Sunday, 27 October 2013

The radicalism of model railways

Maybe it is my age, but I find myself increasingly in the middle of other worlds - little universes complete in themselves.  The fine art world/economics world (strange that one), and yesterday the model railway world.

My two boys are fascinated by model railways.  I don't think I had been to any kind of display since I last left the annual Model Engineer exhibition in Victoria around 1971.  Things have moved on somewhat, as I discovered at the amazing show put on by the Beckenham and District Model Railway Society.

These were the most extraordinary miniature worlds, often set earlier in the twentieth century, often with their own timetables.  Hythe Station as it was before closing in 1951 (see picture of model above), docks, fishing ports, piles of coal, tiny wheelbarrows - not so much an evocation of a lost, perfect world, but a loving recreation of lost industrial landscapes.

And if you really want to be staggered, have a look at what this man built in the foundations of his house.

In the years between 1971 and 1979, I moved from models to politics (and one or two other things), and - since I can't get the models I saw yesterday out of my head - I have been wondering about their political significance.

One of the magazines I read as a student was called Vole.  It has long since disappeared, merged like everything else probably with Resurgence, the great green survivor.

But Vole pulled off a trick which has never quite been managed since.  It combined a green and local radicalism with a bit of humour and some apparently nostalgic articles about railways.  I found it so influential that I find myself almost stuck in the same track now.

Because there is a hidden radicalism about railway nostalgia.  It isn't for the days of state control - the people who rescued the Tallylyn Railway in 1951 were very conservative in that respect.  All I can say is what it means for me.

1.  The pre-Beeching railways are a kind of symbol of an alternative method of transport to unlimited motoring, a glimpse of a possible future not taken.

2.  Those carefully nurtured flowerbeds on the platforms of the 1950s are a sign of what genuine localism could make possible, when the centralisation of corporate control these days means broken tarmac, and leaving the heaters on all summer.

3.  The continuing success of preserved railway lines all over the country are an example of just what mutual communities of interest can achieve if left to themselves.

For me, the models I saw yesterday were all little utopias, miniature worlds with muck heaps and coal yards, where things broke down, but where attention to detail and a carefully manoeuvred screwdriver could sort things out.  They are supported by a growing pan-European cottage industry of small retailers and manufacturers, making equipment to the various scales.

I have met the members of my local model railway club when I visited them in the capacious headquarters in the basement of a largely empty office block.  I was staggered to find that most of them worked on the railways as well in the daytime.  You can hardly call the modelling bug escapism.

It certainly tends to be nostalgic, but in a creative way.  These models are so beautiful and intense that they can take the breath away.  No, I'm inclined to think that this is more confirmation that small is still beautiful, inspiring and radical, and the triumph of human ingenuity over mass consumption.

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