Wednesday, 20 May 2015

"Book review: The Rare Monkey with the Colourful Bottom..."

It's always been difficult for me to review other writer's work. I tend to be critical with an aim to be constructive, and almost always end up missing the point. I had the pleasure of meeting the author recently through a mutual friend, and we inevitably starting chatting about writing. Finding out that Joanne Gale had written a book, I offered a trade to review it. I like helping fellow authors and in Joanne I found a kindred spirit in the sort of writing for children we like to see.

So naturally, despite everything we talked about before, when I was presented with this colourful children's book with the intriguing silhouette of a monkey sitting in a tree, I didn't know how to begin to review this!

I think all writers have this problem: we build up ideas about our own work, and others, and when presented with something so beautifully written and illustrated, it destroys those illusions and makes one realise that one's efforts have missed the point a tad. Yes, there is effort, and there is effort, but I find true artistic talent comes from knowing your audience and writing for them whilst also retaining the soul and clarity of your own vision.

So with that in mind, here goes: the honest review.

The Rare Monkey with the Colourful Bottom is brilliant. 

I was blown away by this children's book. Here is a rare thing indeed: a children's book with a strong moral message whilst also presenting an artistic and creative flair. The - on the face of it - simplicity of the text is actually its strongest asset. The third person narrative - that's narrator to you and I - brings the heart of the problem to the fore in a gentle way.

The storyline - without wishing to give too much away - is that the monkey who is our hero has a colourful bottom. He doesn't fit in the wild, and the other animals (who are all very plain colours) laugh at him for being different. He leaves the wild and goes into a town, and sees lots of bright and wonderful sights, thanks to the generosity and kind nature of a young girl photographer. He returns to the wild, and stands with head held tall. The other animals stop making fun of him, because, as is said in the book, what counts is being yourself and liking who you are.

This storyline has, as I see it, two central morals. Firstly: that being different isn't bad, and is not something to be sad or ashamed about. Secondly: be yourself, and liking who you are. That comes from within, and sometimes we do need help from our friends.

These are powerful ideas, and they are kind and true ones. Joanne Gale's kind and true nature shines through in the writing, and I loved every single word of it. There aren't enough books out there like this, where the morals have presence but don't overpower the storyline.

The book's artwork is also brilliant. Jeffrey Mundell's almost impressionistic, but wonderfully colourful artwork brings the story to life, and the use of curved sentences and coloured words make the book fun to read. The colour palette is well chosen and the quality of the paper and printing is exquisite.

Children will love this book, albeit at the younger end of the spectrum: but I'm convinced that like minded parents will love its morality and honest goodness. It's fun, more to the point, and that counts for a lot in anyone's....well, book!

The Rare Monkey with the Colourful Bottom is available here and I wholeheartedly recommend it for children.

Now Joanne, how about a sequel? I want the monkey to find another monkey with a colourful bottom!

Simon A.C. Martin

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"Locomotion's new Ivatt Atlantic C1 model: a review"

When the Shildon outpost of the National Railway Museum (NRM) announced their latest National Collection model, I was overjoyed. For many years the large boiler C1 Ivatt Atlantics had held something of a fascination with me. So much so, that one of the first models I bought for my own model railway was a part built DJH kit of an Ivatt C1. Coincidentally, and as the picture below shows, I turned it into a model of 62822. 

That model is now long gone, and in its place is the recently arrived Bachmann made model, the model I ordered coming in exactly the same livery as my original! It is a model of 62822 with ‘British Railways’ on the tender (product number 31-766).  So, how does it shape up?

The Bachmann model is superior to the kit model in almost every way conceivable. The shape of the boiler, dome, chimney, cab cut out, the depth of and finesse of the running plate are all a spot on match for the Isinglass drawings of the C1 class and photographs of the class. 

The tender is a very accurate recreation of the one of the types the C1s pulled, and the level of detail on the footplate is astonishing.

Gauges, piping, levers, regulator...all picked out in appropriate colours. There is a fire shield for the fire hole door, and it works! The shield can be opened or closed. This is a mind boggling bit of detail. I cannot think of a time where I would actually pose it on mine but the fact it is there is impressive.

