Will Self: PsychoGeography #95

It's a small world
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Surrey, summer 2005. In Painshill Park, a kidney-shaped expanse of 18th-century, landscaped gardens, marooned in the Tarmac oxbow of the M25, grown men are floating on an ornamental lake. I must qualify this statement: the men are not floating as swimmers float, but patrolling the inland sea inside scale models of First World War era dreadnoughts. At least - that's what the warships look like to me; I'm no expert. Besides, the juxtaposition between the model and the ornamental is so deranging that - especially when one of the men opens the deck of his ship and his gargantuan bonce emerges above the thwarts - I suspect I may be having an acid flashback.

Why is it that we, as a people, are so instinctively drawn to the miniature? The landscaped garden is itself a form of stunted terrain, with mounds and dells contrived so as to give the carefully positioned viewer awesome prospects of distant hills and plunging dales. When the 18th-century Romantics conceived the notion of the sublime, they had merely trotted a few miles away from twee southern England and into the terrible wastes of ... Wales.

Or take the grotto, a form of landscaped garden furniture that became so popular there were specialised companies dedicated to their production. Painshill has one of the finest grottos in England, and when we visited it was being painstakingly restored with crystalline chunks cemented to its vaulted roof. As I stared out through a knobbly embrasure, I could almost imagine that I were in a great, subterranean cavern, were it not for the ditsy dreadnought which hove into view. Or take the rage for rock gardening which got going in the 19th century. In part this was a quite reasonable desire to introduce mountain species into the low-lying English garden, but as the rock piles towered higher and higher, becoming increasingly gnarled and baroque, so the Himalaya itself was cut down to size.

Levi-Strauss sagely remarked that when we alter scale we "sacrifice the sensible in favour of the intelligible". Tell that to the Hampshire Model Boat Society, with their mini-dreadnoughts. Actually, I wouldn't mind telling them - because it's one thing to be the sort of saddo who labours in the privacy of his shed to produce a teensy simulacrum of a dreadful war machine, it's quite another to load it on a trailer, drag it up the M3 and cruise around in the thing. I'm confident that the kind of chap who could conceive of such a recreation is fully attuned to its warped heuristics.

As it is to the bucolic, so it is to the urban. I have visited most of Britain's principal cities and they have much to recommend them, from the austere pinkish granite of Aberdeen to the dinky lanes of Truro, with its disproportionately (there I go again) massive cathedral towering above them. Yet the town I return to again and again is about 1/30th actual size. Bekonscot Model Village may not be Britain's largest example of miniaturism - that accolade, I fear, must belong to Legoland - but it does have the virtue of being satisfyingly a world entire. Albeit a world mired in the interwar period - for Bekonscot is the littlest of Little England, complete with churches, greens, castles and cottage hospitals. The harvest is threshed with steam power, there is an extensive, pre-Beeching rail network, and although in recent years ethnic minority figurines have been introduced, they look slightly anachronistic next to a fully functioning, nationalised mine.

The model village is set in the heart of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire and advertised by large, steel signs along the M40, which, were they to fall on top of it would destroy a large proportion of the housing stock. This isn't the only confrontation between the sensible and the intelligible that Bekonscot affords. To walk its narrow paths in the company of a huddled queue of Pantagruels, is to be continually reminded of the sublime: will that 100ft-high toddler run amok and destroy the aerodrome? Will that goldfish - the size of a killer whale - capsize those doughty canoeists? Sadly there aren't any dreadnoughts full of enthusiastic modellers patrolling the pocket ocean of Bekonscot.

If only everyone would embrace my own enthusiasm for microgeography! The spoilation of our towns is a lot easier to contemplate through the wrong end of a telescope. Take wind farms: I can sympathise with those who view them as a grotesque imposition on the dinky uplands. However, if we picture these novelty windmills as just that: children's beach toys buried in the sward, while the countryside itself is nought save a counterpane land, then the whole tedious business of global warming will, undoubtedly, become a lot more bearable.