Scuffed and scratched – reflections on building small worlds

There’s a heart wrenching dinner table scene in Close Encounters of Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977), that, in this piece, I will use to link climbing and model railway enthusiasts via various philosophers who have never written about either hobby. Link to video clip

In the scene that I’m thinking of, Richard Dreyfuss’ character sits down at home to eat a regular family meal. Absent mindedly he starts to play with his food, scrapping and exploring the mashed potato as his family members look on with increasing concern. His plate-sculpting becomes fervour, an intense concentration taking over his face. A mash-formed Mesa (a flat topped desert mountain) starts to take appear on his plate. Family members start to cry. Dreyfuss looks up, in teary explanation imploring them to understand, “this means something…”

In this short piece I’m going to look at the intense, tunnel-vision characteristic of moments of deep immersion in a hobby practice. I will touch on climbing and then spend longer on model railway world-building.

I read an interesting essay yesterday by Krein (2010) connecting climbing to the Stoic concept of freedom. Krein persuasively argues that the ‘freedom’ that climbers claim to experience whilst confined on a mountainside within the deadly proposition of a sheer rocky terrain, is a ‘freedom’ that can only be understood in the sense known to the Stoics (ancient Greek philosophers). Invoking Chrysippus, Krein concludes “one may achieve freedom by climbing in accord with the mountain”(18). What he means is that to align yourself with the physical circumstances of the mountain – to ‘work with the grain’ rather than against it – will enable the climber to excel in his chosen endeavour. And that to excel in that field requires that the climber focus down into that fraction of the world. His or her survival depends on concentrating on the rock, inch by inch, and blocking out the (potentially fatal) distractions of the wider world. Thus the climber’s tunnel vision and total focus is essential.

Dreyfuss’ character is building a mountain. But he’s not practising for an ascent. He’s a modeller, forced by extra terrestrial circumstances to physically enact the same flat-topped mountain in any available materials that will allow him to ‘work-out’ this compulsion. That brings me to model railways.

Just over a year ago I spent an intense two months working through something similar. No UFOs were involved and the ‘moment’ passed, and I can now look back on it with detachment. But at the time it came close to similar dinner-table tensions over the tunnel-vision that had temporarily overcome me. It all started with one of my kids deciding to spend some Christmas money on a model train set. We trekked off to Argos and got one (half price in the sales). He quickly lost interest in it. A train going round in a circle was pretty dull. So, I thought we could enhance it by building a scene for it – and getting some more track.

That was the point at which this tipped over into ‘Dad’s project’. The train set soon disappeared into the cellar, mounted on an ever-larger board and with an increasing elaborate track layout. I bought a couple more (fairly) cheap sale sets and became fixated on solving the challenge of how to fit together three identical oval tracks onto the same board footprint. The answer that eventually appeared to me late one evening was a system of ramps, tunnels and points. The challenge was like a jigsaw – to find a way of using every (mostly curved) piece. But one I’d solved that infrastructural problem there was still little joy in actually running trains on the network. So, I figured it must be because the layout needed land forming and the addition of buildings and scenery to make it a ‘proper’ world. And that’s when I got really lost. I discovered a sub-cultural world of cardboard and print-your-own buildings. The trains and their tracks became a distant memory as I spent every spare (and many not-spare) moments frantically building a fragment of an industrial town: mills, breweries, workers terraces, docks, canal, LPG storage etc. All my latent industrial archaeology and urban exploration urges became channelled into building my own gritty (and slightly grotty) world. I found that armed with my scanner and colour printer I could scratch build my own grimy industrial mill creations.

There is a focus within the railway model building fraternity on the authenticity of dirt, and signs of use-over-time. Nothing should look pristine. Items should be scuffed, in order to look ‘real’. Model paints bear this out in their names: ‘rust’, ‘dirty black’, ‘engineer’s grey’, ‘coach roof off white’. And model shops sell packets of dirt to sprinkle liberally upon these worlds (I preferred cutting out the middle man and applied real dirt: sawdust, sand, earth, ashes). There are also weird warpings of scale. Twigs become trees, moss clumps become bushes, rocks become mountains. Again, these materials can be bought at considerable expense. I just raided my garden. From the world I made a smaller world.

With characteristic French obliqueness, Gaston Bachelard, as part of his phenomenology of intimate places, wrote of the urge to create worlds in miniature:

“Minature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world conscious at slight risk. And how restful this exercise on a dominated world can be! For minature rests us without ever putting us to sleep. Here the imagination is both vigilant and content.”(1964: 161)

Bachelard characterises the miniature world as one which is capable of being dominated by the maker’s command or viewer’s gaze, as distinct from the big, complex messy ‘real’ world of daily life. Here we can link to Michel de Certeau’s (1984) conceptualisation of the two perceptual levels at which a city may be known. De Certeau opens his essay, ‘Walking in the city’ with the vision of a spectator “seeing Manhatten from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre…its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into texturology…” (91). At this height, a degree of abstraction kicks in which filters out the infinite complexity of that world as formed, lived and perceived at street level.

Puff (2010) makes a similar point – this time specifically about city models:

“Models executed to scale make urban space experiential in a particular fashion. Unlike actual cities, models are devoid of human life. Models show the city as urbs, or built environment, rather than as civitas, or urban community…space as expressed in urban models typically drowns out the multitude of societal relations encoded in actual cityscapes…devoid of human interaction and social signification, the city model presents itself as an instrument.” (256)

Puff draws a distinction between semi-abstract city models of the master planner and dioramas: models composed as three dimensional scenes, which may well feature human figures and aim to narrate  stories of social interaction. Railway world models, at their best, can achieve diorama status and portray a social world (albeit a selected, frozen, static one). Looking at the elaborate railway model worlds that have been created by true aficionados via a near lifetime’s effort we can see all kinds of signification (of the maker-god’s direction). A completed railway scene is likely to be saturated in nostalgia, a yearning for a previous age – the ‘glorious’ age of steam and coal, or (in the apparent styling of younger protagonists), a gritty end-of-modernism, 1980s tired, greying urbanism. By comparison there are few modellers building truly contemporary depictions of railway worlds. In short, each railway scene maker’s composition will shout out their take on the world.

My railway mania passed as suddenly as it had arrived. I realised that I simply didn’t have enough spare time in my life to finish building my under the stairs mini-world (and that the time and energy spent so far was draining my real life credit balance both financially and in terms of family goodwill). I closed my cellar door, and my part-made world lies abandoned there. I can still marvel at those who stick with it, but it’s not the world for me. Building and running worlds is too demanding…

Bachelard, G. (1964) The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press: Boston

De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: London.

Puff, H. (2010) ‘Ruins as models: displaying destruction in Postwar Germany’ in Hell, J. & Schönle, A. (eds) Ruins of Modernity, Duke University Press: London

Krein, K. (2010) ‘Climbing and the Stoic conception of freedom’ in Schmid, S.E. (ed) Climbing: philosophy for everyone, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

www.scalescenes.com

www.metcalfmodels.com

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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