Those twin imposters

Mike Cougill has posed a very interesting question: how best to present ourselves to serious journalists?

I have long since stopped caring about such questions: some journalists have a genuinely open and enquiringly mind, but most don’t. How they, the rest of the world and indeed my neighbour who smirks at me because of my hobby view model railways based on preconceptions is their business, not mine. I am too busy enjoying it to really care; in such cases, short-sightedness is its own reward. (My world view: you get a better world view if you try to at least understand someone else’s sincerely held viewpoint, but you don’t have to agree with it.) And yet…

Mike got me thinking of how to answer that point. Mike is good at encouraging people to think, and it is no secret that I like his Socratic style of doing it. (He asks questions, but does not answer for you: you make up your own mind.)

I think the starting point would be to embrace the sheer range of interests and abilities encompassed by this most democratic of hobbies, from the 2 year old pushing a wooden train around the floor, to the determined retiree recreating yesteryear from scratch in his annex, from members of royalty right through to the poorest using the simplest of raw materials and tools to craft buildings from scrap paper and card, so that when he has a bit more money and can afford to buy some trains or more tools, he has a setting for his railway.

And then some honesty. Yes, there are those who just play trains with a train set, and if that helps them relax, to get away from the stresses and strains of everyday life, then so what? But there are also those, like Gordon Gravett and Trevor Nunn as two personal examples, who build it all with the minimum of ready-made components and then – and here’s the best bit – they share the results of their endeavours at public shows, and their techniques via the model press and to anybody who asks. The rest of us fall somewhere between these extremes – both of these gentlemen have created artwork for photo-etching, and patterns for casting, so even when they use such components, they at least are building from scratch. When it comes to building models of locomotives, Trevor buys in the motor and the gears, and that’s it.

Everything in this picture other than the wagon wheel is made by Trevor. Even repeat items were cast from his own patterns, or etched from his own artwork. And the engine has working inside valve gear (Joy’s, just to complicate matters!)

When asked why, I simply say that ultimately I don’t know, but I like trains and building models provides an outlet for my creative side which is completely different from, and free from the demands of, using my brain and computers when working for a living.

Related to this, my brother brought to my attention a LinkedIn* posting by Guy Kawasaki, “How never to fail“. The crux of this was that there are two outcomes to ventures, which most classify as “success” and “failure”. Guy suggests that there is success, and an opportunity to learn, “the opposite of success is not failure, it’s learning”.

Well, excuse me but this is hardly news! Any good railway modeller got to be good by having a go at new techniques and learning from mistakes, by treating success and failure as the imposters Kipling so described. Who would not want to employ someone like that?

And that really is worth presenting to the world.

*If you are unaware of LinkedIn, it has been described to me as “like FaceBook for grownups”.


That thorny perennial subject, “armchair modellers” (I have been here before!), has cropped up on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum. I have copied my response directly:

I watched a film recently. I felt that the script was weak, the direction poor and the acting wooden. I have never been involved in producing a film or video. Does that make my opinion invalid?

I have been involved in amateur theatre in various forms, although not for many years. Am I “allowed”, therefore, to comment on plays?

I used to play the guitar, and have even appeared on stage in a couple of bands, Does that qualify me to be a music critic? Does that make my opinions somehow more valid than a non-musician, but less valid that a professional musician?

Surely we don’t need to have “qualifications” to be able to express an opinion about our hobby? Yes, if one has never made anything, then it is hard to credibly tell someone else how to do it, but to comment on how good something is, or to suggest an idea of how a problem may be solved, surely that is nothing more than taking an active interest?

I’ll accept the opinion anyone who has an interest in the hobby, a brain, and thoughtful respect for the opinions of others. I might disagree with it. I might not even be interested in it. As long as it is clear whether it is the voice of personal experience, a reference to someone else’s successful technique, or an untried idea, then who cares whether it came from a workbench or an armchair?

There is enough division and bitterness in the world already. Do we really need to bring it into a hobby, our avenue of escape from the outside world?

But, horror of horrors, I am writing this on a tablet, sat in my armchair. Ah well, that at least qualifies me to comment on this topic…


Why raise an issue that isn’t there?

Over on his blog, Mike Cougill has been raising some interesting points about the diverse range of activities available to those who are interested in our hobby, and the similarly diverse level of involvement that enthusiasts can enjoy. Indeed, I would go so far as to include those with a “passive” level of engagement – you know, the so-called “armchair modellers” and indeed armchair critics.
So what, then, am I to make about the latest issue of the Model Railway Journal? I picked this up and saw that the “lead”/layout article was about Tony Wright’s “Little Bytham” (which is not far from where I live). Tony is an excellent modeller who knows what he wants from his hobby, and unlike all too many of us has set about arranging his life to achieve it. The results are impressive. I say that as someone who has no desire to in anyway approach what he has done (it simply doesn’t float my boat) and who looks at the photos and can see that the track is 00 and not EM or P4. Not a choice I would have made, personally, but Tony has built up a large collection of engines and rolling stock over the years, and as he was happy with 00 to begin with, and remains happy with it, he hasn’t changed. His train set, his choices, and he is happy to live with the compromises he has made in order to achieve his objectives. The track is well laid, and to reasonably fine standards in terms of clearances, and looks good, and by his own account it runs well. An LNER P2 (passenger train Mikado) with 13 coaches on can replicate the prototype’s performance by running through at a scale 90 miles per hour. Good. That means he has achieved his objective.
So why the cheap jibe that he hasn’t seen a P4 (4mm scale, 18.83mm track gauge) model do the same? Maybe such a layout doesn’t exist, but as long-standing readers of MRJ will know, Chris Pendlenton’s LNER A1 “heavy” pacific can reverse a rake of coaches through a crossover at speed, and with the elegance and grace only possible with fine track and wheel standards combined with sophisticated springing. Surely that’s a bigger test, but more importantly, doesn’t it just reflect the different choices made by another excellent modeller?

Cameo Layouts

My good friend Paul Marshall-Potter has written a very good review of the latest release from Wild Swan Publications, and I refer you to his review if you want a bit more detail, but all I will say on that is if you like the picture on the back of the book, then this is for you.

This is a very good book, well written and well presented, but the examples used do reflect Iain’s definition of what constitutes a “cameo layout” (must have wings, proscenium arch, high backscene and be mounted at least 56″ or so from the floor) which is OK – it is his book, after all – but it also draws rather narrowly from his circle of contacts for examples, so some interesting examples and ideas (such as Maurice Hopper’s “St. Juliot’s” and “Tresparrett Wharf” aren’t mentioned (being ultra-portable, they have low backscenes and minimal wings), and neither is the East Yorkshire Finescale Group’s “St. Minions“, which is a prime example of how effective a small cameo layout can be. Iain also appears to be behind many North American modellers when it comes to backscenes: Mike Confalone’s amazing success with photographic prints (which appeared in print nearly ten years ago) seems to have passed him by…

Those points aside, it is a good read with lots of ideas, and worth buying. Iain Rice and Wild Swan at their best.

Buy it!