A journey into a model world
DAVID BULLARD finds out that today's model railways are a far cry from the toy trains of his youth
He has managed to achieve that enviable state of nirvana by combining his hobby with his business. The business, which is nearly as old as Johannesburg itself, is A Portas (Pty) Ltd. George and his wife, Areti, are the third generation of the family to run the 102-year-old business - and they're not even looking to list on the stock exchange. Isn't it refreshing how some people still have a real perspective on life?
For 98 years the shop was in central Johannesburg, but four years ago it moved to the Galleria in Rosebank. Inside, there are barrels of olives imported from Greece while cheeses and all sorts of exotic Mediterranean goodies compete for space on the shelves. There are hessian sacks of herbs and spices, bags of the freshest cashew and pistachio nuts you will find in Johannesburg, imported chocolates and dried porcini mushrooms.
Areti makes temptingly sweet things like baklava to go with the strong coffee they serve the constant stream of railway enthusiasts who visit the shop. Apart from giving Greek and Italian cookery lessons, she also prepares delicious traditional dishes for the shop's loyal customers to take home and serve at dinner parties.
About 25 years ago, Areti tells me, her husband decided that it was time to diversify. Having been a railway fanatic ever since he was given his first model train (proudly displayed in the shop) at the age of three, the natural thing to do was to stock and sell anything to do with model railways. After all, what could be more logical than placing a model of The Nibelungen Express next to a display of Swiss chocolate. His section of the shop is appropriately known as The Shunting Yard.
Greek hospitality being what it is, a visit to talk trains with Lagoudis is not something that should be hurried. Apart from his encyclopaedic knowledge of railway travel, he can, and does, hold forth on the relative merits of different manufacturers and the sheer delight of model railways. "It is a combination of kinetic and static art," he tells me, "but more than that it is a complete hobby embracing collecting, engineering, photography, art and even the latest computer technology."
I look doubtful, and George whips out a catalogue to show me that the really sophisticated model railways are now operated from a computer terminal which can control 80 different locomotives each fitted with a microchip and able to operate independently of one another. "The invention of the microchip revitalised the model railway business," George tells me.
I have to admit that model trains have come a hell of a long way since the oval of track that I used to have on my bedroom floor when I was a boy. Fibre optics provide the tiny lights at the front of the engines and inside the carriages, clouds of smoke puff out of the steam trains and the microchips allow the model to replicate the inertia of a full-sized steam engine by slowing gradually; a far cry from the instant stop caused by simply switching off the current.
The locomotives themselves are miniature works of art. Correct in every detail right down to the tiny grab handles outside the drivers cab, the top-of-the-range models are made of metal as opposed to plastic, painted and then a sophisticated printing system adds such details as logos, writing and any other complex colour print work.
Inside they are even more impressive. George opens a Hag loco for me to reveal what looks like the workings of a Swiss watch. 'This is what differentiates the top-of-the-range from the cheaper models. All the moving parts are precision engineered and made of metal rather than plastic."
Clearly there is a huge difference between a toy train set and a model railway. The top of the range are Marklin and Hag. Fleischmann are slightly cheaper but also highly regarded. A single top-of-the-range locomotive will cost upwards of R3 000 compared with the R500 you might pay for a more basic model. Add about R220 for coaches, R50 for small freight wagons, track, buildings, scenery and all those little figures that stand on the platforms and you could be in for an initial investment of R15 000, although a perfectly respectable Marklin starter set is available for R4 500.
I ask George whether it's possible to buy little model English football hooligans to give your train set more authenticity. He doesn't think they're available yet but he does show me some small models of naked people - just in case you want to build a nudist colony next to your model railway station.