When I read in the papers that Rod Stewart had achieved his lifetime's ambition by having his model railway layout showing Grand Central Station featured on the cover of Model Railroader, I recalled a few articles of my own.
I thought of a piece I wrote about the late Roye England, who always wore a mac, a beret and shorts, who went to church every day, lived on Crunchies and black bananas and who, along with the men who were his disciples, created the beautiful model railway layout at the Pendon Museum in Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire. I thought of the men I'd interviewed who'd set records for visiting every station on the London Underground within one 24-hour period, and I recalled the arcania of the rules they'd followed: it was permissible to proceed at street level between termini, but it was specified that you couldn't run, use a car or a bike – or a Spacehopper.
I thought of the men who take an interest in the movement of extra-large pieces of freight on Britain's roads and buy videos called things like Superhaul Volume 1, grainy productions featuring no commentary but every so often a mesmerisingly dour caption: "M62 Jct 37, crossing over to use 'on slip'."
I remembered the men who lie flat, and completely concealed, in coffin-like model battleships fitted with pyrotechnics in order to conduct mock naval battles on the boating lake at Peasholm Park, Scarborough; and the men at a mouse show in Cleckheaton who boasted of having bred a blue mouse, and whom I offended when I said I thought it was more grey than blue.
The key word here, of course, is "men". It is mainly men who have strange-seeming hobbies – it is mainly men who have hobbies full stop. Women are too sensible, unfortunately for them.
The appeal of many hobbies is in the creation or the mastery of a small, limited world. It is possible to own a copy of every record made by George Formby. It is possible to visit every Football League ground in the country, and to visit all the non-League ones when you've done that, and because it gives satisfaction to attain a finite end some men do these things.
But such activities serve no apparent procreative or social purpose, and so are thought of as representing the unsavoury side of the male character. As our society has become more sexualised, the male hobbyist has suffered. He is an anorak, a nerd; he probably can't get a girlfriend. Railway hobbyists are particularly castigated, and the staff of a railway bookshop in central London are under orders not to reveal the names of their better known customers, who include (since I'm under no such constraint) the Duke of Kent and Peter Gabriel.
I wouldn't be surprised if Rod himself hadn't been in there a few times, and he is quite obviously not into model railways because he can't get a girlfriend. He proves that building a model railway is not some grotesque displacement activity. As Rod is so successful on all fronts, his urge to re-create Grand Central Station at 187th of the scale transcends the stigma, and looks admirably cavalier and maverick. But those are the qualities of most hobbyists, if you ask me.
Men's peculiar pursuits stem from a capacity for dreaminess and self-absorption perhaps not found to the same degree in women. This is not women's fault. They have not historically had the freedom or free time of men, and their emancipation will be complete only when as many of them aspire to be modellers as models.
Andrew Martin's latest railway novel is 'Murder at Deviation Junction' (Faber and Faber)