September 29, 2011

"Don't Let It Bring You Down"

I must confess that the last year has been somewhat of a drain mentally on me. The fear of not finding work (now thankfully dissolved for the moment, for I start work next Monday!) coupled with the exhaustive efforts behind the scenes to develop The British Railway Series further, along with all the other problems of life, including my own and my family's health had taken their toll by about June this year.

I was so glad to get away for a week with the Missus to Turkey, and while I was there I couldn't switch off. Stories were written on napkins, in my Red and Black notebooks, even on a towel when I couldn't find a piece of paper at the beach! The part of my brain which thinks on new stories never switches off.

You see, it's become so ingrained in me, the desire to tell a story, and a historical one at that, that the plethora of books & magazines managed to take over my room for a good long time, until I did the sensible thing and annexed the attic to make a library!

The characters I write about are more than just models with clay faces now. The potential of this series to grow and become something wholly more meaningful is there, more than ever.

There's one thing I'd like to address, however. There's been a lot of talk recently amongst the Thomas fandom: some of it good, and some of downright nasty.

There will always be someone wanting to pull others down. This is a fact of life I have recognized for some years. It first manifested itself at school, in a particularly cynical individual, whose only goal in life was to bring others down because he didn't have any dreams for himself.

The older I get, the more I understand this level of intelligence, and how to ultimately defeat it.

That part is simple, treat it with the contempt it deserves. Ignore the jibes, and the insults, and the detriment. There will always be someone, somewhere, wanting to bring you down. Whether it's jealousy, fear, or something else, you must always rise above it - because if you don't, then you may as well stop breathing now!

One of the more ludicrous things I've heard - from a few sources - is that a few individuals feel the aim of The British Railway Series is to take down Thomas & Friends!

Forget the fact that one is a multi billion pound industry, which is the number one children's brand worldwide, and forget that one is made in an attic using whatever spare parts and old model trains that can be found!

The major difference lies in the aims of the two entities. One makes an astounding profit every year. The other makes an astounding pauper of its creator every year! One is aimed at the pre-school market, the other is aimed solely at the 7-9 market, and written to that age bracket accordingly.

My intention has never been to take on the little blue engine - quite the opposite, particularly as I am still a fan of the little blue engine in my heart of hearts.

What I want to do, is that which is always overlooked; the history of Britain's railways, and make them more accessible to children through the medium of talking trains.

At the same time, if I can make through the sale of each book, a monetary donation to a good cause in railway preservation - then that too, is an aim worth working towards. To tell the story of our railways, our preserved railways, and give something back in the same breath.

There is nothing that would please me more, than to sell a book relating the history of a preserved railway, and the volunteers which run it, that would encourage children to look it up and gain an interest in their local preserved line, as well as the book financially supporting the railway in question.

If it has to be done with faces on engines - so be it, because it is a tried and tested way of bringing more emotional connections between children, and the iron horses they read about.

Engines with faces have always existed in British literature, stemming from as far back as the Rainhill Trials in 1829, through the medium of satire, cartoons, and into children's literature, not just from The Reverend W. Awdry's Railway Series; from Sammy the Shunter through to the drawing at the top of the page, found by Jim Gratton recently.

The drawing was done by a C. Hamilton Ellis, a renowned railway historian and artist in his own right, for The Railway Gazette, in the late 1930s.

The drawing depicts a 47xx "Night Owl" on an express freight - the elegant face of the female engine a stark contrast to the old time faces of the Pannier tank and Dean goods to the left and right of her.

The point is simple. Anyone could draw a face on a train. It's been a very British thing to do, ever since the dawn of the steam locomotive. The difference comes in the writing, the aim of the story within.

My aim is to educate and entertain in the same stroke of the pen. To highlight railway history and to tell it in a way that children will both understand and appreciate for what it is.

I only need glance at my inbox this morning to see that I must be doing something right. Emails galore, another forty on top of the hundred and thirty six emails I still need to get through, from young fans who've seen the videos on Youtube, to parents who've seen the videos through their children, and the associated blog and website.

The overwhelming positivity I get for writing my stories far outstrips the one or two people who, from time to time, feel the need to voice their negativity with friends of mine. You see, no one ever tries to discourage me directly. They know they wouldn't break me.

