Caught by the River

In Miniature

Darren Hayman | 6th December 2018

Darren Hayman reviews Simon Garfield’s In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World, newly published by Canongate.

Due to a tumultuous few years, some boxes of my belongings are resting in my parents’ loft. Three of them are labelled ‘Railway Stuff’ and contain the detritus of my failed N Gauge model train layout.

Like jazz, a love of trains inevitably hit me in my forties. It started on a random visit to the Kent and East Sussex railway line. Heritage lines freeze time and create little nirvanas for gentle men and women. However, the perfect calm of these Truman Shows can be condensed even further in your own model railway line.

You can also choose the time you want to freeze in your own personal tiny world. I chose 1965/66; the death of steam and the birth of the modern. But like too many things, with too many of us, the railway was never finished – hardly started, in fact. The boxes contained poorly glued-together footbridges and roughly painted station buildings. Rather representing my inner calm, it sits in my parents’ loft as a monument to my chaos and procrastination.

This quest for peace in reduced versions of our world lies at the centre of Simon Garfield’s book In Miniature. Subtitled How Small Things Illuminate the World, Garfield doesn’t present an exhaustive history – nor is it a lush pictorial guidebook – but instead the book presents stories about characters who wish to recreate a smaller world and finds connections and themes between them.

The introduction alone is a beautiful read, and convincingly spells out the appeal of the small and quiet next to the world’s obsession with the big and fast. The manifesto of the book is made clear: we are not concerned with the merely ‘small’, rather we are specifically exploring the question of ‘scale’; something which is a reduced version of something else. It’s a matter of changed perspective  – of the fact that only by making something small do we perceive the whole.

Even though the book is often fun and frivolous, this ‘changed perspective’ is used to highlight crucial moments in history where the miniature has helped to achieve real change. In the late 18th century, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce helped bring to an end Britain’s slave trade with the aid of a model of a slave ship showing rows and rows of bodies lying next to each other in cramped positions. Some things can’t be described, they have to be seen; models help us see more clearly. Or, as Garfield himself puts it, ‘the wider shores of humanity are thus (and often) explored in ways that would be impossible without this reduction in scale.’

In chapter six, we arrive at the specific subject of model railways, and encounter a word that had been at the front of my mind for the first five chapters: control. When we look at these meticulous facsimiles we marvel at the epitome of patience, technique and control, because what better way to command this unfathomable, frightening world then to create a smaller one in your loft? The horizon is too far away, so bring it closer.

Simon Garfield’s writing is warm and comforting, and though it would be easy to laugh and paint miniaturists as fidgety obsessives, more often than not we are introduced to very sedate and contented people. The usual narrative surrounding a model village in this book tends to be that someone just starts and has so much fun that they never know when to stop.

This is not to say that In Miniature is without humour; Garfield is very good at highlighting where exacting detail collides with bizarre fiction. The massive (though also minute) Wunderland has a Eurotunnel running from Hamburg to the USA. Garfield has discovered a world of ‘Could have beens’, never less so when he shows how a military historian’s scale model of Waterloo gives a view of the battle so complete that it’s tempting to believe the existence of this view at the time could have changed all of European history.

In Miniature a book about escape. Others have done the work for you and now you can follow them down their wormholes. It’s a troubled world, so why not visit a tinier, happier one?

I think of my boxes of railway mess. I might get them out again. I might make a new world.