Monday, October 31, 2011

James May exclusive book extract

From The Telegraph: James May exclusive book extract
In the early 1980s, the must-have toy for boys under 10 was Big Trak. Big Trak – which looked like a moon buggy might if it had been designed by a drunk Sir Clive Sinclair – was advertised as your programmable servant, an indispensable mobile butler that could be programmed to fulfil basic household tasks. Sadly, in reality, Big Trak was a jerky electronic simpleton, and the chances of him transporting a glass of Tizer across the living room without spilling it on the carpet or himself were extraordinarily low.

Although Big Trak had many faults, however, we held that the basic idea – using a toy as a handy transport system in the home – was a sound one. Maybe all that needed changing in this plan was the toy. And so it was that we set about fitting the Man Lab with a fully integrated man-serving railway.

Writing in The Boys’ Book of Model Railways in 1956, Ernest F. Carter observes that model railway building is truly a “hobby for the million” – a pastime deserving of its enormous following – as “it offers such unlimited scope for personal individuality and ability”. He goes on to observe that the appeal of a model railway lies in the fact that it is “always complete yet never finished; and it is this queer mixture of 'collecting’ and constructional work which seems to be the underlying reason for the appeal of Model Railwaying to the average handyman”.

Although the golden age of model railwaying may have peaked roughly ten minutes after Ernest F. Carter penned those words, there can be no doubt that model railways retain an appeal for blokes even today.

If you are seriously going to build a model railway round your home/ studio/office/place of work – and we strongly recommend that everyone at least considers it – then you’ll need the following: lots of sheets of plywood, for your baseboards (you can use other materials, but whatever you decide on needs to be tough and thick enough so that it will fully support your locomotive and track and won’t bend or flex); lots of pine battening; a decent quality model locomotive and trucks; lots and lots of track; some more track — you almost certainly didn’t buy enough; a signalling system; many tools, but most essentially a jig saw to cut your baseboards.

Make sure in the hobby shop that your locomotive, trucks and track are all a compatible gauge and are capable of freighting loads. Hobby shops tend to be staffed by men who know everything and more about model railways, so ask one of them.

Your first task, having secured all the necessary equipment, is to design your railway. This will largely be dictated by the size of the area you have to set your network in and the locations your small-objects express will be most use stopping at.

TIP: think carefully before revealing to anyone important to you that you are working on a “model railway”. Not everyone realises that toy trains are the hobby of kings and the inspiration of philosophers.

Be imaginative – there’s nothing to stop your locomotive running through and behind things, and crossing large gaps, if you’re prepared to put the work in. Hobby shops will sell many accessories for model railways that you can utilise in your layout – bridges and tunnels are especially helpful.

Make sure you know what’s available before you begin. Pay attention to curves and gradients, as these will test the locomotive more than running on a straight. It’s generally not good to have your track rising as it exits from the kitchen area of the Man Lab, as the trucks will probably be fully loaded, placing extra stress on your engine.

TIP: If you do put in tunnels, make sure they’re high enough to accommodate tall loads, such as an ambitiously high stack of Pringles.

We will assume that you’re building the track to be a permanent addition to your Man Lab. Cut your lengths of baseboard in accordance with the plans that you’ve made. We can further assume, for the purposes of convenience, that your railway will be at roughly tabletop (waist) height for the entirety of its run. The baseboard it runs on will therefore be supported either by brackets of 45-degree pine battening, that support the track by being screwed into a wall or, where a wall isn’t available, by viaduct-like struts of pine battening reaching to the floor: either way, make sure that the baseboard is absolutely level all the way round and properly supported.

TIP: Make sure that any places where the path of the railway runs across the path of human beings is accessible to both – you might want to build a lifting flap that raises a section of track, allowing access.

Secure track to baseboard by either a strong adhesive or very fine pins sold for the purpose. Any way that works is acceptable really – even double-sided sticky tape will do. (The man who works in the hobby shop, who looks like Roger Whittaker and smells of tobacco and peppermints, will almost certainly have a strong opinion on the best way to secure track to baseboard, so ask him.)

At the end of all this, you should have a fully laid model railway track.

It’s also worth considering what sort of gauge will serve your network best. The most popular model railway gauge is 00, but it’s a bit small for transporting anything larger than peanuts and olives. A better bet is 0-gauge (twice as big, i.e. eight times the volume as far as a coal truck is concerned), and

G-scale. The one we used for our Man Lab was 0-gauge. G-scale is for large models of narrow-gauge trains, and is useful for railways that run outdoors, or carry larger loads. Germany’s LGB is the main maker. It’s a very versatile system and the wagons are nice and big.

Controlling your network is another topic that could fill an entire book, and does in some specialist shops. The controlling mechanisms of model railways are part of the joy of having them, as they can be endlessly fiddled with and modified by the railway’s owner. Many different systems exist, but they all do pretty much the same basic things. For our purposes, however, we simply need a control which will start the train, indicate when it’s been loaded, and then bring it to us. The man in the hobby shop will doubtless have some ideas where this is concerned, too, but in order to get the maximum from your own Man Lab railway, you might want to consider installing a modern version of what, in the glorious early days of rail, was known as a Bell Signalling system.

You will need: a “master box”, at your engine’s main depot (probably the kitchen, let’s be honest). This is basically a signal with numbers that light up on it, corresponding to stops along the track; bell-pushes that activate the lights on the master box and inform the main depot which part of the network is summoning. A bell should also sound with a loud bong when they are activated. Every stop on the line gets a bell-push.

Once you’ve decided which stations are which, and which numbers will represent them, you need to devise instructions, and print and distribute them to each stop on your network, in the form of a handy stationmaster’s card. Which should look something like this:


Kitchen 1

Bog 2

Office 3

Workshop 4

Seating area 5


One bong: Send train/continue

Two bongs: Reverse train

Bong when running: Stop.

That way, the person controlling the train in the kitchen knows when to stop the train, and the person in the place the train is going to knows to bong once to get the train to stop. What’s more, they know to bong twice to get the train to reverse, now carrying their Post-it note request for a bag of peanuts, or whatever.

And there it is. You have rigged out your manspace with its own bespoke railway system. And, unlike most of the rail networks of the British Isles, it will provide enjoyment and pleasure whenever you use it.

Man Lab by James May is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20. To order for £18 plus £1.25pp call Telegraph Books Direct on 0844 871 1515 or visit

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