The turned whistle and safety valves are beautifully turned metal items, though the safety valves look microscopically taller than they should be. It's a very minor niggle.
The printing of the letters and numerals on the tender and cab are crisp in application, a nice accurate cream shade and also the correct font (Gill Sans). All are, however, perhaps a smidgen too large and again, thats a very minor criticism for what is otherwise a well applied and handsome livery.

The works plate is entirely legible and is a wonderfully printed version of the real thing. I do feel this should have a little more relief, but that's a very, very minor nitpick and to be frank isn't anything new from any of the model manufacturers in Britain (works plates, if they are included on models, are almost always printed).

At the front end, the motion is very fine, but the connecting rod to the rear driving wheels is cranked roughly halfway down its length. I had my C1 running back and forth, and I suspect if I had not been aware of the nature of the design choice, I would have been unlikely to spot it straight away. 

It does beg the question – given that the Great Central O4 model from the same stable has a similar set of outside motion and a step in the way too, as to why this was considered necessary? This bothered me for some time until I decided to inspect one of my Bachmann O4s to find out: and I was astonished to find that its connecting rod is also cranked in a similar way! Interestingly I think it is hidden better on the O4, which has the crank in its connecting rod further down, behind the step. This gives the illusion of there being no crank at all!

However, I do think of this as one of those potential solutions which might have worked as good as any other. The other solution would have been to make the steps thinner – and potentially more fragile) and push the motion out further to clear the crankpins on the leading driver (which is the source of the problem). Overall it just doesn't strike me as a big deal. Putting the locomotive through its paces, I am positive it's not actually discernible at a scale forty miles an hour.

It is interesting to note that, unlike my original DJH C1, the driving wheels on the Bachmann model are scale for the wheelbase but potentially a little under scale in actual diameter. It's as good a solution as any to the problem of modelling the wheelbase of a Great Northern built Atlantic, the gap between the driving wheels on the real thing being somewhat tight in itself! 

Again this is barely – if actually – discernible and I think Bachmann have done an excellent job in replicating the driving wheels of the real thing.

On the boiler, we find that the smokebox door even opens! This was a detail first featured on Bachmann's Standard 3MT locomotive, and on that I felt it was a gimmick of sorts, not really producing the effect needed by having the blast pipe arrangement too close to the inside of the door. 

On the Atlantic, it looks more realistic and that is is in no small part due to the fact the blast pipe arrangement is actually directly under the chimney. I question the need for it but there is no denying that it is well made and looks rather realistic. The door itself has a beautifully moulded dart and handles as well, which are all separate.It very much captures the shape of the GNR smokebox door.

There is a bag of additional details which include, in no particular order, three link couplings, brake gear, cab doors, fire irons for the tender, additional replacement parts for the tender (once the coal load has been removed), there are sight screens for the cab sides in clear plastic, a speaker mount and even a single white painted GNR style lamp.

Separately fitted handrails, lamp irons on loco and tender, all wheel pickup (except the front bogie) and the surprising number of detail differences between this 1948-50 era locomotive and its GNR and LNER versions all give this model an incredible presence. In reality, it's smaller than a Thompson B1, and yet gives off this wonderful air of being bigger than it really is.

There are, however, a few minor negative points which are worthy of mention, even if they don't necessarily ruin the model in a practical way.

The first concerns the brake blocks on the tender. These are moulded in line with the frames, and look very flat and awkward. Even if the model was to be converted to, say, EM or P4, by moulding them in this way it means the wheelsets will not ever be actually in line with them. From normal viewing distance, and probably with some weathering, it's not discernible but given this has been done very well on previous Bachmann models, it is a disappointment to see them here.

The buffers are not sprung. This had me scratching my head a little. I am almost positive that Bachmann already make suitable buffers (and if not 100% accurate, they are very, very close). That product is still available – 36-032 – and simply fitting a set of them at front and rear instantly improves the overall specification. 

Very few models these days don't have sprung buffers, save for the design clever era of Hornby Plc, so why Bachmann have decided to fit unsprung buffers here to a premium model is something of a mystery. Now, practically, we all know sprung buffers are actually of limited use and sometimes a bit of a hindrance if we're honest (where buffer lock occurs with sprung ones on locomotive and coaches, for instance) but for the price of the model and in comparison to similar specifications that Bachmann and other manufacturers have followed, having unsprung buffers seems retrograde.

