Thursday, April 19, 2007

Magnificent obsession

It started as a boy with a handful of Napoleonic grenadiers. More than 30 years later, Harry Pearson's hobby has cost him many thousands of pounds - and seriously threatened his credibility. So what drives a grown man to get down on the floor with rank upon rank of toy soldiers?

Thursday April 19, 2007
The Guardian

Every obsessive collector has the same dream. He or she is on holiday - in Devon, Berlin, Macau, Minneapolis-St Paul, the geography varies according to nationality and interest - when, in a back street, he comes across a shop filled with the objects he has been looking for, plus some he didn't even know existed, but which he instantly recognises as perfection.

Since I was 10 years old I have collected toy soldiers and for the past 20 years I have had this dream. I find the shop, and in it are all the little metal figures I have spent decades chasing, the brightly coloured toy soldiers that also filled the imaginations of Goethe, the Brontë sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson, HG Wells and Jerome K Jerome.

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In a glass cabinet by the counter are hundreds of split pine boxes of zinnfiguren, the 30mm two-dimensional tin figures they have been making commercially in Germany since the days of Frederick the Great. In another, dashing Moroccan Spahi in billowing cloaks by the French company CBG-Mignot. Next to them, a thin red line of 1in-tall Crimean War British guardsmen designed by Charles Stadden, a second world war veteran. Here they are at long last, and at prices that suggest the owner has no idea of their true worth.

Unfortunately, there is a nightmarish coda to my dream. I have no cash. I go off to find a bank. When I return, the shop is still there but instead of being filled with toy soldiers, it is filled with ... books.

I am a writer. You don't need to be Sigmund Freud to figure out what is going on here.

My friend Tony is a toy soldier collector like me. When I told him about my dream, he shook his head sadly. "You too, buddy," he said. "With me, it's that I know what the shop looks like, but I can't recall the address. I just know it's somewhere in Morecambe."

There are tens of thousands of people who share this nightmare. The British Model Soldier Society (founded in 1935) has 20 regional branches; the Chicago Toy Soldier Show attracts visitors from 25 nations spread across six continents; while Games Workshop, the world's biggest outlet for gaming miniatures, has an annual turnover of £140m.

The organisers of model armies, like those of the real thing, have little truck with minimalism. To us, more is more. It was always like this. Louis XIV inherited a collection of figures from his father that was said to be worth 50,000 ecus (around £400,000 today). Yet he ordered his finance minister to commission another 8,000. Captain William Siborne, whose splendid 1838 diorama of the Battle of Waterloo is on display in London's National Army Museum, had 160,000 half-inch tall figures made for his model. The manufacturer's name remains unknown because no receipts for the work have ever been found. Perhaps Siborne destroyed them so that his wife could not discover how much he had spent. It wouldn't be the last time that happened (or so a friend tells me). In the 1930s, French actor Sacha Guitry accumulated so many tin soldiers architects warned that, if he did not sell some, his Paris house would subside beneath the weight. Undeterred, he bought a mansion in the country and moved them into it.

A mate of mine who is a recovering alcoholic told me that the key thing about the descent into alcoholism is that the sort of person you drink with gradually changes. As your drinking hardens, so do the drinkers you associate with. "You go on kidding yourself. You can always point to somebody sitting at the table and say, 'Hey, but look, I don't drink as much as this guy.' Then one day you realise ... you are this guy."

Tony is my "this guy". Whenever I look around my office at the floor-to-ceiling shelf units containing the fruits of an obsession that began when I bought eight 25mm Napoleonic grenadiers of the Imperial Guard from a shop in Middlesbrough and wonder if, maybe, it's time to call a halt, I think of Tony.

