In praise of eccentricity or, Trains in a basement!

(some of) The varieties of human experience or,

Civilization and its contents

Quite a lot of years ago I heard an interview — probably on CBC Radio's As It Happens — with an elderly English gentleman who, late in life, had managed to achieve a small measure of celebrity (or at least, of notoriety) due to the fact that home was bursting at the seems with recordings of British radio programmes.

He had, it seems, spent more or less the entirety of the post-War years making tape recordings

His collection was remarkably catholic in its breadth — in decades of limited media, he had taped nearly everything — and polymorphous in its methods. His tapes included cassette and 8-track and reel-to-reel, of course, but also wax cylinders and other, more esoteric formats had at least for a time formed part of his personal archival arsenal. His house was literally stuffed with audio treasures.

The gentleman's fame was due to the fact that, until relatively recently, most broadcasters in Britain (as in most places) saw their work as entirely ephemeral and so reused their tape, in the interests of economy and of physical space. But mostly economy, know doubt.

In any case, there was this obsessive hoarder, tolerant wife and all, now lauded as an archivist. His collection included all kinds of stuff now regarded as historically and culturally significant, and which nobody else had any copies of.

Then came the kicker.

How, the amateur archivist was asked, had he managed to afford all this? Not just the financial costs, but the time to make all these recordings?

"Oh!" came the cheery reply, "I'm on the dole!"

Well, why not, eh? If not through the bliss of inherited wealth, how else would that veteran of the Second World War have managed to preserve a significant chunk of his nation's cultural history?

In honour of that worthy gentleman (whose name, I fear, entirely escapes me), and courtesy of the good offices of Cory Doctorow via Livejournal's Supergee, I present another man, with another tolerant wife.

I have no reason to think that Mr. Jason Shron has replicated a full-size VIA rail car in his basement with any input from the taxpayers of Canada, but his joyous enthusiasm for something most of us (no doubt) find pointless as best, if not an embarrassing waste of time, seems very much of a kind with the British gentleman who so loved radio. A "useless" obsession as beautiful in its own way, as any impulse towards art or science.

Will Mr. Shron's full-size toy ever be "useful"? Probably not. But I'm grateful it exists, and I am grateful he shared his joy with the rest of us.

Spread the word!

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