The final negative point is another minor niggle, but for me it's actually a very avoidable error. I've checked photographs, Yeadon's Register, I've gone through a nunber of my Atlantic books, I've looked at British Railway Pictorials and almost every source I know that shows 62822 in its plain black livery, and in its final livery with the lined out tender. Every single photograph I've seen shows that 62822 should have had the cut out in the tender side sheets as per the cab. In other words, the same tender top fitted to the GNR liveried model and not this type.

Let's be fair about this. Renumbering the model to no.2877 in plain black livery would be correct, and yes for a modeller this is a simple enough job, including perhaps removing the smokebox numberplate. However, looking through my reference material, it's not correct for 62822 it is also not correct for 62825 in this time period either. 

Of course, I could be (and often have been) wrong, and for X amount of time in Y year, 62822 could have pulled this type of tender instead. If so, let me be the first to humbly apologise to both the NRM and Bachmann. It is as far as I can see currently, an error.

Is it a serious one? A learned LNER modeller of many years remarked to me a few weeks back that something along the lines of “a loop of wire and a drill will sort that”. He's absolutely right and as a modeller, it is something I am prepared to do but it seems a shame to tool up the correct tender body shell and then to not use it.

Do the negatives outweigh the positives? Absolutely not. I highly recommend this model for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, it's beautiful. Look at it. There is no better proportioned or elegant steam outline model being sold today. It's a wonderful scale model.

Secondly, after some running in, it's as smooth as a sewing machine, and actually has some guts despite its wheel arrangement (I have so far with my model of 62822 managed seven of Hornby's top range Gresley Teaks. The model is always a bit slow to start, but with careful driving round my test track, it hauled the train comfortably). 

Thirdly, you are not going to get an alternative to this model. If you model the London and North Eastern Railway in any way, shape or form (or Great Northern Railway, for that model) then you need one of these models. There isn't going to be an Ivatt C1 coming from Hornby, or Dapol, or Heljan, or Oxford Diecast, or anyone else credible. It's this model – and no alternatives.

Given they were ubiquitous on the Pullman and London-Scotland expresses before the Pacifics came along, and even when replaced en masse effectively by Gresley, Thompson and then Peppercorn machines on their original workloads; they soldiered on, through two world wars and just into the turn of the 1950s. Accepted, the Ivatt C1 is not going to be suitable for the smallest and lightest laid of branch line layouts but anything with a hint of a mainline set in the LNER period should probably have at least one or two knocking about.

So, am I happy with my purchases? Very. The negatives do not by any stretch of the imagination outweigh the positives of this model. If you're a serious modeller of the LNER, you need one. No kit will match the quality of this product, frankly, and I can say that having built and re-built one.

There is one thing I do want to address, separately from MREmag. There's been a lot of comparisons made between models over a number of years, not least because of the Model of the Year awards given out. A few people are clamouring for the Atlantic to be this year's model of the year.

It's a close run thing for me, but Hornby's J15 just edges it. There are less compromises in that model overall, with an equally beautiful level of finish, and the specification is higher for a model significantly lower in price. Yes, one is a "main range" and one is a "limited edition" but they're both new tooling and both from the main stables for our hobby. There are therefore certain expectations of both models.

If the Atlantic had come out last year, I'd have had no hesitation in labelling it model of the year. However, in a year with the release of Hornby's K1, J15 and D16/3 on the horizon, it really would have had to have had a higher specification overall to win.

That does not, however, mean it's not worth having and I thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend this model to any modellers interested in the Ivatt Atlantics of the Great Northern Railway.

Until next time.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

"BRWS Ltd Update #4: Great Western Glory, Erith Model Railway Club and more"

So, here's our fourth update of the year! What's changed? Well, April was a terrific month for change.

I have joined a delightful (and local!) model railway club - the Erith Model Railway Club (details here). The level of modelling on show is of a high standard and varied in subject, which is lovely.

