Model Villages, Short Stories, and Other Miniatures




Model Villages, Short Stories, and Other Miniatures by Geoff Nicholson

When it comes to trying to make a piece of fiction, scaling down is an essential strategy. The world has "scalability" in spades.

July 25th, 2011 reset - +

I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THE NOVELIST in the lunatic asylum, the one who decides to write a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it. Pursuing his own mad logic, he gets along pretty well until the moment he realizes that if he's really going to describe the whole world and everything in it, he'll have to include himself writing a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it, and within that novel he'll have to include himself writing a novel, and so on, thereby entering a regress of novels within novels, worlds within worlds. Sounds like way too much trouble, doesn't it?


What the madman doesn't realize is that attempting to create a work that encompasses the whole world, is to create a work that's equal to the world, like those maps described by Borges in "On Exactitude in Science" or by Lewis Carroll in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, maps with a one to one scale, maps that are equal in size to the territories they chart. "Have you used it much?" Carroll's narrator enquires.


The real problem for the novelist in the asylum is not that of sanity, and clearly not lack of ambition, but of scale. In the end, any work of art that attempts to describe the world must inevitably be a kind of miniature.


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"Scalability" is a word I only knew some of the meanings of before I started writing this piece. One meaning is straightforward enough, "able to be scaled," simply meaning that something might easily be increased or reduced in size. But the word has a more specific meaning, as a property of systems, usually software or telecommunications, that are able to expand in an efficient and coherent manner; a "scalable" system is one that can handle growing amounts of data or usage.


It's also a business term. Starbucks is both the model and the whipping boy of entrepreneurial scalability. We might once have thought that a corner coffee shop was a single, quirky, local enterprise, impossible to reproduce on a grand scale. (Ha!) But having expanded so successfully, Starbucks is now having to scale back, get smaller, which in commerce is generally considered a very bad thing, and even worse if you're an employee who gets "downsized." In the real world, however, things are growing and contracting all the time. And when it comes to trying to make a piece of fiction, scaling down is an essential strategy. The world has "scalability" in spades.


It is a testament to my slackly naive grasp of the business world that I cannot hear the term "business model" without imagining an old fashioned children's toy, one of those miniature butcher shops, post offices, garages - a scale model, if you like, as in model car, model railroad, model village. In the business model I imagine a little office set, complete with tiny cubicles, desks, and computers, with appropriately sized "action" figures digging through filing cabinets or standing by the water cooler.


Actually, now that I think of it, I find the idea incredibly attractive, and I wonder if somebody out there is right now creating such a model of a business model. I hope so. Scale models and small worlds fascinated me when I was a kid, and the truth is I've never really outgrown that fascination. I don't think this explanation is entirely why I became a novelist, but it's reason enough.


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Will Self's most recent novel Walking to Hollywood features a character named Sherman Oaks, a school friend of the book's narrator, who's named Will Self. Oaks is a self-reliant, precocious, strangely confident, and subversive little kid, who's also a dwarf. In the course of the novel Oaks becomes a very successful conceptual artist, making monumental sculptures based on his own body, pieces that are "twice or three times life size." I think there are enormous perils in including dwarves in satirical or comic fiction, but in Self's book the art, the success, the psychology of Sherman Oaks seems utterly convincing.


Oaks creates a sculpture titled Behemoth, "a 128-foot-high body form set astride the Manchester Ship Canal," and the fictional Self is given a 1:200 scale model of the thing as a present. It's a satisfying corollary to Damien Hirst's Hymn, a twenty foot high scaled up version of an anatomical model of the human body that Hirst's son used to play with. To be precise, the model was "The Young Scientist Anatomy Set," made by Humbrol Limited, who say they sell more than ten thousand of these toys per year. (And yes, a legal case did ensue. It was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, though Norman Emms, the toy's original designer, said it was less than he had hoped for.)


The miniature of Behemoth is a suitable gift for the novel's fictional Will Self, since he "has a love for all things out of scale." He places the figure "among the little wooden blocks and cylinders modeled on London landmarks - Big Ben, the Millennium Wheel, Telecom Tower - that my daughter had bought for me at Muji, and that I had arranged around the anglepoise in the middle of my desk." Inevitably in Walking To Hollywood, Self plays with the distance between himself and his fictional namesake, but here at least there isn't much wiggle room between the author and his creation. That the living Will Self also has a love of all things out of scale is easy enough to prove. For one thing he says so right there in his introduction to the book Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu.


