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Shane Watson is the leader of Britain's biggest secret army. At present he has 4,000 under his command and the numbers are growing. But Shane's battalions won't win any battles, as LISA BURROW reports...

Shane Watson's got a thing about little blokes in combat gear, big boots and vacant expressions. In the last 12 years he's spent pounds 15,000 on his gun-toting friends. And he's always on the look-out for a new face.

The barmy bus driver from Bristol is obsessed with Action Man and his American equivalent, GI Joe figures.

His house is bulging at the seams with 4,000 toy soldiers - but that's still not enough for divorcee Shane.

Only when his collection is complete will his mission be accomplished. "Some people think a grown man owning toy soldiers is funny," says 41- year-old Shane, who spends his spare time scouring the country for rare figures.

"I still get the odd joker asking if I'm going home to play with my toys. But I don't ever play with them. I've never had mock battles or anything like that. It's not like grown men playing with train sets.

"My GI Joes and Action Men are like ornaments to me. They're a collection which I like to have on display in my home."

As a child Shane was given a few GI Joes by his parents but it's only in the last 12 years that his hobby has really taken hold.

As a toddler his son Craig, now 14, pestered him for an Action Man but the little lad didn't get a look in.

"It wasn't long before I was devoting more time to them than he was," says Shane.

"From comic books it became obvious that there were several characters not available for sale in shops in this country and I had to have them."

Shane got in touch with Britain's GI Joe collectors' club and regularly received a mail order catalogue filled with paraphernalia.

At first he bought only 4in figures but he soon discovered that the same figures were also available in 12in size.

So he began collecting them too and soon found himself in the grip of an obsession. He couldn't resist GI Joe's British cousin, Action Man.

"Every single GI Joe figure has a name and character," says Shane. "Action Men don't have individual names, although they are dressed differently according to whether they're in the Army, Navy or Marines."

When Shane finds a new character, he doesn't stop at just the one figure. He buys at least two - one to be displayed and the other to be kept in mint condition in its original packaging.

And that's only when Shane buys one of the good guys. When it comes to the baddies, he's been known to buy up to 30 or more of exactly the same figure.

"In the comic books there's always one good guy being chased by a whole army of baddies and my collection reflects that," he says. "It's more realistic."

In the last 12 years Shane has spent around pounds 15,000 on his hobby - sometimes spending pounds 100 on one figure.

"But I don't smoke and I drink very little," he says. "So the money I save on that I can spend on this."

The two-bedroom terrace house he shares with girlfriend Fenella Jervis, a legal secretary, is crammed to the seams. The spare room is packed with the figures and the overspill seeps into the living room and hall.

Fenella, who met Shane on a blind date 13 years ago, has never been able to get to grips with his hobby.

"There's nothing of any beauty in the figures," she says. "And I've always failed to see the attraction in having so many of each one. They take up so much space. I'm quite clumsy, so I daren't do any dusting - I leave that to Shane."

During their time together the majority of their holidays have been spent touring the country looking for GI Joes and Action Men.

"It can be a bit of a chore but on the plus side we have been to New York twice because of them," says Fenella.

After a one-week visit in 1992 the couple returned in 1994 for the international GI Joe convention, which was held in an aircraft carrier.

"Shane took surplus stuff to sell but as quickly as I was selling it, he was buying more figures from other collectors," says Fenella.

When he started his hobby Shane planned to collect only the figures and not the countless vehicles that go with them but he's been forced to change his plan.

"Most of the vehicles and other accessories come with exclusive figures included," he says. "You can't buy these figures anywhere else, so you're forced to buy the whole lot."

Sadly it's becoming harder to track down the soldiers. "While we were at the 1994 convention in New York, it was announced that the United States were to stop producing GI Joes," says Shane.

"I was devastated. It was the 30th anniversary of GI Joe and they spoilt the whole occasion. I just can't understand why the manufacturers would want to stop making them.

"But, hopefully, it won't be too long before they bring out a special set of anniversary figures or something."

Meanwhile, Shane visits car boot sales and flea markets to find his missing figures. Of the 650 individual toys available worldwide, Shane has 630.

"Eventually, I'd love to see my collection in a museum," he says. "In the meantime, I'm more than happy continuing as I am.

"Some people think I'm crazy and they're entitled to their opinion. But I find there's something very peaceful about these men of war. They make us the biggest family in the world and I'd be lost without them. They're the habit I can't kick - and don't want to."
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Burrow, Lisa
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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