Writer and broadcaster

Rod, I salute your train set. Published in The Guardian.

Frank Sinatra: You wanna tell him model railways aren’t cool?

What a service prejudices can sometimes provide. Rod Stewart is pictured with a copy of Model Railroader in his car and easy headlines are made, “Do ya think I’m sexy now?” being the easiest of all. The subtext is that having an interest in model railways is unattractive, nerdish, maybe even a prerequisite for being a serial killer. Personally, I welcome the spotlight on Rod’s exquisite HO-scale reproduction of New York’s Grand Central station of the 1940s.

Liking model railways has never been something that equals cool. Enthusiasts often get bad press, always from people who know nothing about it. But let me tell you something: it’s a wonderful world. You go to exhibitions and talk yourself ragged about the best way to recreate a miniature thatched roof if you don’t have easy access to oriental hair (which, once dyed, is perfect thatch material, as the follicle is round). Plumber’s hemp is the common alternative, but it can lack something. The fact that I may or may not have the latest Mulberry handbag holds no currency here. Instead I watch the jaws that drop when I mention that I have the entire set of Hornby Live Steam locomotives sitting on my shelves at home. Or that I attempted to build Walschaerts valve gear while breastfeeding my daughter (breasts and trains in the same sentence never fails to make you friends). My particular gauge for model-making is N-gauge, which is tiny, 2mm to the foot or a scale of 1:148 in the UK (1:160 in the US and Europe). Nearly all model railway enthusiasts have a gauge – the width between the rails – that they’re “into”, Rod’s is HO, half-O which is an American gauge and corresponds to a scale of 1:87.

N-gauge allows you to build bigger landscapes in a smaller space, useful if you don’t have a mansion. A great part of the fun – and that is the right word – is not just the trains and the huge romance once associated with them, but in contextualising the scene with shops, people, signs and nature. You can recreate a perfect little world within an imperfect world that can sometimes seem too big. Escapism? For sure, but what’s wrong with that? It beats drinking, clubbing, taking drugs or other escapist pursuits that are seen as “cool”. A sign of not being able to cope with real life? Perhaps, but who can, all the time?

And no one could accuse Rod Stewart of being a failure either; of having to take to life in miniature to make up for a lack of success in the big, real world. Stewart has company in the music industry with his hobby. Before he became a record producer, Pete Waterman was a locomotive fireman, and started his own model railway company, Just Like the Real Thing, after he couldn’t get the O-gauge parts he wanted. Neil Young bought a share in Lionel trains – the trains Steven Spielberg had as a boy. Frank Sinatra had a Lionel layout in his home – and you don’t get much harder than Frank – in 1995 when the company got into trouble.

In truth, having a model railway encapsulates lots of things. There’s the building of it, the recreation of something in miniature, which is magical. You are compelled to mental stillness. It requires patience. You can choose a particular landscape, station, or time that interests you. You learn about electrics. You learn about history through detail, building (I can offer a choice of Flemish or English bond brickwork), engineering, or how to find the perfect maroon – crimson lake – for a Midland carriage. I really can’t think of a hobby that encapsulates more worthy pursuits. So I get annoyed when it’s dismissed, in a word, as “anoraky”, because, frankly, it should be cherished and promoted. Model railways enthusiasts are neither sad, nor mad. In fact, we’re just mad enough to realise the beauty is in the detail.