It came to me a short while ago, when the son of a model railroader I had known years ago (and who had passed on well before he should have done) offered me his father's three-rail Hornby-Dublo goods train set in mint condition "free to a good home". I jumped at the offer, not only in his memory, but also because Hornby and then Hornby-Dublo were the electric trains I grew up with many, many years ago. (For my railway-mania story, see About My Railway Interest.)
On reflection, methinks it is all about the memories.
I have many many railway memories, but there are two from my childhood that for me are abiding and were transformational. And they are not what you might think they are, if you have read About My Railway Interest.
The first was a train ride to Whitby, Yorkshire when I was about six years old. My maternal grandparents always went to Whitby for their annual one-week holiday from Huddersfield's smoking woollen mills chimney stacks. I remember the old LMS 3rd class compartment carriage, and the broad leather strap with which one could raise and lower the window in the door. (On arriving one had to open the window to reach out and open the door handle.) I just remember the scenery on that long beautiful stretch of North Yorkshire moors just before we got to our destination, - now the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, and oh boy, our arrival at the Whitby station (now a shadow of its former busy sea-side station self) to try out my bucket and spade, and oh, the ice creams and the donkey rides.
The second memory is rather bleaker in one way. It was bombed-out Berlin, Germany in 1945 and I was going to school in a shell-shocked building with no windows and plaster falling off the ceiling, and lunch was bully-beef soup provided courtesy of the British Army. One day our teacher organized an outing to a building of generously-appointed but old-fashioned European-style flats that somehow was still standing, to be enthralled by a huge Gauge 1 electric train layout - double-tracked and all around the room. I was 12 years old then - I don't remember much of the detail except for the trains whizzing, nay clattering, around the tracks, and the level crossing barriers going up and down as the trains passed. They must have been Bing or Märklin - or both. No matter, it remained a memory for all time.
I digress. But yes, it's all about the memories.
With a model railway, what exactly is it that we want to accomplish? After all, for most modellers, it is a train doing a circuit, however well and ingeniously disguised. So what attracts us there and what keeps us there? Why, as the joke goes, is it a lifelong but harmless affliction (disease, some would say) from which there is no cure? Yes, there is the creative outlet, there is the pleasure of designing something and making it work, collecting pieces of whatever kind that will "go well" with the railway. Certainly most modellers will confess to having bought far more of this or that that they will ever build or place on the railway. OK, some of it may go into display cabinets, but why do we do it? Talk to anyone about their layout, and it is not long before you find out, that built-in to that layout are life memories of one kind or another - and they peek out from the layout - but until pointed out, only recognized by the owner, because they are all personal vignettes or associations. In some respects, the train going around the track can almost be irrelevant.
Yes, it's all about the memories.
When we go to a model railway show, what do we expect to see? Why don't we seem to mind seeing the same layouts over and over again? Why are there always clusters of old-timers with misty faraway looks around old Lionel or other toy train displays? And if we stop to talk to old friends and acquaintances, what do we do? - chances are we reminisce - past shows, past displays, long-time-ago get-togethers. Do you remember when ...? Do you remember old so-and-so? Do you recall that fabulous layout ...? Do you remember the year that ...? Wasn't that a great fish-and-chip place for lunch? (Oh yes, someone ought to do a thesis on the relationship between model railways and fish and chips ... for me, maybe it is tied in with Whitby, Yorkshire - the fish and chip mecca - who knows?)
Alright, does all this mean that the model railway hobby is about Christmases-past? Toys of our childhoods? Our own memory-lanes? If the hobby is creativity, fellowship and memories, yea verily, I have come to believe that the greatest of these is our memories. The memories are the linchpin that I had not really thought about until I had a conversion on the road to that donated Hornby-Dublo train set. After all, why would I embrace and seek to expand something that I had happily discarded 35 years ago?
Yes, it has to be all about the memories.
A lot has been written and mused about the future of the hobby. We worry that it is based on our memories of a yesteryear railway world that no longer exists, and that when we die, those memories will die with us, and therefore that the hobby will die with us. We obsess that kids today are all glued to their iPads and their smartphones. We bemoan that we are all living in a very fast world today that provides scant resources or time for anyone to build a model layout. There is a germ of truth to at least some of those thoughts, but as I see it, we're missing the far far bigger picture, circumscribed by two immutable laws:
Law Number 1. There is a fibre in all our beings that speaks to our own personal history - we hunger to know who we are and where we came from - and with or without a railway, we all remember where we grew up, and we all have memories of scenes past. And that's part of us, it's genetically embedded, no matter what our age. And one way or another, it's going to be acted out.
Law Number 2. Even today there is nothing that attracts a crowd better than a moving object - and a train is a perfect moving object for universal curiosity. Trains in department store windows are a thing of the past - but put a moving train in a store window anywhere and it will still draw a crowd of onlookers. Don't ask me why, but it does.
And it's not as if railways have died. They have changed a lot, and in North America for many of us they are no longer part of the daily scene (unless one rides a subway ["underground" in Europe] or a light rapid transit train or even a streetcar somewhere). In Europe they're still all over the place - in fact it's only in Canada that passenger rail seems to be dying, but that's a different topic for another subject. And one way or another, future generations will eventually get their train ride, somewhere, sometime - and the fascination will start all over again. Guaranteed. Law Number 2.
Sometime earlier I wrote an opinion piece entitled Prototypical Model Railways - a Key to the Survival of the Hobby?
Basically, that's Law Number 1. I still believe that, and I don't think it's in conflict with what I write here. I believe the two concepts complement each other. I really do.
I'm an optimist. Our individual sense of history and the fascination of a moving train. It's an unbeatable combination - and the future of the hobby is assured. We worry too much.
Basically, when we have examined everything else - it IS all about the memories. And they will endure in whatever way we have the creativity with which to conjure them back up. One way for sure, is by building a model - preferably one that moves. Guaranteed.
As my geometry master used to pronounce - Q.E.D. - quod erat demonstrandum - or freely translated: "I rest my case".