TOM UTLEY: I don’t yearn to drive a Rolls Royce into a pool... but I do wish I had a hobby like Rod Stewart the model rail rocker
Until this week, the term ‘rock-star lifestyle’ conjured up in my mind pictures of drug-fuelled orgies with groupies, TV sets hurled out of hotel room windows, electric guitars smashed on stage and Rolls-Royces driven into swimming pools.
Not for one moment did I associate it with that gentlest, most innocent and — let’s be frank — nerdiest of schoolboy pastimes, constructing model railways.
But that was before Sir Rod Stewart unveiled to the awestruck readers of next month’s Railway Modeller magazine the miraculous product of his painstaking labours over the past 26 years.
As everyone who saw the pictures will agree, the model railway Sir Rod has lovingly constructed at his home in Beverly Hills, California, is to the average train set what HMS Queen Elizabeth — the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy — is to a pedal-boat on a municipal pond.
Sir Rod Stewart with the huge diorama at his house in Los Angeles. 'It's the landscape I like. Attention to detail, extreme detail, is paramount. There shouldn't be any unsightly gaps or pavements that are too clean,' he said
It’s not just the size of this masterpiece that’s so impressive (though at 124ft long and 23ft wide, you would need a house the size of a palace to accommodate it). No, it’s the huge trouble the singer has gone to in his effort to get everything exactly right in its creation, inspired by scenes in New York, Chicago and other American cities at about the time of his birth in 1945.
Indeed, if you didn’t know you were looking at photographs of a model, you would think these were images from the archives of the real thing, its streets packed with yellow cabs, trucks and limousines of the period and skyscrapers rising over a haunting industrial hinterland of coal-filled freight trains, docks, water-towers, factories and bridges.
‘It’s the landscape I like,’ he says. ‘Attention to detail, extreme detail is paramount. There shouldn’t be any unsightly gaps or pavements that are too clean.’
Sir Rod and two friends worked on elements of the layout while he was on tour, even booking an extra hotel room for their workshop
In his determination to recreate that authentic experience, Sir Rod has even added a soundtrack to his train set. ‘It’s really noisy,’ he says. ‘When the trains go through the city, there’s a city sound of New York. They go through the country, there’s birds singing.’
No wonder he’s proud of his achievement, the culmination of a lifetime’s passion for railways that took root as he was growing up in his now-demolished childhood home overlooking the tracks in North London.
So justly proud is he, indeed, that when Jeremy Vine dared to suggest on his Radio 2 show that he couldn’t have built this epic model single-handedly, Sir Rod rang in to protest that it was 90 per cent his own work.
‘The only thing I wasn’t very good at, and still am not, is the electricals, so I had someone else do that,’ he said, adding: ‘They say model railways are never finished, but this one is. There’s not much more I can do with it.’ I must say I’ve always liked Sir Rod’s songs, delivered in that inimitable rasping voice. To this day, I still play some of his old favourites on long journeys in the car — Maggie May, Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?, The First Cut Is The Deepest etc. Though I dare say rock connoisseurs will dismiss me as a lightweight, I will even confess to enjoying his most commercial of hits, Sailing.
While life on the road as a rock musician and its temptations has led to many contemporaries going off the rails, for Sir Rod railway modelling became an escape from the pressures of touring (pictured: Rod Stewart's HO Scale Model Railroad)
But until I saw the pictures of his extraordinary train set, I had never given much thought to the man himself. When I did, I felt a surge of admiration for his talent, his patience and dedication in executing that wonderful design. And along with that admiration went more than a twinge of envy.
What a wonderful thing it must be to carry through life an absorbing hobby — clearly as satisfying to Sir Rod at 74 as it was decades ago. Indeed, his abiding passion for model railways has set me wondering what on earth happened to the many enthusiasms of my own childhood, all long since abandoned.
In my schooldays, I had hobbies galore. Like so many of my schoolmates, I was an obsessive collector of butterflies, wildflowers, stamps, car brochures and cards from Brooke Bond tea packets depicting sporting heroes, freshwater fish, birds and exotic beasts (how well I remember the delicious smell of them, the haggling over ‘swapsies’ and the thrill of completing a set).
I also played golf, tennis, squash, the recorder, bugle and oboe. I made Airfix models of Spitfires, Lancaster bombers and Hurricanes, volunteered for dramatic productions, learned ballroom dancing and sang in the school choir.
I’m proud to say that I even performed as a boy soprano at the Aldeburgh Festival, under the direction of Imogen Holst, daughter of The Planets composer Gustav, with rehearsals attended by Benjamin Britten himself. Yet as I enter the autumn of my life (sons please note, my 66th birthday comes up at the end of this month) I’d be hard-pushed to think of anything to list under ‘recreations’ in Who’s Who. So it’s just as well I’m never likely to be asked to submit an entry.
True, I read quite a bit. But then I’ve always slightly sneered at those who list reading among their recreations. Shouldn’t it be taken as read that most of us read?
Meanwhile, dog-walking — my other chief activity since my semi-retirement a year ago — is surely more a duty than a hobby. (That said, I admit I derive much pleasure from meeting our ultra-cute mongrel Minnie’s legions of fans in our local parks.)
Otherwise, Mrs U handles the gardening and most of the cooking. These days I don’t paint, ski, sail, follow any football team, play a musical instrument or go to the theatre more than once in a blue moon. Nor do I sing, except in the shower or occasionally in the pub, where it’s a sure sign that I’ve had enough.
And I’m certainly not tempted by Morris dancing, yoga, bog snorkelling or larping (that’s Live Action Role Playing, I gather), as practised by such eccentrics as those who dress up as Cavaliers and Roundheads to re-enact the Civil War.
As for collecting anything, at almost 66 I’ve surely left it too late to start amassing antique toothbrushes, hole punches, rusting typewriters, old vacuum cleaners (see Sam Watson’s story on Page 41) or other such objects that seem to give mysterious pleasure to so many men. They’re almost always men. All very well in their place, but where’s the fun in collecting them?
Indeed, I’m reminded of the old joke about the bloke who complains to a drinking companion: ‘People say I’m odd because I like sausages.’
‘What’s so odd about that? I like sausages, too.’
‘Do you really? You must come round and see my collection. I’ve got thousands of them!’
Mind you, I don’t seem to have trouble filling my day, doing nothing much. Indeed, I’m loving my retirement — and the reader who told me I’d soon be wondering where on earth I found time for full-time work has proved plumb right.
Yet I can’t help feeling my life would be richer if I’d taken a leaf out of Sir Rod’s book, and kept alive an enthusiasm of my childhood.
It doesn’t bother me that in the course of my 66 years I’ve never cut a hit single, enjoyed a drug-fuelled orgy with groupies, driven a Roller into a swimming pool, smashed a guitar or hurled a TV out of a hotel window.
But if I could look back on a lifetime of dedication and satisfaction, culminating in the creation of a masterpiece as impressive as Sir Rod’s model railway, now, that would really be something.
Oh, for his rock star lifestyle!