I've come this far, and not given up. The hardest days are ahead, but that's okay. I'm not going to let it bring me down - and neither should you.

If you have a dream, or a story to write, and think you won't make it: try anyway! You may be surprised by what happens, and what response you get. There will always be critics looking to stop you succeeding, as opposed to the necessary critics wanting to help you succeed. Don't let it bring you down.

Until next time!

September 26, 2011

"A lovely letter"

It's not often that I feel the need to air one of the many fanmails I get on a day to day basis. I do try to respond to them all, but there's not enough hours in the day and I am currently about 100 emails behind the curve at present...!

However this evening, one particular email stood out. It reads as follows:

Dear Simon,

I am excited to see what you come up with. I am very sad to see the models go, I've always been a bit old fashioned. As much as I hate to admit it, you're right, and I'll be very glad to see progress. I am wondering though, what some of the details that would be different are.

Would their mouths and eyes move and the like? The effects are much more realistic, I must admit. I have Railworks and it is quite convincing, though I'm sure the soft ware you will use will be much more detailed.

I'm sure whatever you turn out will be fantastic. Good luck with that and the book. I am most excited about that. Just a thought, perhaps you could auction the models for a bit of money to get some really good programs for the cgi.

These are the stories we tell. Sometimes we have to find new ways to tell them.

I couldn't have put it better myself. These are the stories we tell - sometimes we have to find new ways to tell them.

How wonderfully profound. To the writer of that fanmail, you know who you are - and thank you for sending it. A lovely email which sums up my thoughts and feelings on the series at present.

Until next time!

"The Store Opens!"

Yes, Copley Hill now has its own store - for now it will be selling only related books and toys, but in time I hope to rectify that by selling merchandise relating to the series in the future.

For every sale made in the Copley Hill Amazon Store, a 10% commission is paid back to the series for its future development. So by buying that latest railway book or children's toy in the Copley Hill store, you are contributing directly to the future of the series.

At the current time of writing, the store is down for necessary maintenance by Amazon, but it will be up and running within the next few hours.

Until next time!

September 25, 2011

"Clarifying - The Last Run"

Just to clarify, and to reassure everyone who seems to think the models are going to be dumped unceremoniously over the course of the next year (and I must add, the set certainly won't be as it will continue to be used for toy & model reviews).

I have been researching this and developing it behind the scenes for well over a year. I have observed other CGI productions (Thomas included) worked out a plan of action and talked to the relevant people and compiled as much advice and thought on it as possible.

The problem inherent with BRWS as it stands is two fold. Cost and space. I haven't got a Shepperton Studios for dozens of different sets...! Making sets and modifying the models costs a lot of money.

I don't think this is something many people have grasped: the initial outlay of a model train might be £80 a time, but then it may have to be repainted/renumbered/weathered, have a smoke generator added, etc etc...

...then of course the building materials for the sets. The Day of the Diesels toy review was simple enough because I've honed my techniques in the small space, and the ability to make a scene look different has come to me over the years.

But I have wanted The British Railway Series to be more than the sum of its parts for some years now. I have been unable, at times, to do episodes simply because set A would cost too much or take up too much space to film, or model B needs to be scratch built.

Then there's the issue of time. The more complicated they are, the harder they are to film. Episode 17X didn't really progress the story because it was more of the same in many ways. Wonderful characters with a compelling storyline, but not different enough to 17 in many ways.

There is nothing to say I can't do both the models and a CGI incarnation alongside each other, in any event. The planned CGI trailer is absolutely necessary - feedback is inherent to the success of future Youtube episodes.

I could have just said "CGI trailer next year, we'll leave it till then and the models won't come out again", but I've simplified a very good script in order to give them a final run out; which they and their audience deserve undoubtedly.

I know what I have built up over the last four years and this decision hasn't been made overnight on a whim. Nothing is set in concrete other than I want to do this last big special with the models to give them a proper send off, should the planned CGI be well received.

I must make the case for CGI here. Thomas & Friends has shown what can be done - camera angles, buildings galore, proper background scenery and weather effects. The problem inherent with the brand is the writing, and to some extent the preparation in terms of the scripts.

