IN Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman, people turned gradually into bicycles, and only those with a keen eye and inside information could recognise the characteristic lean against the wall or step up on the kerb that revealed the morph under way. Maybe Fermanagh-based photographer David Robinson's series Die-Cast Dreams doesn't go that far, but he at least suspects that if human beings can take on the characteristics of their dogs then perhaps they can take on the characteristics of their vehicles, too.

Robinson collected these images in Northern Ireland and the Midlands, because he was fascinated by the ways in which the modern need for extended mobility expands into a hobby or even a way of life - but also because, as a young photographer from Northern Ireland, he felt The Troubles propelling him inevitably toward a world of grainy black-and-white photo-realism. "Though I started out repeating that reportage style," he says, "I found I wanted to say, `Northen Ireland is also a beautiful place, and the ordinary people living here have dreams just like every else.' So I found myself working in colour more, and trying to be more oblique, positive, and personal."

Robinson's subjects each acquired their model car (or plane, or cement mixer) after their involvement with its big brother, rather than the other way round. They are shown with their machines twice over, as if the miniature and the real thing inhabit parallel time zones, allowing them to live in the past and the pragmatic present at once. So although this is no sardonic toys-for-the-boys study, the lines leading back into childhood games aren't hidden. His subjects are only eccentric in their choice of plaything - if the wealthy can satisfy a higher class of fantasy, and have the means to put a bigger distance between duties and dreams, regular citizens have to find theirs closer to home.

University lecturer John Hodgett turned from cars to motorbikes to save cash and time getting to work, "but within 10 minutes I was hooked. I used to rock-climb - your troubles disappear because you're in a heightened state, your pulse beats faster, your eyes are sharper. On a bike it's the same, you can smell the road, feel the rain. It's transport, and it's an absorbing hobby - and the model and the real thing are both part of it."

The same goes for Nigel Frazer, a weekend rally-driving enthusiast who works for an engineering firm. A model- maker at a rally on the Isle of Man made him a replica of his 1963 Riley Elf, and, he says, "it's up on my wall at home - it's a nice reminder of the weekend during the week." Do his friends send him up for playing with toys? Frazer chuckles. "Not to my face. But then a lot of my friends are into it too." Like Robinson's subjects, they obviously share the dream of the blacktop stretching to the far distance, the promise of the horizon. "Lone cowboy, that's the anthropology," muses Hodgett. "I'm not sure it's just a male thing. I think we all need a little of it." !

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