As I tease a paintbrush a few sable hairs wide into the crevice between a crotch and an armoured codpiece, I begin to question my life choices. Lockdown, despite my better judgment, has rekindled my childhood obsession with painting inch-high wizards and tiny space robots.
I am not alone. Games Workshop, the Nottingham-based retailer of tabletop war games, has been one of the best performing British stocks of the last five years, reporting faster growth than both Tesla and Amazon.
Since the pandemic confined swathes of the world to their homes in March, that growth has become almost as fantastical as the models, with its share price rising 183pc. It now has a valuation of £3.3bn – more than Marks & Spencer and ITV.
You could be forgiven for thinking a company that operates 532 stores worldwide (160 in the US, 157 in mainland Europe, 140 in the UK and the rest in Asia and Australia) would have taken a hit during a pandemic.
But despite shuttering stores in March and placing UK staff on furlough, online sales have soared. In June the company announced it would be repaying the furlough money.
The majority of Games Workshop stores have now reopened, although it is unable to host the physical games and painting tutorials that attracted hobbyists in the pre-Covid days. Encouraging people to congregate and move hundreds of potential coronavirus vectors across a table is still deemed unwise in the current climate.
The company’s success has also flown in the face of general coronavirus belt-tightening. Not only are its miniatures a luxury, they’re an expensive one, too. Fans joke that Games Workshop’s most popular game, the futuristic Warhammer 40,000, gets its name because that’s how much it costs to build an army.
The real figure is slightly less: you could conceivably start playing small games with an investment of just a couple of hundred pounds, but if you want to play full-sized matches without scrimping on hobby supplies, don’t expect a huge chunk of change from £1,000.
So how does an ostensibly sensible man in his late 30s get sucked into a salary-sapping hobby that appears to be aimed squarely at children?
My first brush with Games Workshop came in 1993, the year I started secondary school. Along with a group of friends, I began collecting an army of undead soldiers, saving up my pocket money to buy little skeletons and vampires.
Back then the majority of the models were made from lead, which now seems an absurdly toxic substance to sell to an 11-year-old. They switched to a “white-metal” tin alloy in the mid-1990s, and now almost all of its models are plastic. I remember endless summers painting my army, which I proudly arranged on a display case in my bedroom.
The love affair lasted seven or eight years, until I went to university and decided to reinvent myself as someone who didn’t collect Warhammer figures. So I boxed them up, sold them off for a fraction of their value and got on with my life.
Then came the pandemic. Along with almost 10m others, I was placed on furlough, and for the first time since my childhood I found myself with day after day of free time. Only now the endless days were tainted by existential dread; over the safety of loved ones, over the looming economic catastrophe.
During one hand-wringing conversation, a friend – an accountant desperate for a distraction from the bureaucratic nightmare of processing furlough applications – admitted he had retrieved his Warhammer models from his parents' attic and resumed painting them.
This mildest of pushes was all it took: that night I made my first order of “plastic crack”, a tongue-in-cheek reference in the Warhammer community to the addictive nature of the hobby, in over 20 years.
Since then two more friends have made similar, hushed confessions. Even Superman has fallen into the habit: Hollywood actor Henry Cavill announced on Instagram that he has been busy painting his own 40,000 army during lockdown.
The models are much higher quality than the lead versions of yore, and an abundance of YouTube tutorials and encouraging online communities make everything seem far easier. I’m rather pleased with the paint job on my burgeoning army of religious fundamentalist cyborgs.
It’s not just about the models, either. Part of Games Workshop’s genius is the way it appeals to every facet of the nerd community.
There’s the crafting and decorating of the models, catered for by Games Workshop’s Citadel range of paints and hobby supplies. There’s the game itself, an impossible tangle of dice rolls and esoteric rules, which can take years to master.
And there’s learning about the fictional universes, with more than a hundred novels published by Games Workshop’s Black Library publishing division. Warhammer 40,000, for instance, is set in a future hellscape in which various totalitarian races face off in endless combat, summed up by its famous tagline" “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
A live-action TV show is in early development, and there are also numerous licensed video games and comic books. It’s a heady mix.
But for me, and for many people my age, the hobby is really about retreating into fuzzy nostalgia, reliving simpler days, losing yourself in the silly lore of a universe that’s even more screwed up than our own.
The hobby is meticulous enough to distract from the real world, but not so exacting that it becomes overwhelming. Sitting by the window, paint brush in hand, the hours melt away, just like they did two decades ago.
In the grim darkness of the far future, there may only be war. But on the plus side, there is no coronavirus, no looming prospect of mass unemployment, and no Brexit negotiations that inexplicably hinge on obscure fishing treaties. And right now, I’ll take that.