IT is his ex-wife who Keith Ballam credits with inspiring his interest in model trains.
“She asked me what I’d like for Christmas one year and I had everything I wanted,” he recalls. “So I said a train set.”
He thinks for a second.
“Ironic really,” he notes. “We got a divorce and she got with a train driver.”
Welcome, reader, to Sheffield Model Railway Society.
Here in this old Neepsend industrial unit such tales of trains, tracks and traumas suffered in the name of a nice dual gauge layout are plentiful.
Today, the group has invited The Diary along to mark its 50th anniversary. It has been keeping men out of mischief since the first meeting on April 4, 1963.
“Why’s it been such a success?” ponders member Steve Saxby, a 52-year-old bank worker of High Green. “Making model railways is creative. It is one of the few hobbies that brings in lots of different aspects. You need to know a little about electrics, carpentry, joinery and painting as well as doing research.”
Evidence of such skills is all around the Burton Road base.
Models of make-belief stations and mini railway scenes pack the place. In one room a little railroad runs through an American desert made of roof insulation. In another, painted skyscrapers form the backdrop to an unnamed interchange. In a third an imaginary Aston Station is made of reclaimed wood and cardboard.
“That’s one of the things about this hobby,” says Keith, who is both the group’s secretary and longest serving member, having signed up in 1975. “You’re always looking for scrap material you can use. I can’t walk past a skip without having a rummage through.”
The other thing about the hobby, he adds, is it can become an obsession.
“You’re never happy with what you’ve built,” he says. “You can get all the praise in the world at an exhibition but you’re still thinking if I did this or that, it might be better.”
He pauses again.
“And you keep thinking that until you suddenly realise there must be more to life than watching this train go round that track, and then you rip it down and start another.”
Today, the group has 20 members - all men - and the annual exhibition attracts some 400 enthusiasts. Which is a far cry from early meetings, held in the homes - and often garages - of the original eight members.
“It started because some members fell out with the Sheffield Model Railway Club,” explains Keith, a 69-year-old retired merchandiser of West Hill, Rotherham. “The minutes don’t record why but there’s a friendly rivalry even today.”
That aside, the group is looking for new members.
“The trouble is,” says Keith, “lads enjoy it but then they discover girls and forget. It’s a shame because it’s great fun.”
Now, they are planning to make the 2013 exhibition - at Davy’s Sporting Club, Darnall, on October 12 - a bit special. The north’s best models are being sought.
As for Keith, he’s not bitter about his ex.
“Why would I be?” he says. “She got me into model railways, didn’t she?”