They also have a couple of test tracks, and it meant I could fully test out the types of train I intend to run on my new layout. Here is no.17 Silver Fox - ever the stalwart of the A4 fleet - testing out a nine coach train of teaks.

No.60506 Wolf of Badenoch also got in on the testing, albeit on an eight coach train and on the other test layout.

There was some embarrassment when no.103 Flying Scotsman (still in the process of being built) failed spectacularly with a bent coupling rod.

That rather put a crimp on my day as I had intended to run one of each of my main Pacific fleets!

So the Wolf got another run out instead...with a slightly longer nine coach instead.


...and we have some video to show for it! The remarkable haulage capabilities of my sole Thompson A2/2 did not go unnoticed. I'm very happy with the hill climbing capabilities too!


The club itself has a friendly atmosphere and a cosy, well lit location. I'm very much looking forward to going back there in the next week or so with another, different, test train.

Lastly, there's been a huge advancement in the writing of the follow up book in The British Railway Stories... the extent where I have two copies of the book, ready to send to our artist, Dean Walker, and to a mutually interested party willing to help me edit it together. This should help avoid some of the errors seen in the first book!

I am very excited by Great Western Glory. The themes and stories within draw on a lot of real history, and we get to meet characters old and new throughout. If you loved meeting Stephen in the last book, you will enjoy meeting our new "Star' even more!

Of course, she will be a little grumpy to begin with...!

Until next time.

Monday, 20 April 2015

"Thompson Pacific fleet - another A2/3 on its way to completion"

So this update has been a long time coming! I bought a part completed conversion of a Bachmann Peppercorn A2. It was being turned into a Thompson A2/3.

I stripped the body shell of paint and sorted a few problems (such as a strange hole drilled in the firebox) and fitted several new bits sourced from Graeme King on the LNER forum.

These bits included a new front running plate section, new front frames (as evidenced above - unpainted resin), a new bracket for the cylinders (again, in unpainted resin above) and a new set of tender frames.

My own addition was a set of Bachmann V2 valve gear, carefully modified to fit the cylinders and then fitted straight onto the existing crank pin.

The result is the partially completed Sun Castle, which I am going to be lining out and then weathering over the coming weeks.

So happily, I have added another Thompson Pacific to my stud and also saved what could have been another scrap locomotive model from limbo, more or less. Sun Castle works well and the valve gear, though cruder than Graeme's excellent work on Edward Thompson, above, is now standard with my A2/2 and A2/1 builds and pretty much confirms that, as an easy way of going about a conversion, it works and works well.

Edward Thompson herself is waiting on the number "500" and an "E" before being described as completed. I am contemplating getting an LNER liveried tender to swap in though, all things considered. Watch this space...

Duke of Rothesay will be taken apart as I'm not satisfied the front is fitted on straight! Hopefully a straight forward job, we will see however...

Well, that's it for now. There's a mega review coming up and some more modelling on the 30th. Look out for a special review on MREmag too!

Until next time. I hope 2015 is treating you as well as it is treating me thus far!

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

"BRWS Ltd Update #3 - Of J15s, cabbages and Kings…"

Goodbye March! It's been a tough old month. I started my new job on the 23rd and I am loving the change in work stream. I have to work very hard over the next few months and really concentrate, so the change to monthly blogs is an advantage for sure!

So I started the month with a simple enough task. I had to change my Hornby J15 into something more personal to me, and one which no one else had done yet. One with a stovepipe, suitable for my layout set in 1946-49. I scoured books, magazines and online to find one...

So the most obvious change was to the chimney, which was a straight swap for an Alan Gibson turned brass stovepipe chimney. I simply removed the plastic Hornby one with pliers - surprisingly not damaging it (it can be re-used for something else I suspect - an industrial steam engine?) and glued it down onto the boiler.

The cab and tender sides were then shorn of emblem and numerals, using a glass fibre pen worked carefully with a little water.

This image is a composite of two pictures showing the difference between my J15 as bought, and modified. The stovepipe chimney is more obvious as a result. A further change to the model was the removal of the smokebox numberplate from the smokebox door, which was removed using a scalpel and a thin, edged file to finish.

The body shell and tender body were removed, and gloss black sprayed over the top. I have been using standard plasticote paints for some time with plain black models, and the reason for this may become more clear later on. I used press fix HMRS transfers for the number and lettering.

