It’s a kind of magic

It’s early morning, circa 6:30, on what promises to be a beautiful summer’s day. I am walking down the hill to the local newsagent’s, to collect the newspapers I will be delivering today: not something I usually do, but a friend is away on holiday for a fortnight, and I am providing cover for him. It is just about the beginning of the last week of August*, and the air is clear.

From a couple of miles away comes the distinctive sound of a Sulzer 6LDA28B engine (if you are North American, think of an Alco engine), a burbling, rasping and guttural noise. Somewhere in the local goods yard (when we still had one) a class 25 is getting ready to move, but the acoustics of the area and the clear weather mean it could be just the other side of the fence – or even more miles away. It isn’t doing anything yet – no sound of wheels on rail joints or of buffers clashing. It just is.

That is the deep, emotional, memory that links me to railways. There is nothing visual, nothing tactile. The only other senses involved in my memories of that era of railways (early teens) is of warmth and the smell of diesel exhaust when standing close to an engine: if I stand too near to certain buses, I get a whiff of nostalgia for that period in my life.

That was the magic. And the memory has been brought to the forefront of my mind by an interesting and vital question posed by Mike Cougill: What happened to the magic?

And that is, frankly, the problem.

Digital sound may come close – and I don’t have a need to get a bass response that shakes me – but the odour and warmth are beyond our reach, or would be suicidal. None of this can be caught by building a 3-dimensional model. Many modellers try to recapture the sight and sound of the railway scene, but the sight is not what inspires me, or more accurately, the sound and smell cannot be captured in the same way as can be the sights.

For 37 and a half years I have been trying to capture something which cannot be captured. If I want to re-visit this experience, there are plenty of preserved railways with the appropriate diesel classes to enable me to do this, and I don’t even need to ride a train, just stand next to the engine at the station. I have been trying to capture the ephemeral, to model sound and smell via sight. I cannot do this. It is pointless to try. It all sounds rather depressing, doesn’t it?

But, this is not all bad news. The realisation of this means that I am free to divorce what I cannot replicate from my attempts to build a model railway. Although I am keen to make my models as accurate as I can, and for operations to be as authentic as possible, I am not, after so many years of going down the road, trying to build a model of a railway. I am, after all, trying to build a model railway.

This is enormously liberating. I am free of that constraint, free of its shackles: to quote Trevor Marshall, I have broken Marley’s chains!

* I can be this precise as my visual memory is of seeing the cover of the September 1978 Railway Modeller (a rather nice EM model of North Leith on the North British Railway, a layout which i did not appreciate at the time) on top of someone else’s delivery round, and it typically came out at about the 24th of the preceding month.

4 thoughts on “It’s a kind of magic

  1. Trevor

    Hi Simon:
    A great piece – thanks for sharing it (and for the shout-out to my “Marley’s Chains” posting).
    I think the attempt to capture a memory is an example of “analysis paralysis” – something that plagues many people in this hobby. We attempt to do something so completely, that we are stumped when we can’t – and we stop working on the project.
    Determining that…
    a) you can’t possibly capture the memory in miniature
    b) you can live with that
    … is, indeed, very liberating.
    I like to think of our models and layouts as an aid to helping us tell the stories of memories we have (or of a time and place we never witnessed first-hand). In the same way that the furniture on a stage can set the scene for a story about a specific time and place, our layouts and the models that run on them can convey what a time and place looked like. As the builders, we can then describe the rest – the sounds, smells, tactile sensations, etc. – to our visitors, and our visitors can then overlay their impressions of those on the layout we’re exhibiting.
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    1. Dunks Post author


      Thank you for commenting: your “Marley’s Chains” piece (and the associated LDSig Journal Article) has had more impact on me than you may ever know – it is up there with Mike Cougill’s “freedom layout” postings.

      I am coming to the conclusion that a model railway is a way of creating a version of the past to suit the memories I wish I had!

      The late Cyril Freezer sagely described nostalgia as “a polite agreement to overlook the faults of the past”, which I thought amusing when I first read it (I wasn’t even a teenager!) and thought I understood a few years later. I didn’t, but I feel that I do now, and hopefully may have finally escaped from the rabbit hole of analysis paralysis.

      Thanks for visiting!


      1. Trevor

        Freezer’s quote is terrific. Thanks for sharing it. And I look forward to seeing what you do in the hobby now that you’ve come to this conclusion.
        Your name keeps coming up in inspiring pieces I’m reading – most recently in MRJ 245. I’m glad I’ve been able to return the favour.

  2. Dunks Post author

    It was kind of Geoff to mention me, but he didn’t need to. I think that he might be trying to shame me into action.

    Well, nothing else has succeeded!

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