Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:

Far away is close at hand in Images of Elsewhere

The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again

Tonight

These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft

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Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.

AgecroftPS1992Map

A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.

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Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.

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Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

A Californian in Manchester (or a Mancunian in California)

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

I took the photo above in August 1981, showing a “Californian” in Manchester, England. It’s not really Californian—of course—it’s just a “California style” tram that used to be operated by Manchester Corporation Tramways. Manchester abandoned its electric tramway system even earlier than most British cities, and this preserved car is the only surviving Manchester electric tram.

At the time of my photograph, the restoration of Car 765 had recently been completed, and it was giving rides to the public on a special track in Heaton Park. When riding that ancient tram, during a long-ago summer Sunday, I never even guessed that, within 10 years, I’d be riding modern trams (albeit called trolley cars) in the real California!

I described in a previous post how I accepted an offer of an apprenticeship in Electronic Engineering from Ferranti, in Manchester, and so moved there to start working for them in July 1981.

For all its (deserved) reputation as a grim Northern industrial city, Manchester nonetheless has a fascinating history, having been the cradle of an Industrial Revolution that massively changed the world. The city not only features many world-famous industrial landmarks, but was also the source of early reactions to the industrialization of society. For example, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote his master work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in the city in 1842-44. Engels met Karl Marx a few years later, and together they went on to promote Communism, which of course has had a substantial effect on the subsequent course of world history.

One among many “world’s firsts” located in Manchester is the oldest surviving purpose-built railway station; Liverpool Road Station, built in 1830 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and shown below in my 1983 photo.

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Things to Come

In those days, Manchester was still in the process of shedding its industrial past (as fabulized later in the TV series Life on Mars). Despite the fascination of its history, Manchester for me couldn’t compare with the opportunity to live in London (to where I moved when I began my studies at Imperial College that Autumn). I lived and worked in Manchester for three summers, and I look back on those days now as a boldly-taken but rather shaky stepping-stone on the way to everything that has happened to me since.

I admit that the title of this post is stretching the truth a little, because I’m not really “Mancunian” (someone from Manchester), but I did live there for a while, during an interesting part of my life!

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Happy Bastille Day 2018

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Happy Bastille Day! This year, trying to avoid predictable views of Paris, I decided to post the photo above, which shows a fascinating map that still exists in the Great Hall of the main railway station in Bordeaux (Saint Jean). This huge wall plan was created by the Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Midi, presumably at the time of the station’s construction.

I took the photograph when Mary and I were passing through Bordeaux station in 2014, on our way from Paris to Saint Cyprien. We had just arrived from Paris via TGV, and we were changing trains for the TER service to our final destination.

The photo above doesn’t reveal that that afternoon was extremely hot, and only small parts of Bordeaux Station are air-conditioned (ironically, the area near the McDonalds restaurant)! Mary and I thus spent most of our time there trying to find places to keep cool, but even in those circumstances we didn’t consider the idea of eating at McDonalds.

Back to Paris

The photo below shows me in Paris Montparnasse Station, in front of the TGV that had just brought us back from Bordeaux on the return leg of our journey.

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

In fact, the train route between Paris and Bordeaux has changed since we made our journey, because the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line has been opened all the way through (as shown here). When we made our trip in 2014, we could only use the high-speed line from Paris to Tours, and then the train used the existing route to Bordeaux.

Historic Rail Maps Survive

The rail map in Bordeaux station immediately reminded me of the tile maps that England’s North Eastern Railway placed at most major stations on its network, the surviving examples of which were a regular sight when I was traveling in Yorkshire as a child.

The photo below shows the map at York Station, and was taken while I was changing trains there a few years ago.

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

There’s an additional modern notice at the right-hand side of the map, warning potential passengers that they can’t necessarily take a train to all the locations shown on the map!

In fact, there are a few locations on the NER map that you could never get to by rail, because the lines shown were never built. On the whole, though, the maps provide an impressive record of just how extensive the European rail network was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.

Learning the Virtue of Patience

1:72 Model of Hawker Harrier T.2 Demonstrator G-VTOL

1:72 Model of Hawker Harrier T.2 Demonstrator G-VTOL

The photo above is all that survives of a 1:72 scale model of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier T.2 demonstrator aircraft, which I made in 1976, while still a teenager. In those days, making model kits (usually of aircraft) was regarded as something of a “rite of passage” for young boys. My initial efforts were extremely clumsy, but, by the time I made the model above, I had become quite comfortable with the techniques required. I was able to adapt off-the-shelf kits to my own requirements (as here where I’d converted a single-seat Matchbox Harrier kit to the two-seat version), and even make my own decals.

