As I pulled into the Sainsbury’s car park, a feeling rare yet familiar washed over me—a jolt of nerves. I hesitated to alight and briefly considered abandoning the whole thing and driving home. With a pause to summon my courage, the door flung open and my legs marched me past the supermarket, into an adjacent precinct. In a moment I was upon my quarry: a Games Workshop.
That is not quite right actually. It is not called Games Workshop anymore; the shop front now reads Warhammer. The logo’s colour had changed too—from vibrant yellow to muted grey. The shop was, I presumed, a victim of that idiopathic disease which reduced McDonald’s from vivacious house of fun to dreary panopticon.
For those who do not know, Games Workshop is a proprietor of plastic miniatures. These miniatures are not planes or locomotives—they are characters from a grimdark fantasy world, in which the forces of chaos and man are stuck in an infinity war. When you purchase a box of Imperial Guards or Ork Boyz, you must then assemble and paint them. And if you so choose, you can take your troops into battle against other players on the tabletop, where the fate of your men is decided by the soundness of your strategy and the luck of a dice roll.
I had quite the collection as a youngster, tending toward both armies of chaos and of the good, pitting them against each other in dioramas. Although there was and is a smorgasbord of alien and monstrous figures to choose from, I always found the humans who had sequestered themselves to evil chaos gods to be the most compelling and monstrous of all.
Now, I was back, after roughly 15 years, and found that it was not just the logo that had changed. On my last visit, My Chemical Romance blared out over the in-store stereo, and there were three gregarious staff members, who would zealously proselytise walk-ins to their hobby.
There was no music on this occasion. The shop was filled only by the sound of a solitary staff member carried away in tête-à-tête with a man talking about his campaign. I browsed performatively and lapped the room twice, feigning interest at every section before reprieve came.
“Are you alright, mate?” the Warhammer man asked.
“Yes, I’m just looking for something cool to paint.” It was important to signal that I had no intention to play with the things.
I seized upon a box of chaos warriors, before it seized me with its price. But I had crossed the threshold now; I was in for the ride, or to be taken for one. I lugged my regiment of unholy knights to the checkout, along with a selection of paints and tools. Our man let me know that I could find painting guides online and slipped a card into my bag. Back in the day they would have spent half an hour advising me, but that might have been because your author was then youthful, and now just a regular punter. It did not dawn on me until I left the shop that I was now brandishing a Warhammer bag. This realisation splashed on me like a handful of cold water, and with single-minded purpose and the fast-walk of plausible deniability, I stormed towards the car to make my escape.
When I returned home, I immediately set about opening the boxes, arraying my paints and tools—a file and a snipper—and began constructing the figurines. And then I heard a dreaded knock at the door, and through it came my sister.
“That’s proper nerdy,” she said.
“They’re models that you paint.” And with that, I showed her the box. This was my rookie error; the price tag was clearly affixed to the front.
“Don’t tell me you paid that!”
Undeterred I removed the components—arms, legs, torsos, and heads—from the sprues. I handled them delicately at first, taking great care with the snippers, before filing down any imperfections caused by my cutting. With the novelty fleeting and my patience tested, I abandoned my cautious method, chucked the instructions, and winged it. Ten soldiers were assembled, and though one suffered mortally at my hands, nine were fit to raid and pillage.
Then came time for the main event: the painting. The first step is to apply an undercoat, which in this instance was black. A journeyman would use a spray for this purpose, but as a fair-weather hobbyist, I applied a brush to the things and scuffed it up in the process. I took my snippers to my frayed bristles to revive its fine edge and prepared to bring my warrior to life proper.
I tapped “How to paint Chaos warriors” into the YouTube search bar, which brought up dozens of matching results. It felt colder and more robotic taking my advice from a phone screen rather than a veteran in store. In any case, these tutorials ordered me to use all manner of paints not in my gift: Faramir’s beard yellow, Ork oesophagus brown, sword-master silver. My tutor also employed a veritable armoury of brushes—I only had one. I configured to go it alone, and mixed my paints wantonly so as to make whatever colour struck my fancy.
Five hours later, my first miniature was finished. I was by this time hungry and suffering from a back ache, although I had not noticed until then. I had been lost in a neurotic ambition to get the eyes just right; to keep a steady hand so I could colour a buckle bar with exactitude; to dry brush just the right amount of weathering; and apply inks to illustrate depth.
I looked upon my creation, and it was good. But the time I had sunk into its making, and my acknowledgement of that, was the death’s head at a feast, in a way that would not have occurred to my younger self. I figured I could manage to finish a model per week, an estimate that was not far off. I dipped in and out of that timeless vortex, emerging like a sleepwalker from each session with a finished product. And they looked good. The infantry is done—while the cavalry and a great knight striding atop an even greater beast are set aside for a rainy day. I conspired to accrue more models—some humans and warrior priests—something to test my abilities further, which in the main was the appeal: a sense of challenge and the ultimate reward of it manifesting in the models.
The endeavour seemed on one level meaningless, and on another, the opposite. It was a skilled feat to an extent—although I was painting somebody else’s canvas. Although I assembled the models, I did so with preconfigured parts. The initial sense of artistic accomplishment gave way to the realisation it was an elaborate exercise in painting-by-numbers. It was the same sense you’d get completing Guitar Hero on the hardest difficulty—only to consider your time would have been better spent actually learning to play the real instrument. Ultimately, the attempt to recreate my youthful experience was as forlorn as a middle-aged man buying a motorbike. Had the bubbly employee-enthusiasts and terrific music really given way to a sterile storefront and the sound of silence, or was I just experiencing the reality of a plastic miniature shop through the jaded filter time applies?
Now that winter is coming, and those cold nights are closing in, the time is right to see my ill-fated quest to its end. My attempt to build a window into 2005 might see me accompanied by an army come the season’s end. And if it’s too oblique, I’ll buy a sports car—a miniature one of course.