As most if not all of you will know, I participate in a fairly regular and active manner to an online forum, New Railway Modellers.One of the topics for recent discussion began with a very simple question: “Why do you do it?”
It’s a good question. And, Dear Readers, it ought to come as no surprise at all that not only do I have an answer specific to me, I have a theory to explain the general interest in model railways. But let’s start with the sureties, shall we?
When I was very small, but not so small as to be insensible to what was going on around me or to be unable to remember it, I became completely enthralled with the adventures of a small blue steam engine. Thomas the Tank Engine was on ITV and very little since has provoked in me the same anticipation as waiting for it to come on. My mother liked it too: my obsession gave her a rest, because I was a handful even then; as a music teacher, she thought the theme tune excellent (and she was inordinately proud that I could sing it, tricky modulations and all); and she always seemed privately amused at the identity of the narrator (it was years before I learned that Ringo Starr had been even more famous for something else entirely).
And then, for Christmas, I was given a clockwork Thomas the Tank Engine trainset, and nothing in my short life had ever been quite so amazing as this. Even my little sister was a whole lot less interesting than the plastic Thomas, and she stood no chance at all in competing for my attention when Thomas was joined by Percy. My father nailed a loop of track with a passing loop to a piece of hardboard, and there it was: my first model railway. It lived behind the sofa when not in use, but it could be taken out and laid on the living room carpet, where it would would entertain me for hours on end. Eventually it had to go, sometime after I had taken it outside and played with it on the driveway and then, not being the world’s most co-ordinated soul, I tripped over it and gave myself a proper, full-on concussion.
A few years later, my father judging me old enough for such things, I was given two proper, electric trainsets (for Christmas and my birthday) consisting of ‘The Night Mail’ and ‘The Intercity 225’. The mail train was a Stanier Duchess in BR Maroon; the 225 was a Class 91 in Swallow livery. I liked both, but preferred the Duchess: steam engines were my thing.
This twin-loop layout lived in the loft, on an 8′ x 4′ table, and I had it until I was nine, when we moved house. Naturally the trains came too; it was only the table that was left behind. A new house meant a new attic, and a bigger house meant a correspondingly bigger layout. This one was, again, a twin-loop design (though one of the loops was raised) but it was on a 10′ x 5′ tabletop. The table surface in question was made of unsupported chipboard, and by the time my parents moved house again the table, in profile, looked like the letter ‘M’. By the end, ‘Wyndham’ (named for my favourite author of Science Fiction) was bugging me: it didn’t work properly, the track was tired, and the scenic stuff just didn’t measure up to the standards I was setting myself based on voracious model railway magazine reading.
The new house required a lot of work done on it, and since the joiner was already hanging about the place, my dad suggested, why didn’t he make a proper table? Again, in the attic; again, for twin loops; again, made out of chipboard – but this time it would be properly supported, and this time the middle area would be open to stand in. And oh yes – this would be a properly large layout. 10′ x 16′ large, to be precise. This is the layout called ‘Starlingford’, and it’s what I’ve been working on when I’m home.
I keep working on it because I love it, which strikes me as about the best reason to do anything.
I like model railways because they offer me a way to create something aesthetically pleasing (writing novels, as I do, also offers me something of this, but in a very different way: the aesthetic satisfaction of writing a novel comes of telling the story one would like to hear; of constructing a narrative that one finds satisfying). I like model railways because mine is something over which I have total and absolute control (pocket despotism, if you like!). I like model railways because they are a way to construct a world where the social problems we all face on a daily basis do not exist – there’s a reason so many layouts are nostalgic idealisations of a time when the pace of life was slower and it always seemed to be summer, lazy and serene. I like model railways because the smell of a model locomotive hammering round at full pelt reminds me of being small and happy. I like model railways because they remind me of the first time I enjoyed a pleasure that was uniquely mine: I was the Thomas fan in my house, and by the same token, learning to read (my mum taught me to read the Thomas stories before I went to school) by myself was another solitary pleasure. I like model railways because they remind me of the love my parents showed me in trying to get me the Christmas and Birthday presents they knew I really wanted and would really enjoy. I like model railways because today they are an entirely inoffensive means of escape. I like model railways because they give everyone who operates or even observes one a passport to imagine. I like model railways because they are a pure pleasure, and even the frustrations and tribulations they inflict upon me are, in their own way, pleasurable.
One of the interesting things, I think, about modelling in general and model railways in particular is the issue of control. There is a particular satisfaction, however ‘sad’, involved with getting something absolutely right, which is why I don’t have any particular problem with the rivet-counters over on RivetManiacWeb. But since the forum to which I belong generally adheres to ‘rule one’ (‘never fight mysterious old oriental men’…err, no, sorry: ‘it’s my railway and I’ll do what I want’) the desire for control manifests itself differently. It does so, I think, in rule one itself. To control stock, to control timetables, to run what one finds interesting or appealing without thought for other people’s opinions – that is very relaxing, particularly in a culture where so much of our daily existence consists of attempting to please others: colleagues, managers, spouses, children. It also explains why, just as there is a fairly united front when it comes to rule one, there is equally a fairly united front when it comes to making scenery as realistic as possible. To run what you like in a realistic setting is a defiance of sorts: it is an expression of control, of stamping one’s individuality (the trains you choose to run) on a world that otherwise wouldn’t care. Furthermore, the railways on the NRM forum tend to be of fictional locations, for exactly the same reason: when one designs a station, one controls the rules regarding its operation.
I like model railways, and so do many other people. Thomas the Tank Engine made me, as a five-year-old, inexhaustibly happy, and I see no good reason not to try to regain some measure of that happiness if I can.
Long live model railways!