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Slinkachu is a British street artist, a photographer, a maker of installations, but most importantly he's a miniaturist. He takes commercially available figures - these are the "little people" of his book's title - just an inch or so high, the kind used for populating model railroad scenes. He paints them, modifying them to a greater or lesser degree, and places them outside in the streets of London or, increasingly as his career progresses, in other parts of the world. Sometimes there's a recognizable landmark in the background, and always there's a conceptual, un-toy-like dimension to the pieces. Policemen in a dinghy float across the surface of a puddle, retrieving a tiny corpse that's lying face down under the water. A miniscule pervert exposes himself while standing next to a bus stop. A father protects his teddy-bear-clutching daughter by shooting a giant (which is to say life-sized) wasp: this piece bears the wonderful caption, "They're not pets, Susan."


Now, Slinkachu is hardly alone in creating and photographing miniature tableaux. But unlike, say, David Levinthal who in Baseball and Hitler Moves East uses miniatures (and the grammar of photography) to convince us we're looking at the real world when actually we're looking at a scaled-down version, Slinkachu's creations are stranded in that real world, adrift and lost in it, minute yet fully complex men, women, and children, characters just like us.


Self's introduction to the book is short and wide-ranging. He invokes Gulliver's Travels, Friedrich ("architecture is frozen music") von Schelling, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoting from The Savage Mind: "The intrinsic value of a small-scale model is that it compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligible dimensions."


"As I write this foreword," he says,


I look down from the vertiginous height of my torso, upon a tiny set of wooden Central London buildings - the London Eye, the Gherkin, the Telecom Tower, Westminster - that are grouped on the base of my Anglepoise lamp, together with a "Minumental" sculpture by Paul St George, which is itself a 1/500th scale model of Antony Gormley's Angel of the North.


So yes, let's agree that Will Self has a love for all things out of scale.


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Now it so happens that I own an earlier version of that set of wooden buildings Self's daughter bought at Muji, though mine does not include London landmarks but more generic shapes: "Village in a Bag," it's called. (I'm thinking I need to buy the new improved set as well.) And if you look around my office you'll also see models of (among other things) the Eiffel Tower, the Atomium in Brussels, Manhattan's Flatiron Building, the Unabomber's shack.


I mention this not to imply that Will Self and I are soul brothers but rather to suggest that as men of a certain age who grew up in England at much the same time, even with very different backgrounds, we were subject to many of the same boyhood influences. I cannot swear that Will Self built Airfix kits, played with Dinky toys and Hornby trains, made cranes and drawbridges out of Meccano, or built balsa wood planes and Superquick trackside buildings, but I'd be surprised if he didn't do some of those things. I certainly did. Successfully building the Superquick country church with louvers and Rhenish helm spire remains one of the highlights of my early adolescence.


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It's hardly surprising that children are drawn to miniature versions of the world. In their daily lives they feel powerless, beleaguered, at the whim of inscrutable adults. They have power in the world of toys and miniatures; they can impose their own whims. In the world of adults they're Lilliputians. In the world of play they're Brobdingnagians.


Equally it's hardly surprising that certain miniature forms, such as toy farms or model railroads, no longer fascinate many children. The modern kid can go a whole childhood without seeing an actual farm or railroad, so a miniature version isn't likely to have much resonance. But toy cars and action figures, with all the ancillary products, seem to retain their grip on boys, and often on grown up boys as well.


Girls, I think, have it much harder. Girls' toys just never seem as much fun as boys' toys, though I realize this may be a boyish perspective. Bratz dolls may have their "Passion 4 Fashion Dream House," but it seems pretty tame compared to the Batcave. And sure, My Little Pony has a certain appeal but aren't Godzilla and Megalon just a bit more compelling? Okay, full disclosure: a miniature Megalon sits on a shelf beside my desk, but I only bought it because the base contains a really well-modeled oil refinery that Megalon is about to crush beneath his feet.


Computer and video games seem to stand in a peculiar relation to all of this. Yes, they involve the creation and destruction of miniature worlds, but they lack the crucial materiality of models. You can see the world of Grand Theft Auto on a screen, you can hold it in your imagination, but you can't hold it in your hands. In this sense, arguably, virtual games resemble fiction.


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I'm not going to pretend that I tour the world seeking out dioramas, model villages, and miniature railroads, but the fact is, if there's one within striking distance I'm there. These exhibits vary from the hobbyist's to-do, such as the Toy Train Depot in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to the high art of Jake and Dinos Chapman's Hell, consisting of multiple museum vitrines containing 30,000 two-inch figures, most of them performing or suffering nightmarish atrocities, many of them Nazi-style but with broader manifestations of religious mania and primitive savagery. (In fact, when the work I saw at the Royal Academy of Art in London was destroyed in a fire in 2004, the Chapmans promptly made another, even bigger version, wittily naming it Fucking Hell.)


