There’s a quiet corner of the Surrey countryside that is forever England. You wouldn’t believe it but through an unprepossessing railway arch in Leatherhead, lies the world of the model steam railway. On 12 days a year this 9-acre site is open to the public for train rides run by the Surrey Society of Model Engineers (SSME.) It’s not just children who go mad for the little trains; they’re just as much fun for the grown-ups.
It’s one of those hidden gems (probably less hidden once this article is published) that is a throwback to another, gentler age, when a great day out for families didn’t necessarily involve exorbitant entrance fees, over-priced food and drink and the obligatory gift-shop before you can exit. Run by a team of volunteer enthusiasts, the SSME has been going for over thirty years, meeting two or three times a week to tinker with bits of locomotive (all home-made) and train track, building and maintaining their stock of 14 diesel, battery-powered and steam trains.
On “public running days” as they’re known, men with solid, traditional names such as Roger and John, get dressed up in their old-fashioned railwaymen uniforms and spend the day running train rides. They clearly enjoy getting their hands dirty shovelling coal, greasing parts that need oiling, checking points and filling up engine boilers with water to make steam. There’s frequent replenishment of large mugs of tea brought over from the old-fashioned canteen opposite the ticket office. The camaraderie between these train enthusiasts is palpable and there’s a spirit of “all hands to the pump” to ensure that everything runs smoothly. And it does. I’ve been to half a dozen of these “running days” but it wasn’t until my most recent visit, while my husband went on yet another train ride with our young sons, (see video) that I had a moment to reflect not just on model train rides but what lies beneath. At the risk of sounding a bit “Pollyanna-ish” I realised that the simple, old-fashioned values of enthusiasm, hard work, camaraderie, passionate attention to detail and politeness which characterise the society of model engineers are truly uplifting. The large, green field encircled by the model railway rides was full of families enjoying a picnic, some were celebrating children’s birthday parties, others kicking a ball around as they waited for the next train ride. All around me were relaxed, happy, smiling faces (and not a games console in sight!) A simple idea, brilliantly executed in the most un-flashy, thoroughly British kind of way. The result? A day of good, honest and inexpensive family fun. Oh and to crown it all, the sun always seems to be shining (at least when we’ve been.) Beat that if you can, theme parks!
So much has been written about her – during her life and since her death. Baroness Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher, Maggie Thatcher, the Iron Lady, whatever your preferred moniker, the mere mention of her name got a reaction whether it was heard or read. I deliberately chose not to write about her during the immediate aftermath of her passing, for fear the acres of newsprint and hours of airtime devoted to the story might end up sledgehammering this writer’s thoughts on the subject. Time for reflection is a luxury most journalists don’t have in the race to beat a deadline. On this story, the deadlines have been and gone and after some reflection, a time to distil the essence of Margaret Thatcher. She was one of few public figures whose ideology spawned an ”ism.” Thus Thatcherism has entered the lexicon of all who read, speak and write about her. Her single-minded determination to overcome any obstacles placed in her way on the rise to the top is now the stuff of political legend. She stood alone for much of her political and personal life – particularly since she was widowed.
Despite all her mighty political ideals and achievements, whether you admired or detested her, it’s hard not to feel sorry for a woman who died alone, in a hotel, with just a nurse and a doctor in attendance.
One of the Mums at my son’s school was a model. Everything she wears on the school run, no matter how ordinary, looks fantastic on her. Always. Don’t even think of competing in the “school run catwalk” I tell myself, she will always be, quite literally, head and shoulders above the rest. I then play “imagine” (just to amuse myself in a masochistic kind of way.) Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror every morning if you’re a model. You know that invariably, you’ll look great (except perhaps when you’re ill) because you were blessed by the DNA-God. How wonderful and liberating would that be? Never having to ask “does my bum look big in this?” because you know the answer will be “no it doesn’t.” Not trying things on before buying because you know they’ll fit beautifully. I’m sure I’m not the only one, dear reader, who would be off her head with joy at the prospect. Now, back to reality. What does that do to a person’s confidence throughout their lives and in turn how does it shape a personality? According to research by Northwestern University in America, “physical appearance is a major factor in the development of personality, because people form opinions by what they see in a person physically and respond to that person accordingly. In turn, people tend to fulfill the expectations they believe others have for them.” We know “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but we also know that statistically, you are more likely to succeed in life if you are good-looking than not. Discuss. Write in to disagree if you must. The evidence is all around us. Flip the coin and imagine how it shapes your personality if you are ugly? I’m not talking “average-looking” or “no great beauty” I mean physically unattractive, not being blessed by the DNA-God, “no oil painting” and any number of commonly-used phrases to describe someone who is plain ugly or in some way disfigured after an accident or serious disease. All those I know who fit this description are, without exception, less-than-sunny personalities (an umbrella-term that encompasses grumpy, bitchy, envious, cantankerous, irritable, frustrated, bitter and angry.)
