world and has long swung shut. The few sepia images remain, and his tools which I use regularly. They are among my most cherished things.
Shortly after George died, I came upon a little Bassett-Lowke horizontal steam engine he had built. I took it apart and put it together again, and it still ran when I pumped air through it. It gave me grandiose ideas. Cajoling my grandmother for the funds, I procured a full set of drawings of LBSC’s 3.5 in. gauge ‘starter’ tank locomotive called ‘Titch’. I instigated the project but Alex took it over, and in that brief interval some of the skills and enthusiasm of two generations percolated down to the third. But adolescence and early manhood were all too close, and I succumbed to the siren call. As a result I lost much that I had assimilated in those golden years. I hope though that somewhere, somehow an old man on crutches working a treadle lathe will by now have conceded that perhaps I was not entirely beyond redemption.
My grandmother, towering matriarch of our little family, outlived George by just four years. Bereft of purpose, she died in January 1968, but not before her reason failed her, leaving her a child again. It was pitiful and agonising to watch her topple into the void. The care metered out to her amid the Babel of a state-run ‘asylum’ – there is no other word – was such that pneumonia and finally death in a real hospital was a merciful release. It left Alex free to make his own choices again, perhaps something he should have done years before, and he found a partner who he later married.
It was about this time that I made my second scholastic nose dive into limbo, where I would doubtless have languished had not Joan quietly led me on my first tentative steps into the workplace. Well she did, for shortly afterwards Alex and I had to depart the comfortable North London home that had cradled me, one of the bleakest experiences of my life. For a short while we endured together in a small, dingy converted upstairs flat that I would rather forget, and not long after that, Alex finally made the break.
The catastrophe of severance that I had always dreaded came quietly, more a chill wind than a tempest. No tears, little trauma, just the quiet, natural progression of one set of events into the next. In hindsight it was the making of me. I needed only a taste of independence to want it no other way. Supporting myself and with a toe on the career ladder, the dandelion days were a distant place, cherished yet rarely visited. No time now for those simple pleasures when there’s Fleet Street, headlines, deadlines, by-lines, upper case and lower case and, of course, the London Press Club – refuge for many a hopeless case. My boyhood interest in model making went the way of my butterfly net, catapult, fishing rod and stamp album, about as passé and faintly embarrassing as short pants.
About a quarter century would pass before I set to building my model Spitfire. During the intervening years I became a company director, got married, learned to fly and finally took my degree with the Open University. I have done things of which I am proud and ashamed, but I have rarely been bored and hardly ever inactive. The Spitfire, which began casually enough, evolved ultimately to an act of homage, but was it to the machine or to my father? As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that despite our closeness there was a barrier between us. The surprise is that it should have been so surprising: During the really big issues of my formative years – death in the family, the breakdown of my education, the pain of dawning sexuality – I never took them to my father, or anyone else come to that, and he never sought them out. I suspect we were closest when as a child I’d snuggle between his knees of an evening to watch the tiny nine-inch TV screen, or when we fished together at weekends, or later when we collaborated on the little tank locomotive. For a time I lived for ‘Tich’, and I think he did too. But time rolled on, and the boy set out to forage, leaving the man alone with his musings and the model that to this day resides unfinished but unforgotten in a corner of a cupboard in our home.
Today I am lucky enough to have a roomy, heated and well-equipped workshop. The thatched cottage in South Cambridgeshire where I live with my wife, Eva, came with a garage large enough for me to sequester about eight feet off one end with a breeze block partition, and still have space for two cars, just! I added a window, adjoining door, suspended ceiling and lagged the whole lot. It took most of a summer of weekends to do, and it was the last job Alex and I ever worked on together. By then he was already advanced into the void that is Alzheimer’s, and it was the only occasion when he worked under my tutelage rather than I under his. It’s a filthy disease that reduces a skilled man to ‘hod carrier’. Shortly afterwards, he was incapable even of that.
As I write this, I’ve been married to Eva for well over 20 happy years, and I'm already two years into my (early) retirement. The Spitfire has been resident at the Royal Air Force Museum for a decade, and its successor, a P-51D Mustang in the same scale, sits in my workshop in its place. Last year (2012) I was awarded my MSc in Earth System Science, bringing my lifelong feud with myself to a close. Looking back it would be an overstatement to say the little Spitfire changed my life, but it certainly shaped a substantial part of it, even if only for the countless hours which it exacted of me. The Mustang has taken me well into retirement, and, if my hands and eyes remain steady, I hope to complete the ‘trilogy’ with a Hurricane.