Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Big problems in miniature

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Sometimes profound truths can be found in obscure places. Underlying the whole Brexit issue is the matter of national perspectives and culture, yet outwith Remainer online groups this is still seldom being discussed. (There is an exhibition currently running in Bonn called Unrequited Love – about the German love of many things British – and the utter disregard that is this country’s reply).

You might not expect to find it in something as apparently trivial as the world of model railways – but I think it is there. (On second thoughts, we might reflect that if those attitudes are real, they will indeed be evident precisely in the nooks and crannies of national life where people lower their guard).

Railway enthusiasm is by some measures the second most popular male hobby (after fishing). I have been afflicted since my youngest years, most particularly by the strange urge to capture what I see in model form. Perhaps the public perception of railway modelling has been shifted somewhat recently by the TV series The Great Model Railway Challenge – though for those serious about their hobby, there is a feeling that the sensationalism and gimmickry of that show has overlooked the slow, patient craftsmanship of the finest modellers. Be that as it may, looking at the attitudes expressed in the modelling fraternity itself can be informative.

Perhaps the best way of doing this is to look at publicly-expressed attitudes, as seen through the hobby press (as in what will sell) and its widespread manifestation in model railway exhibitions.

Attitudes to non-British modelling in the UK are revealing. There are perhaps half a dozen monthly magazines for the hobby. Several of them actively refuse to publish articles about non-British subject matter. The market-leader, Peco, which has published Railway Modeller for 70 years now, far-sightedly set up a dedicated magazine as long ago as 1979 to cater for the perceived niche that modelled non-British subjects. It was called Continental Modeller, a misnomer as it covers the rest of the world – but the point was clear: there is a divide between the main, domestic market and those few who look elsewhere. While the dedicated magazine was welcome and has thrived, the effect has to been to lock non-British modellers into their own little bubble, while the mainstream never sees anything non-British.

Others of the magazines, not least British Railway Modelling, overtly refuse overseas subject matter. One might have thought that that name refers to the location of the modelling, but no: it refers to the subject matter. At least it’s honest, I suppose. And while the up-market Model Railway Journal has very occasionally featured non-British models, it has always treated it as an exception and a curiosity.

Underlying this is typical British prejudice. The more I think about it, the more I think it reflects a wider reality: it’s not necessarily deliberate, so much as what was in the cultural ‘air’ we breathed. The received wisdom in the modelling fraternity is that the continentals don’t produce good models. They are supposedly dominated by brightly-coloured plastic kits and trains that run far too fast, and are really glorified toys – in contrast to the British obsession with grimy ultra-realism. There is a grudging acceptance that the Americans sometimes produce good models – but as with everything, they are mostly too big and brash for British tastes. Little has been done to challenge such preconceptions.

Also noticeable is a striking asymmetry in the situation: the current edition of Hornby Magazine, for example, does include a model built by a German – of British railways. But we are not ‘allowed’ to see the work of Germans modelling their own railways – or indeed of Britons modelling them – except in Continental Modeller. Knowledge of continental railway systems amongst British enthusiasts is widely negligible. By contrast, I was recently approached by the editor of one of the large German magazines, Eisenbahn Journal, for articles on some of my methods. I know from experience that continental magazines cover a wider range of prototypes than just their own national ones. The mindset is more open, the reach wider.

In a striking parallel to the wider situation, British modelling has been kept separate by accidents of history: we model in scales slightly but significantly different from the rest of the world, and the differences are enough to prevent inter-changeability. In most cases, the British versions are less accurate compromises of what was being done elsewhere. If you want n’th degree of accuracy in Britain, you have to do it the hard way and make it all yourself…

Perversely, there seems to have been a grudging counter-current underlying this: for all the condescension, there was an acceptance that continental commercial models were more reliable and finely-made than ours, which were crude and unreliable by comparison. Top of the pile, yet again, are the Swiss whose models are made with the same precision as their watches (at prices to match). But that has now largely changed: our models are now almost entirely made in China.

The parallel can be taken further, for there is another side to the story. In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in interchange between the exhibition circuit in Britain and the continent. Dutch models in particular are not unknown in Britain – but certainly less so than some of the best British models which are increasingly invited to the big continental shows. There is undoubtedly a genuine admiration for British realism modelling on the continent; I have experienced this myself with my latest model which portrays a French scene, and I have had requests (granted) from French modellers to visit. One is coming in ten days’ time. But once again, there is generally much less interest shown at large in the other direction. The internet has become a significant fact here as everywhere: it is easily possible to see what is happening on the continental scene – but in my experience it is largely emasculated by the sheer lack of interest.

There is, on the continent, an organisation called FREMO (Friendship of European Railway Modellers) which lays down basic parameters which allows modellers to connect their modules to assemble giant super-models. It is almost unknown in Britain.

What I think we see here is a microcosm of Britain’s relationship with the continent: one in which the majority of people here remain determinedly isolated, wanting to have little to do with outside influences, which they genuinely believe are inferior to the home-grown version. The admiration British modelling receives is just not reciprocated. It is not that British modelling is without its merits – indeed the standard can be high. But there are just as many plasticky, toy-like models in the UK as elsewhere, and many very fine models on the continent, some of which knock the average British effort into a cocked hat. But by refusing to lift their eyes from their own domestic baseboards, most British modellers seem to have at best a distorted view of this, and at worse they remain in complete ignorance of good practice elsewhere, the sharing of which could enhance their own efforts. Therein lies the disadvantage this country repeatedly puts itself at by its refusal to integrate.

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And that is without the general camaraderie that comes from sharing one’s hobby. I now have railway-enthusiast friends in several other countries, and the interchange is great. Our shared hobby provides an excellent vehicle for international friendship – and what’s more, I now know a lot more about not only the railways but architecture, geography and language of those countries as a result.

In this one small teacup, it seems we can sum up the attitudes that underpin our current problems – and until they change so thoroughly that it can be seen in such esoteric parts of British life as railway modelling, I fear we will not get over them. There is little sign of that happening.

But there is one final aspect where the wider pattern is replicated in the hobby: since control systems went digital, most of the best technology that railway modellers are using comes from one place: Germany. And we buy that shamelessly.

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Above and below: The work of Dominic Burraud

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