Friday, 22 November 2013

The Lord of the Isles

I always had a thing for model railways, and at the age of forty-eight I still find it impossible to pass a toy store with tiny trains on display without my face becoming so firmly fixed to the window as to necessitate being chipped free with woodworking tools. The flames of this passion are quite naturally diminished, otherwise I'd still be fiddling around with OO gauge rolling stock right now rather than sitting here writing about it. Nevertheless they were once of such severity as to drive me to crime.

I was seven or maybe eight and our family lived on a dairy farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Alan, a teenager and the only other child on the farm, told me he knew where we could get more carriages and wagons for my train set. We went across the fields at the back of our row of cottages to a house on Redhill Bank just before the hamlet of Wimpstone. I vaguely recall being astonished at the meticulous state of the garden, bushes neatly trimmed to geometric shapes and the lawn mown into stripes like at a stately home. Whoever lived there had a lot of money, I guessed, and I realised that we were going to break in. I knew this was wrong and I wanted to turn back, but Alan insisted everything would be fine. I was way out of my depth and didn't fancy trying to find my way home on my own as it seemed like we had come many miles.

All I'm able to recall of our haul were passenger carriages, but they were strange - doors and windows printed on tin plate and quite unlike anything I'd seen in the Tri-ang catalogue. More disappointing was that Alan appeared to expect some sort of payment for whatever I was going to keep. I held onto the carriages a few days as I thought it over, and then the police showed up to decide the issue for me which came as a great relief. Alan was essentially a complete tosser, and burglary was the least of his crimes.

My own train set was a circle of track with three wagons pulled along by a little green engine with 27 printed on the tank, retailing as the Tri-ang Railways RS614 Pick-Up Goods Set. According to the Hornby Railways Collector Guide, the set cost ₤5.20 in 1972, which I assume would probably have been the year it turned up as the main feature of my Christmas presents, so I would have been six or seven. As train sets went, it was modest, but we were humble serfs and I loved it. My dad and I joined all the curves of track together, plugged it all in, and spent the morning watching my little green tank engine pulling its three wagons around in a circle. After a while, smoke began to issue from the engine, so we gave it a rest and made predictable jokes about the added touch of realism. From then on it became my ambition to own an enormous train set, a full layout like I had seen at both Rex Harding's house and at the model shop in Bourton-on-the-Water, trains, houses, landscaping, tiny people glued to plastic platforms, the works...

This proved difficult to achieve being as we were not a wealthy family and I hadn't quite got the hang of saving up my pocket money, so for the next few years I contented myself with drooling over model railway catalogues and compiling lists of what I wanted on my grandfather's typewriter. One such list was headed absolute necessities which I specifically recall because I remember asking my mother how to spell it. I would probably have bored my friends senseless with my train set related ambitions had any of them shared my interest, but none did which was probably a sign of changing times. Everyone was into Action Man or Dinky toys, specifically the Gerry Anderson stuff. The only exception was a younger boy called David Wild who seemed to be even more into trains than I was, but I found his enthusiasm strange and difficult to understand. We both loved our train sets, such as they were, but he went several stages further in owning Sounds of Steam record albums comprising recordings of actual steam locomotives chugging past a microphone, which was just weird.

David was from Wales and I suspected he had some sort of inherent cultural affinity with steam engines in the same way that native Americans are held to be closer to nature. He was the child of our headmaster, which must have been a tough job. In particular I recall his birthday party during which Mr. Wild angrily blustered and berated his son. 'You've ruined the day for everyone,' he raged as we watched, wondering what the hell was happening and feeling glad that our own dads were just regular people. Perhaps that was why David found comfort in records of loud atonal noise.

Eventually I somehow managed to save up for a second engine, a Hornby R354 Dean Single Locomotive and tender distinguished by a massive central wheel on either side and the name Lord of the Isles. It was amongst the more modest engines in the Hornby catalogue but I was fascinated by its distinctive appearance, and at least I could afford it. Something about that huge central wheel fascinated me, and despite the name, the engine seemed pretty, like something feminine which, to my mind, required protection.

Lord of the Isles was soon followed by luxurious Pullman carriages modelled on the chosen rail transport of people who lived in houses such as the one burgled by Alan and myself some years before. I took the carriages to school for the sake of showing off.

'That's the best one,' Neil Hargreaves grinned, picking up my OO gauge buffet car. 'That's the one with all the nosh in it.'

Years passed, we moved to Shipston-on-Stour, and I ended up at secondary school, still accumulating bits and pieces for the model railway layout towards which I was working; and yet somehow I never quite got there. By 1978 I was apparently old enough to cope with keeping a diary for at least the first half of the year, and every other weekend I would record the latest additions to my reliquary of trackside accessories - track, buffer stops, model trees, and a small town's worth of houses and buildings built from Faller and Pola model kits. On Saturday the 4th of March it seems I bought a massive sheet of chipboard from a local hardware store for ₤2.00. This was to provide the base of my proposed but poorly defined layout, and although I'm no longer sure of the exact size - particularly as I am now myself somewhat larger - it was too big to be carried up the stairs. My dad sawed it in half and then joined the two parts back together once we had taken them up to the spare room.

