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Loving the Trains- The story of Frank Graham and his model train layout

By July 9, 20087 Comments
[singlepic=14,320,240,,left]Sixty ”“three old Frank Graham, might easily strike you as the type of eccentric grandpa who never quite got round to pawning off his childhood train set; he would however far rather you refer to him as an ardent mini -railway hobbyist. This is, after all, a pastime best left to grown men (with ample pocket money) most of whom, in order to sate their insatiable locomotive lusts ,are prepared to pay up to R8000 per mini steam engine.
It’s not surprising that one of Graham’s earliest memories is as a small boy in the 1950’s, sitting out on the railway banks of the West Rand and ogling the passing steam trains. It is an interest he has perused through most of his life, having taken legendary train trips on the Blue Train, the Orient Express an the lesser known narrow gauge trains of Colorado. And while he might never got round to fulfilling his childhood dream”“ pursuing a career instead voicing a range of memorable characters in ‘Springbok Radio’ plays such as ‘Father Dear Father’,’Squad Cars’ and ‘Men from the Ministry’””he certainly never forgot. Which is why, in 1991, Graham set about purchasing a three- roomed apartment in a Durban suburb and constructing a model train -layout that would play host to several of his very own South African steam trains. Of course his trains are miniature replicas, not quite the real thing– but for any self -respecting train junkie– perhaps the next best.[singlepic=15,320,240,,right]Graham, you see, is a member of a small (roughly around 150) but committed group of model-train aficionados spread throughout the country, with model- train club-houses residing in city centers such as Pretoria, Cape Town, PE and Bloem. It is an interest that mostly attracts middle aged white-men, men who when not expanding their model railway empires, convene every eighteen months or so to size up their mini- locomotives (Yes, locomotive envy has been known to ruin friendships in certain hobby circles) or trade tips on how to coax the most convincing miniature trees from twigs and tufts of dyed foam.[singlepic=7,320,240,,left]Graham’s nationally renowned layout””one of the largest privately owned one’s in the country””measures just under a 100 m² and comes in at the scale of 1:87 (with the average length of a passenger coach coming in at 300mm) . Built on 1,1m high display tables which span every square inch of the three large bedrooms he has reserved entirely for his interest.Hovering above it, I’m instantly made to feel like Gulliver leering over a Lilliputian wonderland, while below me bustles a veritable ants nest of over one thousand -five hundred human figures, each no bigger then a beauty therapist’s fingernail. Endowed with such size-mic significance, comes the ‘Godzilla’ like temptation to wreak unforeseen havoc and destruction –an urge I resist by turning my attentions instead to Graham’s trains choo-chooing across the undulating rhinolite (a substance similar to plaster of Paris) mountainsides.[singlepic=1,320,240,,right]Tracking one of the train’s on its journey from the fir- tree coated highlands down to the sprawling city central station, I pass through Alpine mountain lodges and hedonistic beach resorts, while encountering hoards of miniscule plastic people poised mid-activity: man clipping his garden hedge; a woman getting a speeding fine; a couple getting married at the down town Cathedral; and even — a topless lady at the beach, bolding through the surf in pursuit of ‘a cheeky little bastard’ who has made off with her bikini top.Glancing back at their creator’s burly size and fingers, I can’t help but marvel over how such a figure could ever have succeeded in constructing such a dainty little utopia.”I’ve got the hands of labourer” he admits, “and have constantly amazed myself throughout this process.”[singlepic=5,320,240,,right]It is a process that has consumed Graham for the past seventeen years and one that has required him to literally think as a resident town planner might. – installing industries, recreational facilities, fast food franchises, post offices and convenience stores to meet his inhabitant’s daily needs.”When I started, I knew nothing about the hobby” he confesses, “I soon learnt you have to work from the back of the layout to the front when it comes to the scenery. You can’t go back in and change things afterward so you have to know what you want from the outset.”