Sunday, January 12, 2014

Controversial Modelling

I should start this post by reminding readers, as I make it clear at the bottom of the page, the views expounded here are mine alone and not those of any publication I write for.

The cover feature of the latest BRM shows off Luton MRCs diorama of the events that took place in the so called "Great" train robbery in August 1963. The club have gone to great pains to ensure that they have produced a scene that is historically accurate and doesn't glamorise the events in any way, unlike most of the mainstream media accounts and those from the best known criminal associated with it all.

In advance of publication, there was a fair bit of discussion as to whether anyone would be offended by the model. The general opinion of those who I've talked to who have seen it is that the club have done a superb job. The story is told clearly and without any attempt to "sex-up" events. At the end, visitors are given the opportunity to donate to the railway benevolent fund. The model will be shown for 2 years, over the anniversary of the events and a year after. Then it will be dismantled. The static loco will be rebuilt as a conventional model and that will be that.

Obviously the most controversial aspect is the vicious assault on train driver Jack Mills, something that prevented him from returning to work again, the threats to his second man and those in the valuables coach.

Because of this, should there be no mention of these events?

I'd argue no. The mainstream media for many years have glorified those who took part as a group of lads who stuck two fingers up at authority. A bit like the characters in the film "The Italian Job" - forgetting that this was fiction whereas the train robbery was fact.

None of this was helped by Ronald Biggs overplaying his part in events. As it was he begged to be allowed to take part, and found himself in charge of recruiting a driver to move the train once the crew had been removed. The driver, Stan Agate, turned out to be useless at the job. Hardly the story Biggs wished to tell. It is perhaps a shame that he died the day a BBC drama clearly showed what a waste of space he really was and how his whole life had, if not been a lie, been a serious exaggeration.

Anyway, someone has to take back the story and tell it accurately. That mantle seems to have been taken by Luton MRC. If you want to know more, details of where the model will be displayed are on the club website.

This is all very well. Some people have been offended but not generally those who have taken the time to read the article or view the model. I find that very telling.

All this leads me to a bigger potential minefield.

2014 sees the 100th anniversary of the start of the first World War. Doubtless this will inspire many more models.

Are these to be seen as even more offensive? After all, the assault on a single man is awful but how much more terrible were the lingering deaths in no mans land of many thousands of brave men who had spent many weeks being taken to the front before being ordered over the top by (whatever Michael Gove says) idiots who had no grasp on the way warfare had changed since they last attacked people armed with little more than sharp sticks.

Should we pretend that none of this happened?

If you really want to go to extremes, should the bookazine "Railways and the Holocaust" that sat on the shelves for much of the end of last year have been banned? Even I had mixed feelings about that one although I can see it is an aspect of the story that should at the very least be documented.

My feeling is that we can't change history. All we can do is research in as much depth as possible and then make any recreations in either print or model form as accurate as possible. Then maybe we can learn some lessons.

I once helped take a layout called Overlord to Germany. It's a model of Southampton docks in the run up to D-Day. We asked the exhibition organiser why he had invited such a potentially controversial subject to the show.

He replied, "It is part of our history. Not a good part, but still part of our history."


Anonymous said...

A few years ago there was a layout based in Nazi Germany on the exhibition circuit.......complete with Swastika flags, etc.
One female viewer took great offence at this, but most people at the show where I saw the layout took the more balanced view that the layout was telling it like it happened.
The layout didn't glorify the Nazi era or, at the other extreme, seek to trivialise it.
Military modellers don't seem to have this hang-up.
Surely covering things up and denying certain unfortunate events took place is as bad as glorifying them?
Simon H

Anonymous said...

I find too much these days is considered controversial to the point where publication of it results in peoples offense and anger. Yes people have the right to be offended, but they don't have the right to force their offended opinions on others, condemning the author or publisher to the point where the work is lost. I, being from the US, have never heard of the Great Train Robbery, but if its a part of history, I have no problem with a models existence which documents a darker time in our past. Even if it offends people, those individuals can choose not to read the article, or look at pictures of what obviously is superb modeling. Let those who accept and learn from history enjoy the piece. Because thats what modelers do really, document the past in a visual way.

Frank Collins said...

The Great Train robbery, and both world wars are part of history and should be documented as such.
it would be easy to sweep these events under the carpet and forget these things happened.
I see no wrong in modelling these events so long as you say it is an accurate representation.
People should be able to see and learn from such displays.