The way I have scripted new stories is very different to the way I think T&F is done, and it will be a great advantage to me, not a hindrance, particularly if what I have been shown in private is anything to go by. Expansive sets which need only be modelled (as I do with the models, anyway!) on one side.

But the advantage is the multitude of sets I could have in a simplified fashion. I have always wanted a King's Cross set and a Leeds Central set, and it hasn't been possible to do so in model form. What about the coaling stage at Copley Hill, or Top Shed and the Met Shed at King's Cross?

Then of course there's the multitude of other minor stations and generic scenery that would be possible. Full length trains - and I mean full length trains - and smoke effects which aren't restricted to certain characters (e.g. Stephen as opposed Nigel, say).

The people I am working with are very talented at what they do, and the ideas being bounced around at the moment are very favourable.

The CGI models are going to be coloured and designed to match the artwork of the upcoming book very closely in style and colour, though of course the limitations of the software will eventually win out in some areas, as has the limitations of the models.

In an ideal world I would have had all the major characters scratch built, with smoke units, moving eye mechanisms, and in a bigger scale, but I'm a chap who earns a couple of hundred-ish each month from my adsense, and until this week was struggling for a job. Don't forget that these last episodes will take time, a lot of money, and great effort.

CGI is not the pot at the end of the rainbow; but I am well organized, I have a set vision, and I am determined to see it out and see what can be done. If it doesn't work, as I have said to several of my close friends, then the models will win out and we will return to normal viewing!

But if I do not try, then the series will never progress beyond the Copley Hill set, and that, more than anything, would be the thing which eventually kills it off. Evolution, not revolution, as they say.

Until next time!

September 23, 2011

"The Last Run"

This last year has been something of an eye opener for me, in terms of how to manage a "brand" so to speak, the sheer frustration and anxiety of the publishing world, and perhaps the most heart warming thing: how many people sincerely feel affection for my characters, and the films they appear in.

Of course, in the background I am working with several people on creating a CGI trailer to relaunch the series on Youtube - that is some way off yet, and the time between episodes looks increasingly lengthy.

So after much self debate, and further thought, and a few helpful reminders (and badgering!) by a close friend...perhaps I should give the models their final run out. A proper send off for the Hornby, Bachmann and various other models which have done their bit on the Copley Hill set, through the ages.

So with that, I've come to a decision. One last, glorious "special" of sorts, chronicling the final days of the engines of Copley Hill, culminating in the "last run" by one particular engine.

The development of The Last Run starts here, and hopefully will bear some fruit before Christmas this year.

Until next time!

September 22, 2011

"Rant of the Week: Chimneys!"

This week's rant of the week is double heading with some actual modelling - and would you believe, it's British Railways Eastern Region modelling this week! Huzzah!

So, for the rant: and to make this abundantly clear, the Bachmann Peppercorn A1 model is fantastic. None of the nine member strong fleet I own have been anything but exceptional runners, and have always looked very much like the prototype whilst maintaining a rugged, purposeful look as a model.

That is, in all but one area: the chimney. Bachmann decided, for reasons as yet unknown, to make the chimney a two piece moulding, where the top half is either the stovepipe or the rimmed chimney, and the lower portion is moulded into the smokebox.

I absolutely despise this arrangement. I loathe it! For me, it has been the strongest bug bear of any model I have owned, and for years I have put up with this strange look at the front end of my favourite locomotive class.

I can only ask "why" this arrangement was thought a good idea, when everywhere else you look, alternate chimneys on other models have been one piece mouldings straight onto smokeboxes. None of this two piece nonsense!

Well, I will put up with it no more! Thanks to Graeme King of the LNER forum, I am going to change all that, by replacing each and every chimney with a cast resin alternative. Graeme has provided for me at little cost, a total of twenty chimneys (and some spare/off cuts too) made out of resin.

My guinea pig for today's first event was old favourite, 60119, which was a renumbered model of 60114.

As you can see, the offending chimney is sliced in half, and this looks distinctly odd compared to photographs of the prototype. I disassembled 60119 down to the boiler, and pulled off the top of the chimney with a set of pliers (the top pops off quite easily), and then set to work filing down the moulded bottom half. In under a few minutes, you are left with this:

Careful fettling of the resin chimney to shape, and drilling out the holes, is vital for a good fit and authentic look.

