I’m one of those people who wakes up listening to Radio 4’s ‘To-day’ programme every week-day morning. Partly, it’s about getting an early morning fix of the news, and partly it’s about not waking up to loud music. (And classical is no good because it send me straight back to sleep).
The downside, of course, is that so much of the news is doom and gloom. Catastrophe and disaster. Wars and recessions. But this morning, the business section was dominated, not by the credit crunch, but by the acquisition of Corgi model cars by Hornby trains.
Now these really are names to bring back memories.
My older brother was the car collector, and had an extensive collection of Corgi cars. Being over 4 years older, these got passed down to me, and I did play with them – my favourite being a Citroen DS, which had a spring-loaded suspension which mimicked the real thing. I could tell it was classy.
But my first love was always trains, and from an early age I began building up a collection based on a clockwork train set I was given when I was seven or eight. Over the years, the little clockwork shunter acquired a fair amount of track and extra wagons – no coaches, of course (too heavy for a clockwork train to pull). But it was inevitable that I would eventually fall under the spell of Hornby trains (then called Tri-ang Hornby).
For years, I would persuade my parents to buy the catalogues for me, with their front covers taken from paintings by the famous railway painter Terence Cuneo, (together with his signature mouse hidden in the painting). Inside, there were all the latest diesel models, and the novelty ‘Battle Space’ rocket trains. But I always hankered after a passenger train set, and a big express steam loco. Eventually, after enough nagging, I finally got a ‘Flying Scotsman’ set for Christmas in 1972.
I remember my father saying that he would have preferred a freight train, as there was more fun to be had shunting trucks than just watching a passenger train going around, occasionally stopping at a station. With hindsight, he was right, of course, but then I had some trucks to play with anyway. I can recall the excitement and glee when I first opened the package, and the impatient anticipation as I waited for us to set it up at my Grandmother’s in Wales, where we spent that Christmas.
Over the years, I added a Great Western 0-6-0 pannier tank to the layout, as well as a station, level crossing, and all sorts of other accessories. Alas, our house was always a constraint, as there wasn’t enough room to leave it permanently out, and setting it up and putting it back down again was such a faff. Also, in my mid teenage years, my interest moved on to real trains, and I began travelling around the country on them. With great reluctance, I put an ad in the local rag and sold the layout to a father and son, with the hope that they would get as much joy out of it as I had.
The story of Hornby is a classic of our times: how the inventor of Meccano spotted the gap in the British market for electric train sets with trains which carried the famous train liveries of the day; how, after a series of mergers in a declining post-war market saw Hornby absorb (and be absorbed by) other toy train companies, until manufacturing had to be shipped out from the famous Margate plant to the Far East to keep costs down; how Hornby bought rival model company Scalextric, and now Corgi.
Of course, all this has been driven by the inexorable decline of the mass market for such toys in the face of computers and computer games. Model trains and cars now have a dedicated but niche market with collectors and die-hard model fans.
However, the IT revolution has come full circle: Hornby has given its name to a computer game where you can built your own layout in an imaginary shed or loft, lay the track, arrange the scenery and accessories, and then add trains. It’s not quite the same, of course. But I still don’t have enough room for a real layout, so nearly 40 years after my first layout, I’m now the proud possessor of a virtual one...