I do not know how many model soldiers I have. I am frightened to count them. I can give you an idea, though. Last year, when my Greek, Persian and Early Imperial Roman armies were finally complete (or at least had reached a point when I could not actually scrutinise them in their entirety without retreating several dozen yards and using a fish-eye lens), I decided to sell the leftover figures on eBay. This was the spare stuff, my loose change. Most of them went to a bloke called Simon in Knutsford. The parcel weighed 4.2 kilos (9lb).

I do not know how many I have, but there are nowhere near as many as Tony has. Tony, by his own estimates, has 45,000 figures. Though it has to be said that at least half of them are 1/72nd scale plastic ones made in the former Soviet Union, which in my book do not count. Because it is plain to me that lead or white metal (a mixture of lead and tin) figures have a weight that is both literal and historical. Metal figures come with a small plug on the bottom of the base where the molten amalgam has been poured into the mould. It is their equivalent of a belly button. Plastic figures come attached to a plastic sprig, like leaves - they look as if they have been grown, not born. But for some reason Tony just cannot be made to see sense. So tacitly we have agreed never to speak on the topic.

I am not sure that Tony really needs a "this guy", but if he did there is Big Bill, a retired Fleet Air Arm flight sergeant. His figure collection fills up practically the whole of the ground floor of his house near Ashford and several sheds in the garden. All Big Bill's spare figures are stored in margarine tubs in the garage, neatly arranged on bookcases. I once asked Big Bill about Napoleonic Polish voltigeurs (infantrymen). He moved swiftly along the wall, grabbed a tub, and handed it to me. There was no label on it. "How did you know they were in this one?" I asked. "Blue Riband, sell by date 07/98," Big Bill said. If you wanted Renaissance Swiss mercenaries, they were in Stork 10/96.

Hobby has become a dirty word these days. In the 1960s, I would often hear friends of my granny's remark approvingly that so-and-so's daughter's husband had got himself a nice little hobby. A hobby was considered a step up from what men normally did when left to their own devices - getting drunk, betting on greyhounds and chasing hairdressers. Not any more. Nowadays, hobby is a word people tiptoe around like a social disease. They have euphemisms for it - "displacement activity", "leisure pursuit". Once I heard a woman discussing her husband's "niche interest" and it took quite a long time before I realised that she meant his passion for radio-controlled stockcars.

Even among the inadequate milieu of hobbies, toy soldiers rank very low. Indeed, I often feel it would have been easier if I had chosen a more socially acceptable niche interest such as sado-masochism. At best, the non-believer regards it as the province of socially inadequate geeks, at worst of gun-fetishising belligerents. In my experience, the latter tag is totally unfounded. Most toy soldier fans are no more under the impression that real war is glamorous fun than readers of Agatha Christie are that real crime is clever and entertaining. The French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that all of man's troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room. Most toy soldier collectors I know would sit quietly in a room for hours, days, weeks - usually with a Rowney S.34 sable paintbrush in one hand and a toy soldier in the other. If all the men on this planet spent their time colouring the horsehair plumes on their 1810 Bavarian fusiliers, the world would be an altogether safer place.

The geek thing is, as you may have surmised by now, somewhat harder to refute.

"Children worship their toys," wrote Anatole France. "They ask of them what men have always asked of the gods: joy and forgetfulness." I have always been an atheist, but in this one area at least I am a true believer.

But my faith does sometimes waver. There are days when I have wondered what I might have made of my life if I had not spent so many hours writing to dealers in Leipzig, Lombardy and Arizona, organising my Saxe-Weimar battalions, or trying to mix the precise shade of dark blue worn by the Netherlands foot guards during the War of Austrian Succession.

Once, when I was at Tony's house, surveying a newly acquired army of 20mm Restoration-era figures made in the 1960s by Marcus Hinton, an eccentric who cycled around Maidenhead dressed as an Edwardian dandy, I asked if sometimes he didn't think we should, you know, do something more grown up. "Like what?" he replied. "Fishing? Golf? Scientology?" I have never found an answer.

Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy's Own Story of Imaginary Combat by Harry
Pearson is published by Little, Brown.