How a weekly ritual can bring back memories of those favourite old kits…
“Back then, those small dusty shops, run by old guys in leather-patched tweed jackets that smelled of cigarette smoke and resentment, sold not only newspapers, local and national, but also magazines, sweets and most pleasingly, plastic model kits”
It’s Friday night and I’m in the local fish and chip shop. I’m always in the fish chip shop on a Friday, for no other reason that I can think of than that’s what you do on a Friday night.
“Salt and vinegar, love?” the lady behind the counter enquired.
“Yes please and can I have some scraps as well?”, I replied.
“You must be from the North, no-one from these parts ever asks for scraps!” the now smiling lady countered “we mostly throw them out…”.
“I’m not from the North, but my family are and I guess I just grew to love them as a child, though I’m sure that they are far from healthy!”
“That’s okay, once a week won’t kill you!”
“I guess not! Yeah, I’ll have a few more – oh and can I also have some mushy peas?”
My trip to this bastion of weekly ritual almost always follows one to a local pub. After a week at work the guys all meet up to discuss anything but work, tell terrible jokes and try to predict that weekend’s sports results. This Friday was no different, conversation flowing as glasses that had had only minutes earlier been filled in haste, were emptied with equal speed, round upon round demanding aimless chatter and a desire to eat. And being Friday, that meant inevitably, fish and chips.
This ritual is nothing new, in fact, much like my love of The Jam, Harrington jackets and chocolate snowballs, it goes back to the late Seventies and visits to my grandmother’s house in the north of England. Like every great tradition it has been forged over years of nostalgia, belligerence and in the case of Friday night meals, laziness and convenience. Why cook a meal when you can buy one?
Anyway, back to the history of this weekly event and why it is even remotely connected to the building of little plastic aircraft and in particular, the F-16…
My grandmother lived in the North Eastern town of Darlington, a collection of open squares, listed buildings, terraced streets and cut-glass parks that had been built around heavy industry, the Quakers and the birth of the railway. Visitors would notice that the Stockton to Darlington line had been memorialised by a display of George Stephenson’s ‘Locomotion No.1’ for many years on the town’s station platform, before being wowed by the peacocks that would strut around the largest of the town’s parks, feathers raised seemingly in deference to Sir James Bellasses, without whom the South Park may not have been considered. Trips into the main shopping streets would reveal High Row, St Cuthbert’s Church and the main Market Hall, its tall clock tower, a silent sentinel that had watched over the adjoining square and streets for well over 100 years. Through the summers of my childhood it became as familiar as my home village and I loved it.
Francis Moore lived at the end of a row of terraced, two-up, two-down houses that had little fenced-off gardens at the front and concrete yards at the back, yards that opened out via latched wooden gates into polished cobbled alleys that ran parallel to the street, each one punctuated halfway along with entrances that allowed access, without the inconvenience of walking their whole length. At one end of the street was the primary school that my mother had attended as a girl, the other, the now long-gone Cleveland Bridge Works, a sprawling industrial site that sat between Neasham Road and the main railway line that connected London with Scotland.
For a young child fascinated with machines and especially railways, it was heaven. The bus stop that we used to catch transport into town, sat in front of a set of large wooden doors that were decorated with brushed green paint and dust that had worn away to reveal bruised layers of black and blue. In the summer as the heat rose within the huge red brick and steel building that formed the main foundry, the doors would occasionally be open and then you could catch a glimpse of the work that took place within a building that was mostly hidden from view at almost any other time of the year, overall-clad workmen conducting hammers that pounded a rhythm through the heart of the factory.
If you followed the road that ran around the outer offices, you came to a narrow-gauge railway crossing where small diesel shunters trundled lazily from one half of the factory to the other. Pulling trolleys loaded with steel, their passage was framed by the arch of a bridge that to this day carries the main rail lines into and out of Darlington railway station. I always loved those little locomotives, deciding in later years that at some point I would build one in miniature, but time and a lack of knowledge always conspired to keep the project more pipe dream, than reality.
The factory was supported in part by a row of small shops that would offer food, papers and of course fish and chips. At a time when corner shops were a familiar sight in towns and city around the UK, this was nothing unusual, but to a village child with little experience of such heady delights, it was as unusual as it was exciting (we had to catch a bus into town to visit such places; here, they were at the end of the street). So every Friday, my mother would take my brother and I to the shop to buy fish, chips, mushy peas and scraps. We always had scraps, those tiny pieces of batter that broke away from the outside of the cod fillets ready to be scooped up from the oil and collected, crispy and fresh, to be eaten by anyone that asked for them. The fact that they were free, was simply an added bonus.