No.5398 was a Stratford based example that retained its stovepipe due to wartime austerity. I managed to find a number of pictures of this locomotive and it was clear to me it would be the only one suitable for my needs at this time.

You can see here that the lack of a stovepipe and removal of the smokebox numberplate really transforms the look of the model. But it is in weathering and adding a crew that I find Hornby's J15 really comes alive...

I used Tamiya weathering palettes to get the overall finish I wanted on the tender frames and locomotive chassis, before dry brushing a variety of Humbrol enamel paints over the top, and sealing the whole model with a few coats of Gamesworkshop's Purity Seal varnish finisher.

The result is a model which has a nice, unkempt look and will fit in nicely amongst the other models I am working on at present.

The crew is from Bachmann and have been weathered to match the locomotive. I do like the pose on this fella, watching the road ahead.

Adding a lamp indicating a K class goods train rounds things off.

I am slowly getting there with this vision of having set trains and train engines for my layout. I hope to have a lot more updates next month (I've been saying this for a while).

- - -

On an entirely different note, I notice a lot of hullabaloo on a few infamous websites regarding a certain product announced last year (which I also felt was controversial at the time). Here's a little hypothetical for you all to mull on, and bear with me whilst I explain further later on...

If a bank said to a consumer...

"That product you ordered? We're cancelling it, you won't be able to buy it from us now".
"But you can have it from an appointed representative of us, in a nice new box".

"Oh, and it'll cost £30 extra for the trouble of reordering".

 ...we would hear no end of complaints about the bank's behaviour, clamours for heads to roll, who thought that up, and a general agreement that this is not good business practice nor is it fair on the consumer.

So why do I bring up this example? Hattons announced practically the same scenario this week, via email, for their model of King George V to be manufactured by DJ Models, and for all orders they had taken to be cancelled, directing their previously potential customers to STEAM instead to buy a now more expensive product.

As a loyal Hattons customer, and looking at both sides of the story, I feel it is only right to say that I have only ever received excellent customer service from them. Delivieries, returns, and pre-orders, they have never put a foot wrong with me.

However I feel, looking from the outside in, that this could have all been handled very differently. Good customer service is looking at what might potentially inconvenience your existing customers, and being pro active in not looking to appease them but to genuinely help them in a positive and constructive manner: and where things have gone wrong, putting them back on track.

It is very interesting to note how customers, who have in some respects been let down and now have to consider their order and its new cost, are being pilloried for their disappointment in various locations. Are we no longer allowed to question the quality of customer service, just because it happens to take place in the model railway world?

I can't help but feel disappointed on two fronts here. Firstly that such a situation still happens: and asking myself would it really have broken the bank to simply ask the customers of that model at Hattons if they wished to have their order transferred to STEAM, and if they still wished to proceed at that new advertised price? It would have only taken an e-mail or an update on the Hattons website.

In my view that would have been the right and fair thing to do, rather than cancelling all the orders as they have done.

On a different (but somewhat related!) note, I can see that Hornby have put a few sound files out for their TTS fitted King, due later this year, in addition to photographs of the model rapidly taking shape.
It looks excellent, and for my money, is going to eclipse the recent Heavy Tanks and Star by some way. As well it might, being designed post "design-clever" and on the back of the recent excellent Peppercorn K1 and J15.

- - -

Oh, and one update for fans of The British Railway Stories. Book Two - Great Western Glory - is getting close to entering the artwork stage. The book is now finished and being readying for printing before being sent to Dean Walker, our artist, for illustrating.

Exciting times! I have also promised a new set of films featuring a few familiar faces…but more on that another day.

Until next time.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

"Hornby J15 - quick peek at some modelling…"

I thought I'd share a few photographs of my first Hornby J15, which has been modified extensively. These photographs appeared on MREmag today, and will be the subject of my big blog at the end of the month.

The fireman keeps a sharp look out whilst the driver nurses no.5398 home...

One of the few J15s fitted with a stovepipe chimney as a wartime austerity measure, she still carries shaded lettering and NE on the tender...

She's seen better days, but she won't be withdrawn for almost another decade, despite her looks!

