Category Archives: Thinking

It’s a kind of magic

It’s early morning, circa 6:30, on what promises to be a beautiful summer’s day. I am walking down the hill to the local newsagent’s, to collect the newspapers I will be delivering today: not something I usually do, but a friend is away on holiday for a fortnight, and I am providing cover for him. It is just about the beginning of the last week of August*, and the air is clear.

From a couple of miles away comes the distinctive sound of a Sulzer 6LDA28B engine (if you are North American, think of an Alco engine), a burbling, rasping and guttural noise. Somewhere in the local goods yard (when we still had one) a class 25 is getting ready to move, but the acoustics of the area and the clear weather mean it could be just the other side of the fence – or even more miles away. It isn’t doing anything yet – no sound of wheels on rail joints or of buffers clashing. It just is.

That is the deep, emotional, memory that links me to railways. There is nothing visual, nothing tactile. The only other senses involved in my memories of that era of railways (early teens) is of warmth and the smell of diesel exhaust when standing close to an engine: if I stand too near to certain buses, I get a whiff of nostalgia for that period in my life.

That was the magic. And the memory has been brought to the forefront of my mind by an interesting and vital question posed by Mike Cougill: What happened to the magic?

And that is, frankly, the problem.

Digital sound may come close – and I don’t have a need to get a bass response that shakes me – but the odour and warmth are beyond our reach, or would be suicidal. None of this can be caught by building a 3-dimensional model. Many modellers try to recapture the sight and sound of the railway scene, but the sight is not what inspires me, or more accurately, the sound and smell cannot be captured in the same way as can be the sights.

For 37 and a half years I have been trying to capture something which cannot be captured. If I want to re-visit this experience, there are plenty of preserved railways with the appropriate diesel classes to enable me to do this, and I don’t even need to ride a train, just stand next to the engine at the station. I have been trying to capture the ephemeral, to model sound and smell via sight. I cannot do this. It is pointless to try. It all sounds rather depressing, doesn’t it?

But, this is not all bad news. The realisation of this means that I am free to divorce what I cannot replicate from my attempts to build a model railway. Although I am keen to make my models as accurate as I can, and for operations to be as authentic as possible, I am not, after so many years of going down the road, trying to build a model of a railway. I am, after all, trying to build a model railway.

This is enormously liberating. I am free of that constraint, free of its shackles: to quote Trevor Marshall, I have broken Marley’s chains!

* I can be this precise as my visual memory is of seeing the cover of the September 1978 Railway Modeller (a rather nice EM model of North Leith on the North British Railway, a layout which i did not appreciate at the time) on top of someone else’s delivery round, and it typically came out at about the 24th of the preceding month.

Time and Decisions

Well, the issue of being honest about one’s choices – neatly summed up by Paul (Bawdsey) as consciously saying “I won’t” rather than assuming “I can’t” – has developed into a great discussion: I just wish these issues were more widely discussed!

But Trevor, that thoughtful Canadian whose blog is as good an example of blogging as you can find on the net, has stimulated another post, this time about how one chooses to spend one’s hobby time: what some might call the “psychic cost” (nothing to do with mind-readers and other charlatans) of a pastime. As he says, if one chooses to handlay track, then the extra time involved may lead to a decision to have less of it to lay. I would add to that: if one has a desire to fill a large room with an operationally intensive layout with less focus on fine detail, then the time is better spent on making a decent job of laying high quality flex track, with possibly some hand laid turnouts here and there to get around the restrictions of ready to lay turnouts.

But what struck me was the whole issue of “payback” from spending time. 200 hours spent laying track can be just as enjoyable as playing with the end result, whether that time is spent carefully attending to the “top and line” of laying flex track or inserting 4 individual spikes per tie. In fact, the amount of handlaid track which can be built during 200 hours is considerably less than the amount of flex track which can be laid in that time. So, if the “cost per yard” is pretty much the same, and the enjoyment per hour is pretty much the same, the enjoyment per dollar is much higher for the handlaid layout. (Or put another way, the hobby becomes cheaper!) Chances are, the hand layer of track will also “need” less equipment, so can afford to buy higher quality items and enjoy the better performance that comes from being able to afford precision engineered gearboxes, etc.

Here’s another example. Many years ago, a member of my then local club who was proficient at turning out engines from cast white metal (woods metal) kits, decided to have a go at an etched engine kit, as he had been told that they were “better”. Whilst it is true that they were possessed of finer details, there were more details, and some of the components required forming. He gave up on the experience, as it was going to take him ten times longer to build something which cost twice as much. His enjoyed building engines, sure, but his aim was to build up a large stud. As such, the psychic cost of the better product was too great – indeed, there was nothing “better” about the etched kit as far as he was concerned. I sympathised with his position, but I also put it to him that the etched kit had been designed to take longer, and if he viewed it in terms of hours enjoyed per pound spent, then the etched kit delivered five times the value. Well, he wasn’t known for being tolerant of opinions different to his own, and his answer was unrepeatable (but funny) but he sort of got the point: his problem was that he couldn’t get a cast kit for that particular class, and neither was it available ready to run. He simply was not prepared to pay the psychic cost to get what he wanted, and was disinterested in the payback via enjoyment that others might experience, as that wasn’t what he was looking for. I thought that was a shame, but then again, my outlook is different: I can only run one train at once, and whilst it is nice to be able to run something different, I have no interest in a large stud. It doesn’t matter if the journey takes longer, as the journey itself is enjoyable.

In fact, it matters if the journey doesn’t take longer!

Decide wisely, before you spend your hobby time, on how you wish to spend it. It may inform your subsequent decisions in ways you may not yet have considered.

Setting out one’s stall

My friend Steve Cook has started a blog on modelling the Culm Valley Light Railway (see links to the side). This offers much promise, as Steve is a careful workman and a great advert for craftsmanship (I hope he isn’t blushing!) as you see already with his first few posts.

What I really liked, though, was his simple and clear statement about his aims, objectives and standards. Something from which we can all learn.


Happy Christmas one and all.