[singlepic=2,320,240,,left]Rather then simply assembling ready- made models from pre- packaged boxes (which are on sale at most hobby-stores and over the internet) Graham’s own touches of mini -ingenuity are present in details such as a curved piece of piano wire providing a kid with his suspended kite string; or fields of flowers painstakingly created with individual tooth- brush bristles as their stems.”You got think out the box.” he says, indicating a figurine weeping by a cemetery grave-side, “For instance, with her, it was impossible to order kneeling figurines, so I had to buy a sitting figure and snap her legs off. Of course I apologized profusely before re- gluing them back on in the necessary kneeling position.”Certainly no tour would be complete without Graham’s wry sets of observation””an accompanying monologue that instills his lifeless acres of plastic and plaster with detailed personal histories and autobiographical anecdote.[singlepic=10,320,240,,right]Over the duration of my guided tour, I’m introduced to a variety of characters and places such as: Petronella van Aswegen””the bedraggled Madame of an Amamzintoti caravan park/escort agency(named after a drag character he once had the misfortune of portraying in a cabaret), while the local beer manufacturer ‘Williams Breweries’ derives its title from Graham’s CNN camera-man friend, who left the line of duty before ‘suicidal alcoholism’ got the better of him.Having painted and placed each figure, building and blade of grass, Graham wields an omniscient eye over his universe’s daily proceedings, it of course helps that his micro- masses are never going to band together to form trade-unions or incite revolutions when their mayor decides to screw democracy and change the street and road names or unexpectedly hike food prices.[singlepic=9,320,240,,left]Furthermore, as model- train tyrant, Graham is able to indulge himself in a series of improbable everyday whims. Such an example is found when we arrive outside a charred little building being attended to by a group of unenthused firemen: this, I’m told with a degree of devilish relish– is the Receiver of Revenue offices having just burnt down.Back at the switch- board, I watch Graham flaunt his godly powers by flicking a switch which causes night to instantly descend on the rooms. It’s a magical transformation: causing the cities and suburbs of his model to flicker into wide spread illumination. Inside the glowing interiors of bars, restaurants ,I notice hoards of revellers while a rare touch of social-realism can be found in the two homeless people, huddled around the tepid flicker of a campfire (courtesy of a tiny grain-of-rice bulb fed up through a tiny hole in the bench work.) on the city’s outskirts. This, Graham tells me, is his favorite time of evening and it’s easy to see why.[singlepic=8,320,240,,right]What, I initially imagined to be a flimsy cover up for men with megalomaniacal tendencies, is disproved after an hour spent with my affable host. His locomotive fantasy world is something of an imaginative retreat–a world that runs parallel to out own yet without the pesky intrusions of time and politics. A world made all the more comforting for its predictability, its certainty–where the only municipal problems to occur are errant spider- webs collecting in those unreachable noeks and crannies of the model.It’s a hobby, I decide, that offers grown men a means for adolescent escapism (train fetishism?) without the potential for ridicule. As Graham reiterates: “This is the nearest and closest, I can ever get to my love for the real thing. It’s a passion that allows me to dream and remember at the same time.”[singlepic=6,320,240,,left]Amidst steady knocking of model steam engine compressors (two of his steamers have on-board sound that mimics those of a real train) I finally get round to asking which figure on his lay-out he most identifies with. It isn’t long before he has affectionately singled out a little boy, crouched on the bank of the model’s busiest railway line .”There I am,” he says with a trace of nostalgia colouring his modulated voice, “as a ten year-old boy, standing next to the tracks at Discovery on the West Rand and loving the trains, loving the trains.”


  • oscar says:

    that is a awesome colection!!! keep the good work.

  • keith C. Taylor says:

    all this reminds me of my grandpa

  • keith C. Taylor says:

    all this reminds me of my grandpa

  • Greg Hearmon says:

    My son is desperate to see your trains. He is 6 years old. Is it possible and if so how do I get in contact. We live in Hillcrest

  • Jan Ebersohn says:

    In the fifties there was a miniature train next to the Durban snake park. It was the only miniature train in South Africa I ever saw with a passenger coach, which as painted white. If I remember correctly it also had a balcony at each end of the coach.
    What has happened to it?

  • andre smit says:

    I am also mad about trains. Please write back, giving me your email or website.

  • Patrick Coyne says:

    Hi Frank
    Well remember our visit to you and your layout. So glad to see you are still acting. Best wishes for Golden Days of Springbok Radio. You won’t recall that I had several plays broadcast by it.
    I am still writing, if only a column for the SA Writers’ Circle.

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