When I first bought those plastic kits, however, I was too young and unskilled to construct them myself, so my parents helped out by making them for me. In retrospect, their responses to those tasks seem quite odd. I mentioned in a previous post that, like so many other children, I inadvertently learned dysfunctional attitudes from my parents, and this seems to have been another of those cases.

A Fiendish Plot to Infuriate Parents?

In Britain at that time, the two major manufacturers of plastic kits were Airfix and FROG. The strange name of the latter company, which had been the first in the world to make such kits, was actually an acronym, as I’ll explain below.

The first plastic model kit that I remember buying, when I was about 7 years old, was of a Supermarine S6B floatplane, made by FROG. Rather naively, I was planning to build it myself, but it quickly became apparent that I did not have the dexterity

Strangely, my mother agreed that she would build it for me, although she certainly had no interest in aircraft, and I assume that she had never attempted anything like that before.

Things started out quite well, but the struts holding the floats to the plane’s fuselage really were quite tricky to position and fix correctly. Attempts to complete the task threw my mother into a rage, and apparently it was my fault. She shouted at me: “You said this was easy!” I don’t think that I had actually said that, but how would a seven-year-old know anyway?

Thankfully for everyone, that was the last time that my mother ever attempted to construct one of those kits! Thereafter, my father took on the task, until I was old enough to do it myself. Nonetheless, I discovered that he also suffered from a less acute form of the same paranoid attitude towards kit manufacturers, in that he would become annoyed when some aspect of the construction was difficult, and even accuse the manufacturers of having deliberately made it so.

For example, on one occasion he was assembling the Airfix model of the AEC Matador truck (which interested him because he had learned to drive on real RAF Matador trucks during the Second World War). The Airfix kit had the rear body divided into pieces so that it could be built open or closed, but my father was sure this was a deliberate plot to frustrate him! “There’s no need to have so many pieces,” he said in disgust.

Unfortunately, I think that the lesson I learned from my parents’ responses was that the appropriate response to a lack of skill in intricate tasks was frustration and rage! It has taken me a long time to “unlearn” that unhelpful response, and even now I sometimes find myself slipping back into it.

Learning Patience

I did eventually improve my model-making skills, bought better tools, and learned the patience to persevere when tasks were intricate or unclear. As a result, I actually spent a lot of time not only building the kits, but improving them, as with the Matchbox Harrier model shown above. Most of the models are now long lost, but I did happen to take a couple of photos that have survived.

The first kit sold by Matchbox, when that company expanded away from its famous line of metal model cars in 1972, was of the RAF Hawker Fury biplane. That was another kit that I built and improved, as shown in the surviving photo below. I made my own decals for Number 1 Squadron, replaced some of the kit’s more overscale parts, and added rigging.

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1:72 Model of Hawker Fury, based on Matchbox Kit

Unfortunately, when taking those photos, I didn’t give much thought to the selection of a suitable background, and simply posed the models on our dining room table!

FROG Models

As I mentioned above, the first manufacturer in the world to create plastic model aircraft kits, during the 1930s, had been FROG. The name was an acronym for “Flies Right Off the Ground”, and actually referred to the company’s flying model aircraft. The non-flying plastic models were originally known as “FROG Penguins” because of their flightless state! (The original plastic used was cellulose acetate, rather than polystyrene.)

The image below shows an advertisement for FROG’s models, from the January 1939 issue of Meccano Magazine. It’s interesting to realize that those “non-flying scale models” shown on the right below were not museum pieces, but were all contemporary aircraft, which were in military or civil service at that time.

FROGAdMeccanoMagJan39Small

1939 Advertisement for FROG Models

A Dying Art?

In these days of innumerable TV channels, on-demand internet entertainment, and interactive games, it seems that ever fewer young people have the patience to bother building those model kits. The manufacturers and sellers of the kits have certainly noticed the change, and have tried various ways to win back their traditional buyers.

Another factor contributing to the demise of the plastic kit industry must be the advances that have been made in the detailing of ready-made models. Manufacturers such as Oxford Diecast have come onto the scene, offering fully assembled and painted models of the same subjects. Why take all that time and trouble to create your own model, when you can probably buy something similar (or even better) ready-made?

I suspect that, just as with so many other cultural developments, the days when boys spent hours making plastic models are never likely to return. I wonder whether that will have a negative effect on personal levels of patience and skill, or whether instead those virtues will be redirected to other purposes.