On the way to the fish and chip shop, there could be found a small newsagent, the name of which eludes me now, but was most likely called Percy’s Papers or something equally pithy. Back then, those small, dusty shops, run by old guys in leather-patched tweed jackets that smelled of cigarette smoke and resentment, sold not only newspapers, local and national, but also magazines, sweets and most pleasingly, plastic model kits. This one was no different and though the papers and sweets were only seen in the shop and were of very little interest to ten-year-old, the model kits were often displayed in the window and as such, very much were. And that’s where I first saw it: the Matchbox 1:72 F-16.
Now, unlike Darlington’s finest Friday night feast, this particular kit – as many will tell you – was not very good, being neither feast nor famine, lacked details and spurious shapes being more representative than realistic. Though offering a choice of single or two-seat versions, an arsenal of weapons and two different aircraft, the levels of detail, accuracy of shape and overall levels of finesse didn’t even match features seen in comparable kits released at the same time, so today, it’s nothing more than an afterthought. In 1978 though, it was a kit to be coveted and the fact that it had been built and reviewed in Scale Models by modellers that I saw as godlike in their abilities, only heightened the desire that I felt. I cared not one jot about its issues, it looked cool and I wanted it.
It would take me another year before I managed to finally by this now mythical kit. Several weeks to build it and then a school art exhibition to display the results. I have no idea what happened to it after that.
The Matchbox F-16A/B formed part of their Orange range of kits, intermediate offerings that were a step up from the baseline Purple range that many of us cut our pocket money teeth upon. Moulded in three shades of grey (which was something of a step in the right direction give their often bizarre choices for the colour of plastic used in their kits), the box offered two different versions: the F-16A fighter and F-16B trainer, Roy Huxley’s dynamic artwork pointing to the contents of the box for those willing to part with their hard-earned cash in order to purchase an example (look closely at the box and you will see that even Roy was confused by what was to be supplied, the main image of a wonderfully realised F-16B, being accompanied by what looks like a small-nosed prototype YF-16, that was most certainly not supplied as part of the kit…).
The kit was extremely basic. Cockpit(s) consisted of little more than rudimentary tubs, indistinct seats and pilot figures, side controls, rudder pedals, consoles and instrument panels all being absent. The shape of the airframe was reasonable at best, separate upper decks allowing the recreation of the different versions, single-part glazing precluding all but closed canopies. But the real highlight, albeit spurious in places, was the inclusion of almost an entire runner of underwing stores, bombs, missiles, drops tanks and something unrecognisable for the underside if the fuselage (it must have been another tank). Decals finished off the package with a choice of an American development F-16B as the primary choice and then some projected 1979 markings for a Dutch Air Force aircraft number J-212. The decal sheet was small, though for the time, well-printed.
By the time ESCI and Airfix had released their kits in this scale and then Hasegawa joined the party, the Matchbox kit was a forgotten relic and though it appeared a number of other times within the Matchbox range before the closure of that company (most notably in Thunderbirds markings), it was never really again a viable alternative to far better kits that had been released by the world’s kit manufacturers (which may go some way to explaining why, despite other kits from the range having reappeared under the Revell banner, the Matchbox F-16A/B has so far not been reissued).
Though the passage of some four decades has dulled my memory considerably, the connection between the local chip shop and that kit is as tight as ever. Much like cheese-flavour Hula-Hoops, candy shrimps and bottles of cheap Cinzano Bianco remind me of the two years spent in the 6th form at Grammar school (don’t ask), fish and chips always fires the memory towards that cheap, inaccurate, Matchbox kit. I just cannot shake it and nor would I want to.
When we returned to Darlington last year, a pilgrimage was made to my grandmother’s old house. The street had changed a little, but the house remained, as did the newsagent and the fish and chip shop. Walking back to the car, I couldn’t resist the idea of looking one last time in the window of the newsagent to maybe see if I could catch a glimpse of the kit that so defined that place, but it was of course now long gone, only the memory remaining of those heady summers almost 40 years ago. It was now the relic of a distant past and that seemed like a very long way away.
The fish and chips were still bloody good though and yes, I did order scraps…
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