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In Miniature

By Simon Garfield, Canongate, 304 pages, £14.99

“No one is quite sure how Bekonscot, a model village in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, came to be,” Simon Garfield writes, but “the most satisfying story” begins in 1927 “with a housebound miniature railway that grew so big that a wife reached for the rolling pin: either it went or she did”. So the husband, accountant Roland Robert Callingham, took over the garden. He built a village around his railway, and people to live in it; impressed friends suggested the public might pay.

People were so keen that by the end of last year more than 15.4 million people had visited it. According to Garfield, what makes Bekonscot attractive is not only its size — a scale of 1:12 and 1:32, across an area of 40,000 sq ft — but its idiosyncrasy. (He is robustly dismissive of the soulless greatest-hits parade of, for instance, Mini-Europe in Belgium.) The hint of cattiness on the faces of the pub regulars in Bekonscot, the hopeful cricketer on the village green: there is a sense of unease, and of a clear point of view.

From the first person who climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower and was amazed to see Paris receding and Parisians becoming ants; from the moment, in fact, 40,000 years ago, when Venus figurines, a few centimetres tall, were first carved, we have been in thrall, Garfield argues, to the clarifying effects of scale. He takes the reader from Ancient Egyptian shabtis, miniaturised retainers who accompanied their employers into the realms of death, to the doll’s house Edwin Lutyens made for Queen Mary, in which every aspect, from the books to the telephone to the toilet, was made by the leading practitioner in the field: clocks by Cartier, cricket bat by John Wisden & Co, wine from Berry Bros, the art by Paul Nash and Arthur Rackham.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton and Siegfried Sassoon were among those who provided original work for the tiny, readable books; Gustav Holst wrote a score. It was so beautiful that actually playing with it was out of the question. We see Zaha Hadid attempting to reduce her vaulting ambition to 1:12 (it wasn’t very successful), and hold our breath as a micro-miniaturist describes replicating the Mona Lisa in less than a square millimetre (he used an eyelash for a paintbrush).

We also meet HG Wells , sitting on a nursery floor with his son, building cities and conducting battles; sometimes Jerome K Jerome helped, “knocking down 2-inch Zulus with his spring-breech loader”. Wells wrote two books about his enthusiasm, Floor Games and Little Wars, and has a decent claim to being the grandfather of video games. We move from the bathetic Miniatur Wunderland, in Hamburg, both “stupefyingly impressive” and “stupefyingly deranged” to the mysterious and moving, such as the Nutshell Studies of forensic scientist Frances Glessner Lee — doll’s house-style dioramas of murder scenes, where attention to every detail was the educational point. They are “but boxes of play, but they work an unfeasible trick: they cloud us with doubt, and doubt foreshadows inquiry”. We consider how a model of a fully loaded slave ship on the Middle Passage was handed around parliament in the 1780s, instantly doing the job no amount of words had yet been able to achieve.

Garfield, whose range of critical reference is equally wide (taking in WG Sebald, Walter Benjamin and Simon Armitage), is fascinating and often funny about why miniatures exert such a hold. The illusion of mastery is especially significant — the idea that, in Levi-Strauss’s phrase, the “intelligible dimensions” of a miniature can help us to feel in control in a world that rarely gives us that option. So does pure escape, though some of the examples Garfield offers deliberately complicate both instincts. The Chapman brothers recreated Goya’s horrifying etchings with remodelled toys, and scattered Nazis through other vitrine collections; in 1995 the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera used Lego to recreate a concentration camp. Part of the power of such work, Garfield notes, lies in the way it draws the viewer in, both as a voyeur and as a compromised agent: if you can see the horror unfolding before your eyes, why are you not reaching in to stop it?

As a (scaled-down) book, In Miniature is a well-built, highly polished entity. It is full of evocative sentences — the difference between Bekonscot and commercially bland Tucktonia in Dorset (1976-86) is “partly, one imagines”, that “it wasn’t crafted with patience and exasperation ... by damp volunteers” — and amusing drive-by thwacks (at the “peacock erudition” of Will Self, for instance). Garfield cannot resist one-liners. The printing of the entire opening page of A Tale of Two Cities on to the head of a pin “was the best of Times New Roman, it was the worst of Times New Roman”. That will either appeal, or it will really not. But what he also shows in abundance is the sympathetic understanding of the needs and travails of “ordinary” people that lit up his previous books such as My Dear Bessie and A Notable Woman (drawn from wartime diaries) and We Are at War, Our Hidden Lives and Private Battles, drawn from the Mass Observation archive. He has written, in The Error World, about how collecting stamps with mistakes on them was one way in which he himself attempted to cope with the collapse of his marriage, and he pinpoints why so many miniature worlds are not quite finished when their creators die: “completion ... ushers in a terrible void, and the admittance once again of unwelcome realities”. And he sees how, above all, miniatures are a celebration of human ingenuity for its own sake, and of the myriad ways in which we try to access our capacity — and slake our need — for wonder.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd