Up from The Cape: 12 Feb 2017
When I was a boy of a certain age I used to enjoy building polystyrene construction kits. In the main these were aircraft (though occasionally they were the Aurora kits of some of the more famous Universal movie monsters such as the classic Karloff character in Frankenstein…..boys will be boys). Eventually my boredom with something fixed and unchanging led to me let off fireworks inside some of the kits I had no special attachment to. These anointed ones enjoyed a few moments of spectral glory in a series of mini-spectaculars. Like the universe, they flew apart abruptly at tremendous velocity following a big bang. I will just add hastily I did this brisk deconstruction work, outside…..not in my bedroom. I don’t mean to imply the two events – which is to say the building and then the destruction – were adjacent on a timeline in anything other than a vague sense. Normally they were years apart.
What’s significant for me about the act of building the kits is because of a fluke or quirk of my nature that unkind people sometimes file under the term “freakish”, it was normal for me to be able to complete the kits without looking at the instructions. Whenever I tell people this there’s usually at least one smart-aleck who says “and how often did the landing gear end up on the tail, with the engines on back-to front?” When anyone says this they’ve no idea how thin the ice is upon which they’re skating. Really.
I used to find there was a logic to where everything was supposed to go during construction that was obvious to me once the parts had been spread out (note: this definitely isn’t true once the parts have been spread out by an explosion – when that happens you need to fall back on the skills of air crash investigators). Unfolding the instructions that I’d left deliberately in the bottom of the box felt like a capitulation, though I would do it some of the time just for the purpose of verification if something had been tricky. This lent me the status of legend with one of my friends. He was not in any sense a stupid boy, but model kits just weren’t his thing. It was one of those random blind spots we all have. Anything he built generally did end up with the landing gear on the tail and the engines on back to front. His tragedy was he could never understand why. I hope he didn’t go on into architecture. If he did it would explain some aspects of contemporary work I’ve seen recently that made me look back over my shoulder as I walked on.
Because of the innate ability I had to work without guidance during the building phase, my blind-spot friend looked on me as borderline supernatural with none of the drawbacks (i.e. there were no rituals, nudity, or sacrifices etc. connected with me that he knew about). I’m not guessing here, because forty years later I spoke to an elderly relative, and she mentioned in passing once during some nostalgic recollections, how my friend would invoke my name quietly with a sort of reverence whenever peer pressure had cajoled him into attempting to build something challenging like the Apollo Lunar Module. “Over about six months his dad bought him three Lunar Modules” my informant told me. “Every one looked different when he said he’d finished, and none of them looked anything like the picture on the box.” She added that on one of them, perhaps in impulsive desperation, he’d glued the landing gear on upside down. In my mind I saw a spacecraft with a vague similarity to an umbrella that had been blown inside out on the way down to the lunar surface. It was so typical. I’m vain enough to be childishly pleased about this, though a friend’s failure gloated over is hardly an achievement. The fact is, sometimes you just have to grab any success you can and not be ashamed about it. His talent lay in mental arithmetic – something in which he effortlessly and habitually put me in my very distant and floundering place. Nature always finds balance.
Destroying models with fireworks made a kind of sense to me as I grew older, but I think it had more to do with the need my mind had for movement in things. This characteristic was to become manifest once again later in my photographic work, almost from the start.
Construction kits, once they’re built, are just there. They don’t mature, evolve, or improve with age like good wines. All they do is stand and wait for someone (typically mother) to come along and break off the radio mast from a Mk V Spitfire while “tidying.” There’s never been any point in complaining about this by the way. All mothers know in their hearts – even if aircraft designers don’t – that the radio mast isn’t an important part of a fighter; all that matters are the guns. Interestingly, mothers have a native ability to break those as well, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble to build a B17 Flying Fortress and left it balanced on a stand. B17s have a lot of guns, which is of course where the nickname comes from. If Fighter Command had known about the frightening ability mothers have to break aircraft guns and radio masts regardless of how the aircraft were stored out of harm’s way, Britain’s air defences might have looked revolutionary during WWII. Propellers are fair game too. I wonder what Hitler would have made of it all.
Perhaps it was having my models broken routinely that gave me the idea of pre-empting the damage caused during this typhoon-style “cleaning” by giving some of them an altogether grander send-off myself. Who can say? I’m tempted to pretend the building and later a destruction cycle were followed in order to achieve a sort of yin/yang quality, but it would be a lie. I did it out of boredom and a lust for power. It’s probably how Empire-building starts.