The strange thing is that I have no memory of actually having either of my engines by this point. The little green tank engine had long since cashed in its locomotive chips, and I had never actually got together any sort of set up on which Lord of the Isles could have run; or at least if I did, I cannot remember it at all. I have a feeling I may have swapped the engine long before that time, as that was what my friends and I did at the weekends, just swap stuff, more as social ritual than through any desire to acquire the other man's Spectrum Patrol Vehicle. Perhaps this was why my model railway layout never came to pass; like some compulsive gambler I would always end up swapping whatever I'd bought with my not-particularly-hard-earned pocket money before it was even out of the box.

With hindsight I believe I understand why I found David Wild's enthusiasm at such odd variance with my own. David was into trains, railways, and the whole deal. I myself couldn't really care less about any of that. I just liked the models, the idea of a miniature world crafted more or less by my own hand, a small universe over which I had absolute power. This is probably why I now write fiction.

For much of the twentieth century, a steam train would have been the largest, loudest, and most dramatic thing many people in England would see at least during the first few decades of their lives, and so the enthusiasm for model railways amongst my father's generation is not difficult to understand. For ourselves, by the 1970s we had film and television, and we had seen sights more awesome than even the Flying Scotsman at full pelt on its way up to Edinburgh, even if that awesome was achieved with a bottle of washing up liquid sprayed silver and suspended from fishing line; or at least that was what we believed, I suppose; and I guess I went from one to the other, roughly speaking.

So for all my efforts, such as they were, I do not recall any model train of mine ever running around a track since that circle with the three little wagons back when we had lived on the farm. I was buying the stuff, but just never quite getting there, presuming on some instant in the future when I would suddenly notice that I already had possession of everything I could ever possibly need and embark upon the task of making hills out of chicken wire and newspaper, then glueing little Swedish looking houses in place. I wonder now if on some level I knew that this future would be a disappointment, a poor second to its contemplation, to my savouring of this long term goal.

Living back on the farm, my mother had occasionally served as babysitter to Rex and Rosemary Harding, the family who lived at the foot of the hill. Rex was son to Mr. Harding, who ran the farm, and father to a very young daughter called Zoe. I always enjoyed the babysitting because Rex had built himself a massive model railway layout in his spare bedroom. It was a little neglected, but I got to play with it every time we went there. The layout had no concessions to scenery, but comprised spaghetti circuits of track all crammed onto a small baseboard, complete with remotely operated signals and points. Of course, impressive though this was, beyond hitching up various wagons and watching them go around and around, the world Rex had created was limited, as would be the one I myself intended to build.

My world would be green and hilly with at least two parallel circuits of track vanishing into the mountains at the rear. The houses of the town would be set in the middle, a peculiar brightly coloured mish-mash of European styles as determined by the fact that most of the kits were from either Faller or Pola, both German companies. It would look insane in the real world, but of course that wouldn't matter because only an insane person would choose to live in a town surrounded entirely by a self-contained railway line with just a single station. Not only would the noise drive you mad, had you not already arrived at such a state under your own impetus, but the area would be subject to terrible economic decline with the only service industry being a railway line doomed to go out of business because no-one in their right mind is going to pay for a ticket which brings them back to the same station roughly twenty seconds later.

I've a feeling the powers that be of Tr-iang had perhaps realised all of this in the late sixties when they began to jazz up their line with the Battle Space range found in old catalogues at Rex's house. The Battle Space range appeared to be railway modelling's attempt to cash in on some of that Gerry Anderson money, rolling stock from which one could fire missiles or launch helicopters, and strangest of all, the Battle Space Turbo Car, bright red and pointed with its massive propeller at the rear.

I wanted the Battle Space Turbo Car pretty bad, regardless of the fact that it looked ridiculous and would only have served to highlight the general absurdity of my notional layout. Were aliens ever to invade Earth, the military response would probably not arrive by rail. Were aliens to begin their invasion in my dream town of crazy people in their Black Forest style community with its pointless orbital railway, they would have to be pretty stupid and would probably blow themselves up anyway, and so the Battle Space Turbo Car would be surplus to requirements.

Perhaps I'd spent my childhood years in pursuit of something which I knew would prove disappointing and absurd whichever way one chose to look at it. Insisting on realism in railway modelling would result only in lengths of track upon which an engine could move back and forth, because circuits of the kind I'd intended to build cannot be found in real life. I recall once watching a railway modelling programme on BBC2 in which someone made a near perfect scale replica of a railway siding somewhere in Leicestershire or wherever, even building the signal box from scratch using wood and plastic. It looked like the real thing, but I couldn't see the point.

This is, I suspect, why I still find it so difficult to pass a model railway in a shop window. On some level I am still thinking of the Lord of the Isles, my beautiful little and slightly eccentric looking engine. She came out of the box - and despite the name, I can't help but thinking of her as somehow feminine - but I'm not sure she ever got to run or to pull carriages of imaginary passengers as intended, and all because my ambition was about momentum rather than destination. Like my little green engine running on its circle of track, the point was about forward motion, never about getting there. I wished for a world I could control, and yet deep down I knew it would be a dissatisfying and cranky world.

Please feel free to find a lesson in there somewhere.

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