The fascination with seeing the world in miniature has been with us for centuries, in the form of dolls’ houses, battle re-enactments, bijou cityscapes and small-scale scenes from nature. But now an enterprising Belfast modelmaker has brought the irresistible allure of the miniature up to date and on to the streets.
Gareth Hutchinson sells security-force vehicles, from the Troubles era to the present: fire engines, crowd barriers, police and army figurines. In short, everything you need to create your own customised, Belfast-style riot diorama. And the kits are flying off the shelves: the Northern public just can’t get enough of them.
Although the proportions are tiny – all the kits, which must be built from scratch, come in the classic Hornby model-railway scale of 1:76 – the effect of these dioramas is surprisingly powerful, both comical and disturbing, alien and familiar.
Once you get up close it’s clear that the verisimilitude of the scene is extraordinary, right down to the street signs and the manhole covers.
A riot cop, small as a fly, reels back as a protester aims a flying kick at his protective shield. A white police Land Rover has a carefully applied coat of rust along the wheel rims. A burnt-out Ulsterbus smoulders in the background. And a tiny man in a balaclava watches the entire drama unfold from the upper window of a terraced house. The more you look the more you see, and the eye grows hungry for detail.
Hutchinson, the owner of Modelshopbelfast.com, has been immersed in the world of tiny riots, both selling the kits and building dioramas, for more than five years. But he came to wider attention last June, when the Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly was filmed clinging to the front of a moving PSNI Land Rover after a contentious Orange Order parade in Belfast. "I was sitting at home, watching what happened on the television, and I thought I could put a wee figure, dressed as Gerry Kelly, on a Land Rover as a joke," says Hutchinson, who put the customised vehicle in the window of his shop the next day.
The response was enormous: the picture was shared by people all over the world, including the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, and Hutchinson was inundated with requests for identical models.
They're all here
The idea for the riot scenes grew out of Hutchinson's passion for model railways. "I thought, If we can model trains and buses from Northern Ireland, why can't we model the police and the army?" he says. "Now I've done every police vehicle since the 1960s. They're all here."
As he talks about Penmans and Pangolins, reinforced roofs and other kinds of protective adaptations, Hutchinson’s enthusiasm for the obscure delights of armoured vehicles is apparent.
And accuracy in re-creating them is everything. Watching Hutchinson at work, it’s clear you need a steady hand and almost surgical precision. A police figurine falls over and is repositioned with a delicate dab of glue. Hutchinson steps back and surveys the scene with a critical eye before making another tiny adjustment.
“I use a cocktail stick for the really fiddly stuff, such as attaching registration plates to the vehicles. But when you’re putting it all together the main trick is not to create a domino rally. You know, where one thing falls, then everything else goes with it.”
Who buys these kits? More particularly, who invests in the bespoke dioramas – customised scenes of specific riots, both historic and recent, correct to the last detail – that Hutchinson is sometimes commissioned to build, at the cost of hundreds of pounds? He’s tight-lipped about his customers. All he will say is that the kits are particularly popular with Belfast people.
“We all grew up seeing these scenes and these vehicles. It’s like the music you heard as a teenager: it’s familiar, it stays with you. That’s why people want to buy them.”
Almost on cue, a couple of passing shoppers stop to look at one of the vintage models, an artfully battered RUC armoured vehicle from the 1980s, and say: “Oh, look, there’s one of those old grey Land Rovers. Do you remember them?” “I do indeed, yes, that looks cracker.” Hutchinson is on to something here.
But a grim form of nostalgia, strong though it may be, seems insufficient to explain the appeal of these mini riots. For people who desire entire tableaux of specific incidents, especially if they were personally involved as bystanders, press photographers, rioters or security forces, perhaps it is a way of exerting power or control over the uncontrollable. It could be a means of inserting yourself in your own history, capturing that highly charged moment in time, and trying to make sense of it. Or it could stand simply as a trophy, a bizarre memento of a single night of chaos. If Hutchinson knows the reasons, he certainly isn’t telling.
Given the sensitivities of the scenes he creates, has Hutchinson ever had any negative comments? Any accusations of fetishising violence? “Only once, in the five years I’ve been doing this. A woman told me I was corrupting kids. But apart from that, no.”
What keeps model-railway fans hooked is the fact that their dioramas are never finished; there’s always the lure of more accuracy, enhanced realism, that extra crucial detail. And it’s just the same with Hutchinson and his riots. He’s already added electric headlights to the Land Rovers, as well as a cunning motorised fire hose.
Next on his agenda is a highly realistic crowd scene. “If you look closely, riots are unbelievably compressed, everyone all crushed in tightly together, thronging the street. I’d love to re-create that.”
But in the meantime Hutchinson is working on a perfect small-scale water cannon, to be accessorised with dents and scrapes added by rioters, just like the real thing. The kit should be ready in time for Christmas.
The Diecast & Hobby Show is at Punchestown Racecourse, in Co Kildare, today and tomorrow; diecasthobbyshow.ie