Life is what you make of it and of course there are many famously successful “uglies” that can disprove any theory about the links between good looks and a successful life (think Aristotle Onassis, Woody Allen.) But if it’s true that people tend to fulfill the expectations they believe others have for them, would we choose a “head and shoulders” start in the catwalk of life if we could?
I was so taken aback by his words they made me stop suddenly. “We’re here to serve” said the head of my son’s kindergarten, after I’d asked to change one of his weekly sessions from Thursdays to Wednesdays. It was a simple request, admittedly, but I felt some trepidation at the time of asking. Why? Because life often feels rigid and inflexible whenever you want to do something that hasn’t been planned or put in writing with plenty of notice (I’m afraid to say the British are particularly good at this.) Or you’ve simply changed your mind because what you agreed to six months ago doesn’t work quite so well now. All this doesn’t apply to legally binding contracts by the way. Why should even the simplest things in life be set in stone? Why am I so shocked when someone goes out of their way to accommodate a request, in a shop for example, or when you get a helpful voice on the phone trying to rebook tickets that the “rules” say cannot be exchanged or refunded?
Today I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to do for some time but never had the courage. I’ve signed up to run a charity race. I wanted to raise funds like so many millions of others, to help find a cure for “the Big C” – that’s cancer in case you’re wondering. The disease that touches someone, somewhere almost daily. I am willing to bet good money that all of you reading this will know someone who has been affected by cancer. It was 1992 when I first heard about non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The man who first uttered those alien words to me was a doctor, who calmly told me that my father had it. “How did he catch it?” “Oh, it’s not catching” he reassured me with a wry smile, deliberately misunderstanding my question to try to ease the tension in the room. 18 months later and despite the best medical treatment in London, my father was dead. Continue reading →
Are choirs the new “rock and roll?” Apparently so, due largely to the popularity of Gareth Malone’s reality-TV programmes and his hugely successful hits with the Military Wives’ Choir. Suddenly, choral conductors are the sexy, new darlings of the media, on the covers of magazines and newspapers, lauded by the great and the good. Four-part harmonies are doing it for a nation of music-lovers like never before with choirs springing up everywhere and long-established, choral societies enjoying an unprecedented surge in membership. Can this phenomenon be attributed solely to the efforts of one charismatic, young choirmaster and his fogeyish charms? Continue reading →
This was the best quote of the day from Miriam González Durántez, a truly impressive, keynote speaker at the MumsnetBlogFest I attended recently in London. It might seem a bit of a presumptuous cliche but if you follow the thought through and realise that humans are shaped from infancy and that those infants might become the decision-makers of the future, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. I remembered the words of my independent midwife when I was pregnant with my firstborn: “for the first three years of your child’s life you will be laying down the emotional foundations that will support the rest of its life.” Quite an overwhelming responsibility for any parent. Continue reading →
A Mum at the school gate asked me when my five-year-old son would be free for a “play date.” Neither of us had a free slot until Christmas Eve. I headed off thinking “how and when did play time become so complicated?” When did a run-around in the fresh air after school or playing Lego with a friend require the formality of a diary consultation between parents? All the more baffling in this case because my son and his friend are in the same class at school and see each other every day. It’s a sad indictment of the hamster-wheel, busy lifestyle of many families today that some children don’t get to play spontaneously with friends. Continue reading →
Watching an episode of “Downton Abbey” in which Lady Sybil dies from complications following childbirth, made me think how far we have come in all matters relating to women having babies. I was appalled at how the life and death decisions in Lady Sybil’s case were made by men (her father and her father’s chosen specialist, who then argued with the family GP -another man- over what to do when things started to go wrong.) “That would never happen now” I said to my Mum watching next to me. Continue reading →