Updated: Mar 2
While 1978 might be better known as the year the Unabomber began his career as a lunatic at Northwestern University, and David Michael Rorvik cemented his by claiming he participated in the creation of a human clone, and a brand new arcade game called Space Invaders changed our lives forever, a much more important event was happening in an upstairs room of a house on the busy Edgware Road, in the very center of London.
The Ryness Valley Railway was incorporated, and began serving the surrounding town and countryside.
Oddly, the RVR, as it was known to those familiar with the operation, was based in what appeared to be the Swiss Alps, though the coaching stock were liveried for the East German DR, the Czech CSD, the Hungarian MAV, and the Polish PKP, and were often pulled by blue British Rail diesel brutes. There were also some wagons with Palethorpes Pork Sausages written on the side, and some older brake vans with mismatched wheels.
Anyway, the RVR ran day and night (but mostly day) to the town of Ryness and back to the town of Ryness, via a couple of tunnels and a waterfall. Every now and then there was a slight derailment, but an ancient red crane wagon was always on hand to put things right. No lives were ever lost, or injuries incurred, though a cow was once briefly trapped under a Mitropaspeisewagen.
For my 12-year-old self my HO-scale model world was a brilliant distraction from my somewhat-illegal evening job stocking shelves at my father’s liquor store, and my torturous long-division homework, the usefulness of which still eludes me after forty-one years. But it served no real purpose other than to abet my compulsion to collect railway coaches from everywhere but Ryness, and my endless obsession with miniaturizing what I saw around me.
For King Vajiravudh, also known as Rama VI or Phra Mongkut Klao Chao Yu Hua, of Siam, now Thailand, his own miniature obsession was far more important, and he’d probably view the current unrest in his country as unnerving and ironic, and would certainly lament “Thailand's grinding transformation to arrive in the 21st century."
Vajiravudh became the king of his nation at the age of twenty-nine, and ruled the Southeast Asian country until his death in 1925. This followed a robust and very British education at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, near Guildford, Law studies at Christ Church in Oxford, and tea and crumpets at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
It was probably during his time in Britain that King Vajiravudh acquired that quintessential love of all things miniature, as I did later, and as Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke did in 1899, when he energized and activated the British model railway market with his exceptional scale models.
While Bassett-Lowke crafted corridor connectors and blueprinted buffers and bogies in Northampton, King Vajiravudh selected a plot in Dusit Park, near where the present Congress building stands today in the capital Bangkok, and began building the city of Dusit Thani.
Meanwhile in London, the Ryness Valley got a row of three splendid Alpine lodges that sat atop a curve in the far corner, awaiting a new road that would be built at the weekend, while the football was on.
Dusit Thani was far grander, of course. It contained scale palaces and government buildings, hotels and restaurants, twelve-story skyscrapers, public services like hospitals and a fire station, a clock tower, bridges, canals, and working locks, and a range of domestic dwellings.
The only difference between Dusit Thani, and say, Milton Keynes, was that Dusit Thani was only one-fifteenth life-size and had a real purpose for existing, whereas Milton Keynes is full-size and doesn’t.
As Thailand's current government starts a worrying slide into dictatorship by arresting prominent protest leaders of the current pro-democracy movement, and announcing a ban on people gathering to say how they feel, King Vajiravudh will be turning in his full-size tomb, because he anticipated this very struggle more than one hundred years ago.
Having already created military academies, colleges, and public schools for his citizens, and improved the Siamese healthcare system, creating the first public hospitals in the country, the King decided next to build a micro-city, dedicated to educating his court noblemen about the concepts of equality and democracy, which he wanted to stand as the future principles of his country.
At about the same time, Bassett-Lowke was imagining a plethora of modeled re-creations, as well as importing British-adapted models from makers like Bing and Carette, in his own attempt at equality, enabling every enthusiast and collector to own the same quality of models being enjoyed in countries like Germany and France.
Whatever gauge you had a penchant for, the British model railroader could now bask in the glory of the LNER’s pea-green livery, or the LMS’s deep-red richness, and model railroading in Britain exploded in a confetti of miniature ballast.
Those marching yesterday, across the city from Democracy Monument in Bangkok, calling for immediate reform of the monarchy, and throwing the three-fingered Hunger Games salute, also seem near to exploding, restraining themselves just long enough to get home unharmed for the most part, and maybe pay homage to King Vajiravudh, who championed democracy first in their country.
The King, who became simply ‘MR. Rama’ to participate on an equal footing with those around him, had craftsmen reconstruct the houses of members of his court in the miniature city, and hosted ideological and philosophical debates between the two political groups, the Blue Party and the Red Party. An election was subsequently held and the new elected government wrote the constitution for the nation, which was printed in the Dusit Thani newspapers, mailed using Dusit Thani’s own stamps.
Ryness didn't get that kind of treatment, but telephone poles made from toothpicks did start carrying stringy electricity to those lodges, so that at night the inhabitants didn’t feel left out on that high ridge, next to the heating thermostat.
King Vajiravudh intended to show as well as explain democracy, believing it was a concept that had to be seen in action to be understood completely. But intention, as always, is rarely enough.
The King died in 1925, and work on Dusit Thani immediately ceased. Although some tried to continue building, it was never fully completed. And while absolute monarchy was replaced in the early 1930s with constitutional monarchy, which today's Thais are fighting to reform further, the city was abandoned and left to rot.
Much of it, like the democracy it sought to exemplify, was thrown away, and only a tiny bandstand remains of the great democratic experiment of Dusit Thani.
Bassett-Lowke's own decline began mid-century, when interest in mechanical micro-engineering waned, and competition from US makers like AC Gilbert and Lionel, who looked to corner the market rather than open it up, overtook his idea of equality of ownership.
And the Ryness Valley Railway also halted service permanently in the mid-80s, when the chief operator was moved to the north of London by his uncompromising parent company, who showed scant regard for the people of Ryness, who had no say whatsoever in the running of their own miniature world.