Other favorites: the dioramas in the Tombstone Western Heritage Museum depicting the gunfight at the OK Corral; the Museum of London's many dioramas of the city, including one as it appeared in 1666 that from time to time bursts into convincing artificial flame to recreate the Great Fire. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City is home to The Garden of Eden on Wheels, featuring miniature mobile homes and trailer parks. In the Le Musée de L'erotisme in Paris, I once saw a tiny, beautifully made dungeon in which two dominatrixes were at work on their kneeling male victim: a piece titled Chez le Marquis.


And I will go a long way to see a model village. This is a peculiarly, though not uniquely, British form. The world's oldest model village is Bekonskot. It's in Beaconsfield, about 25 miles from London and it's still a great attraction. In the late 1920s Roland Callingham, a wealthy London accountant, started it by creating an elaborate outdoor model railroad in his garden. There had been miniature railroads before, but Callingham seems to be the first to have built an entire world around a model train. Bekonscot was extraordinarily elaborate to begin with and has only become moreso over the years: it features a former swimming pool at its center, with islands and bridges, a castle, cable cars, thatched cottages, a coalmine, and a railroad custom-built by the Bassett-Lowke company (the gold standard of British model railroads). The village currently covers an acre and a half.


Initially Bekonscot was intended solely for the amusement of Callingham and his guests, though he soon opened it to the public in order to raise money for charity. (One early visitor was the eight-year-old Princess Elizabeth, later Queen of England.) Subsequently, a great many more model villages were built across Britain, usually as commercial ventures - tourist attractions - and often in resort towns or at the seaside. Today they remind us of a safer, happier, more innocent time, one in which kids could be kept amused simply by looking at miniature churches and bowling greens. This innocent world was perhaps always essentially imaginary.


Even the best model villages never get the scale absolutely right. Miniaturization often involves exaggeration. Some of those people wouldn't really be able to get into some of those cars; that football pitch is only the quarter of the size any real pitch would be, given the size of the players. And, occasionally, something monstrous breaks the frame: those real marigolds growing in the flowerbed would be six feet across in village scale, and the bird pecking at the ground beside it is as big as an aircraft. More than that, of course, there are real life-sized humans walking along the paths that run through the model village, towering over the buildings, looking a little like Gulliver in Lilliput, but far more like the Fifty Foot Woman in that science fiction movie from the 1950s: easily capable of attacking and crushing this small, adorable world.


But these model villages don't just play with scale. They also play with time. These are worlds in which time is frozen and all things are happening simultaneously. Football and cricket matches are in progress; there's stock car racing; the fun fair and the circus are both in town. There's a wedding in the church, a burial in the churchyard. At the Merrivale model village in Great Yarmouth (one of my particular favorites) a medieval peasant is about to punish his wife on a ducking stool.


Look, I'm not trying to make inflated claims for each and every toy village and doll's house in the world, but the best of them have a life, a verisimilitude, a mimetic vitality that many works of art with much higher ambitions simply lack. Of course, in the end, the best novel will always be better than the best model village, but who wouldn't prefer a good model village to a bad novel?


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Now, it just so happens that Will Self's short story "Scale" (which, for what it's worth, is my favorite single piece of his writing) is set in and around Beaconsfield, and its narrator, an author responsible for such titles as Murderer on the Median Strip and A History of the English Motorway Service Centre lives right next to the model village, in a bungalow so small that for tax purposes he manages to disguise it as one of the dwellings in the village itself. The name Bekonscot isn't mentioned in the story, but, you know, how many model villages are there in Beaconsfield?


This narrator, like many a Will Self hero, takes an interest in drugs, extracting opiates from bottles of kaolin and morphine mixture, a product that American readers may be surprised to know is still available over the counter in Britain as a cure for diarrhea. After the narrator has desiccated some of the liquid in a tray in the oven, he's left with "a miniature Death Valley of hard-baked morphine granules."


The story also contains a dream sequence in which he experiences a series of "vertiginous descents in scale," which eventually becoming so small as to be subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. "Were I to be in any way observed," the hero thinks, "I could ... cease to exist altogether!" In this state he explores the model village, the size and distances becoming ever more immense as he shrinks. "It took me three months to ascend, back up the six separate stages of scale ... Oh the stories I could tell! The sights I saw! ... As it is I have restrained myself."


This is all happily in the spirit of Lewis Carroll (eat me, drink me) and perhaps of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" (One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small), and we all know that drugs mess with perceptions of time and distance. Even so, I assumed this kind of drug-induced dysmorphia was essentially a literary conceit, at least until I read Steve's Martin's memoir Born Standing Up. He recounts a routine he used to do on stage in the late 1960s. Using what he tells us was a secretive, low whisper he'd say:


I'm on drugs ... You know what I'm talking about ... I like to get small ... It's very dangerous for kids, because they get really small ... I know I shouldn't get small when I'm driving, but I was drivin' around the other day and a cop pulls me over ... and says, 'Hey are you small?' I say, 'No I'm tall, I'm tall!' He says, "I'm gonna have to measure you.' They give you a little test with a balloon. If you can get inside it, they know you're small ..."