She simmers, waiting for the signal, with a K class goods train.

And that's yer lot for now...

Sunday, 15 March 2015

"Of forums and websites"

One particular model railway forum is celebrating its tenth birthday today, and I felt, having been passed a link to a thread on said forum, that some right of reply was needed today.

Over the ten year period of that model railway forum - whose name I will not give as I have no intention of adding to it in any constructive way in future - has seen lots of very positive, very welcome developments, in addition to some lovely moments of support and genuine help for others in need or distress.

I feel that the early and mid years of that forum were its best, forming a cohesive atmosphere where modellers and collectors alike were able to indulge in debates and discussions about modelling. It was a positive atmosphere and many positive things happened.

However, all of this positive energy came, not from one man (as has been intimated strongly) but from a large group of individuals, who, time and again put their own money into the coffers to keep that forum running and to support its creator in the original intention of making a decent forum for the discussion of and development of model railways.

To that, I have this to say to the current management.

You should not forget where you have come from, and the individuals which have helped you along the way: you should be humble, and respectful, and whatever you may think of people now, remember that every single modeller who shared their work with you helped get you where you are today.

You should be grateful for the help and support you have had, and the fact that people were willing to share their work freely with you, in the knowledge that they were genuinely helping others and not contributing directly to a corporate entity.

You should be grateful and be publicly grateful for the monetary support that many individuals - even those with not a lot of cash at the best of times - have donated directly to you in order to pay for the facility you now manage on behalf of a business.

You should also be mindful of the fact that labelling those - and all of those - who have left your forum as "crazies" and making asides such as this in your anniversary thread - does you no favours.

In fact, being the bigger man and paying tribute, not to the forum software you have used over the years, but to those who have helped you get where you are, would have put you up a few estimations in many people's views.

It might have gone some way to perhaps alleviating many of the complaints and concerns that have been put directly to the management and owners of said forum. In fact, dare I say an olive branch and some humility would have gone a long way to, if not healing wounds, then continuing down a path where mutual respect and civility could have been the order of the day.

In short, it would have been the right thing to do, and you would have reaped many benefits from it.

Now, for my part, I am one of those individuals who supported the forum in question in its early days through to its formative mid years before the takeover. Last year I was "moderated" for various reasons, one of which was for being, and I quote directly, "polite with intent".

Despite many attempts to assess what exactly that means, and what comments in question were "breaking rule 9", I was left with little to go on and understandably frustrated with the process and the manner in which moderating action had been taken.

After much discussion over a six week period with a senior member of the editorial team, I chose to walk away completely and have done so, save for tying up a few loose ends here and there where others had asked for my help or I felt I should do the right thing and say a few words.

I made several requests in my dialogue with that senior member (who I feel was doing an admirable job in light of the rock and hard place scenario he had been placed into, in my view unfairly by the other staff member), the details of which I was asked to not divulge publicly, so I will not.

I respect the confidentiality of that agreement though I understand and have been provided proof by others that this is not the case on the other side.

Doing the right thing is not just about looking at things all from your own point of view. Looking at both sides of the story and making a balanced, and if possible, as unbiased as possible decision based on the facts of the matter, is doing the right thing.

When you are the head of a forum, or a magazine, or a website, you have a duty of care to your consumers that you act in an appropriate fashion and with professional behaviour. If your customers have concerns and air these, in whatever fashion, it is for you to rise above it and present a professional air.

I do not have any regrets in walking away from that forum, and in fact my modelling has not suffered from it. In fact, by keeping to my blog and on Facebook, my modelling has improved in quality and in its breadth to the extent that I have a new layout taking shape with many new interesting models and projects to be run on it.

I am happiest being able to contribute in small ways elsewhere, not least MREmag whose three day publishing per week suits me down to the ground. I enjoy writing in to the letters page and debating with people there. It is good fun and a number of very useful posts have been made in response.

Far from sending the "crazies" away to another location of the inter web, I find that MREmag has a very active and very knowledgeable number of readers and contributors; and Phil Parker's calm editorial style puts it above a number of other sites. Long may it continue.

For those who may not have visited MREmag, please do so and enjoy reading it.

Until next time.