America’s last top model

I’ve been writing this week about meeting JJ Abrams, for Radio Times. You can read the feature in next week’s issue, should you wish; it’s based on an interview I did with him in May, when very few people had seen Super 8, his new family monster movie set in 1979 and produced by Steven Spielberg, to whose 70s work it seems clearly to be a tribute. (It is. It’s an explicit tribute.) But it’s the above scene – grabbed from the film’s trailer – that intrigued me the most, as it features the Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I was given for my ninth birthday, in 1974. Although the company has been bought and sold a number of times since its 60s heyday, the horror icon model line, licenced through Universal, seems to have endured. I grabbed this shot of the box from the internet, where many a finished model, fully and meticulously painted, also appears.

Props to Abrams for mining his own geeky, movie-obsessed childhood for detail like the Hunchback model, seen being fastidiously painted by Super 8’s lead character Joe (Joel Courtney) in a scene that beautifully encapsulates the often solitary bedroom-bound existence of the young suburban nerd. As it happens, I painted my models out in the garage, where my vast range of Humbrol enamel paints were stored, and what hours of concentrated enjoyment I gleaned doing just that. Over the ensuing years, via birthdays, and swapsies at school, I collected pretty much the whole set of Aurora Universal monsters: Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, King Kong, Godzilla, the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man. I also had Salem Witch, which didn’t seem to be from a Universal horror film, but whose bubbling cauldron of bats and eyeballs was a fond favourite.

The Aurora horror range combined two of my early childhood loves: horror movies, and making models. I would pore for hours over the Airfix catalogue, trying to plan which model I would purchase next when pocket money or present-receiving opportunity would allow. I loved sticking them together, although the greatest thrill lay at either end of the process: handling the pieces when fresh out of the box and still affixed to the plastic frame, while absorbing the instructions, and then applying the paint at the other end. It’s funny how a tiny detail about the glow-in-the-dark model became my first point of bonding with JJ Abrams, who was born a year after me. Having seen the Hunchback in the film – and with a 35-minute slot during which to win him round and get him to say interesting things into my tape recorder – I told him how much it meant to me and we were suddenly discussing the etiquette of whether or not to paint over the fluorescent parts of the model (in the Hunchback’s case, his head and his back glowed, an aspect that actually freaked me out from my bedside).

I loved my kit models. I was a member of the Airfix Modellers’ Club. I still have the membership card somewhere. And yet, “club” was a misnomer, as modelling never won me any friends, nor led to any social interaction. It wasn’t exactly a group activity.

I never think of myself as the classic nerd. I spent a lot of time with friends, climbing trees, wading through streams, playing cricket and hide-and-seek. But I do celebrate the nerdiness gene, as it gave me time to think, whether I was sat up the dining room table meticulously creating my own comics, or out in the garage adding the decals to an Airfix model of an RAF Refuelling Set. (I did actually have that. It was brilliant.) My brother and I were obsessed with catalogues, and got as much pleasure looking through them as actually ever owning any of the stuff within.

That is all. I made the schoolboy error of looking at a thread about Collings & Herrin on the Word message boards after being alerted to its existence. As usual, a number of people who I would normally expect to ally myself with, being keen Word readers, heaped abuse upon me, and one called me a “gigantic bore” for writing about the past. He can actually fuck off. I find the past endlessly fascinating, especially the way it unites us, across continents sometimes. And anyway, the future looks pretty shit to me.