This is "drug humor" to be sure, but it turns out there is an actual neurological condition involving body image disturbance, specifically macropsia and micropsia, the sensation that one's body is very large or very small. It seems to be connected with migraines, and is sometimes known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, the symptoms of which are sometimes described as "Lilliputian hallucinations."


I don't know if Will Self is a migraine sufferer or not, though there is this inscrutable reference to migraine in his blog entry for June 10, 2010. "A migrainous day: suitably, perhaps, as the research I'm doing at the moment jumps off from Oliver Sacks's Awakenings - a book that deeply impressed me when I first read it, and continues to do so - and he is notoriously a sufferer. My mother had skull-splitting three-day migraines that sent her, reeling like a Mafioso gunned down, to the mattresses. Mine are somewhat different, and only appeared after I'd banged my head on a wall in frustration during a holiday in Lanzarote."


I'm not sure how many layers of irony there are in that. But we do know that Lewis Carroll was a migraine sufferer, and Jonathan Swift suffered from Ménière's disease, which is related to migraine, though its symptoms tend to be vertigo rather than altered perceptions of scale. Either way, as an explanation of Carroll's or Swift's or Self's writings, this seems (so to speak) reductive, and neither necessary nor sufficient. You don't have to be a migraine sufferer, nor a drug user, and certainly not a writer of fiction, to find yourself wondering what it would be like to be the Incredible Shrinking Man or the giant toddler in Honey I Blew Up the Kids.


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There is a book that I've been struggling with by Susan Stewart. It's called On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, which sounds like it should be a crucial text for this discussion, and maybe it is, but it's written in a way that seems to guarantee the very tiniest number of readers, and I can't quite include myself in that subset. A not entirely random sample runs, "The narcissistic, even onanistic, view presented by the miniature, its abstraction of the mirror into microcosm, presents the desiring subject with an illusion of mastery, of time into space and heterogeneity into order." Well, yes, I think I see what she means, but I wouldn't have put it quite that way, and I wish she hadn't.


But she does say one thing that I keep coming back to: "There are no miniatures in nature; the miniature is a cultural product, the product of an eye performing certain operations and attending in certain ways to, the physical world." I can't decide whether this is profoundly true or just blindingly obvious. Is it actually any different from saying there are no works of art in nature? Obviously there aren't, but perhaps, more crucially she's insisting that the world cannot represent itself, and it can't represent anything else either: it can only be what it is. The world cannot have a subject, whereas somewhere along the line, a novel, a piece of fiction, really does have to be about something.


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When Walking to Hollywood was published in Britain, Will Self wrote an article for the Guardian explaining the book's origins and explaining again his interest in scale. Much of it was familiar but Self also told a story about someone who came to see him, a man who was compiling a book of photographs of British motorway services. The man had with him a photograph of Godshill Model Village on the Isle of Wight, a model village that contained a model village that contained, that's right, a model village. Self wrote, "Such has been the grossly circumscribed compass of my life's work." I think he was protesting too much, but it's a familiar worry for a writer.


In "Scale," the narrator's father says to him:


There's no sense of scale in your books ... You can have a limited success chipping away like this at the edges of society, chiseling off microscopic fragments of observation. But really important writing provides some sense of the relation between individual psychology and social change. You can see that if you look at the great nineteenth-century novels.


Well, these are certainly words with which someone might torture a novelist, words with which a novelist might torture himself. Who would not wish to create works on the grand scale, books that have stature and scope, that move widely through time and space, covering large swathes of human history and experience? The problem, if you're not careful, or if you're not good, is that you end up writing "sweeping sagas" with "larger than life" characters in which the hero does the right thing, gets the girl, and single-handedly wins whatever war he happens to be fighting.


And yet many writers (and I think I speak not only for myself here) dream of creating a different kind of Big Book, a novel so vast and encyclopedic that its sheer size, bulk, and density demand attention and respect. Its structure will be loose and all-embracing enough that anything and everything might justifiably find its way in: think Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, Life: A User's Manual.


At the same time we also tell ourselves that size doesn't matter. We know that if a work is sufficiently intense, concentrated and crystalline, then it can have even more power than those big, baggy, fictional monsters: think Candide, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, any story by Borges.


We console ourselves with the thought that we might not have to describe the whole world and everything in it, not even build a whole model village. Perhaps a perfect diorama would be enough.


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