Which leaves us with this. The smokebox was sanded down with wet'n'dry sandpaper prior to the final gluing down with a few drops of superglue - applied from inside the firebox after sticking the chimney down and into position with a little Pritt Stick. Surprisingly effective.

So the question is: was it worth it? Here's the side by side comparison of the unmodified 60114 against the modified 60119. I think it makes a great difference to the overall look of the front end.

I think it's a modification well worth the effort.

Only eight more A1s to go!

Until next time!

September 15, 2011

"Hornby 4VEP"

What a nightmare morning.

Woke up to knock at door. A fantastic brown package (sadly no longer tied up with string, but still very welcome all the same!) containing the first unit for my planned end to end layout ("Sidcup").

A brand new Hornby 4VEP. I had been looking forward to this immensely, until I started reading the extremely informative RMweb thread on the 4VEP.

Cue panic. Can I really avoid all these extra pieces to make it look more like a 4VEP? Why weren't half of these done in the first place? Oh my god, it has traction tyres...?!

All of this, and more, were nothing in comparison to the very real sinking feeling I had this morning when I opened the 4VEP box and found that the coach which was meant to be the motorised one - wasn't! No motor bogie at all.

Panic ensured again. Rang Hattons - happy to have it returned and checked - and then I noticed the other centre coach was bowing outwards slightly...

Yep, the motor chassis had been inserted in the wrong coach. Panic over. Taking the bodies off to switch them round, I noted the lugs are really fiddly - I didn't break anything luckily, but it is not as easy as it says in the instructions!

By having the coach body on the wrong coach, my whole unit would not have worked, because as far as I can tell from looking at mine, and the instructions, the wires from the coach roof (where the DCC chip is meant to be fitted) have to be pressed into a socket in the motor compartment.

Mine wasn't: it was neatly stowed (just about) between the aisles of the seats in the wrong carriage. All of the coaches have wires in some form from the roof/body to their chassis, so it took five minutes of careful checking to make sure all was well once the switch happened.

Now that it's in one piece, working, and I have time to examine it - I'm actually a lot happier with it in the flesh than I thought I would be. But I can't find out where these "missing" door handles are. There's a single missing door handle on one side of the non-powered centre coach, but that's about it.

John M Upton's excellent modifications are something I am going to have a go on, and definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, a new set of wheels for the motor bogie. The traction tyres squeal when decelerating or accelerating, I cannot live with that forever!

So in conclusion - it's better in the flesh than it is in photographs. However, it does need a lot of remedial work - the bogies are all, as a chap on RMweb said earlier, "wrong" - but I'm feeling more confident about my ability to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse this morning after surviving the earlier shenanigans, and seeing John's modifications.

So I'll leave you with this picture - of my 4VEP with the route code "40" for Charing Cross-Dartford via Sidcup. Most appropriate, given its intended new home!

Until next time!

September 14, 2011


Yes, I've finally finished the attic conversion, and clearing up the majority of the rubbish! Video making now back in business. Lots to finish...!

Until next time!

September 13, 2011

"Rant of the Week: Bachmann Thompson Coaches"

Just to emphasize: I actually really like the Bachmann Thompson coaches. They look pretty much like their prototypes, are well finished, cheap, and with some minor tweaking, run really well.

Well, to be fair, this rant is pretty petulant (!)

A month ago, there were five or six different types in the carmine and cream livery available on most of the box shifters' websites. I was broke, so buying any was not an option.

I am now not so broke, and wanted to buy a few for my various rakes. Are there any left? Just the brake coaches, of which I have plenty. The maroon ones - which are fairly out of period for the era I want to depict - are plentiful.

Drat, drat, and double drat!

It really does go to show that you need to buy the models when they arrive, otherwise you miss out entirely!

On the other hand, my painting skills are improving all the time, so I could just buy some of the maroon ones and give them a repaint...but with my clerestories and LMS suburbans sitting dutifully in the carriage works siding, awaiting transfers and final weathering, I think I'll pass on that for the moment.

Until next time - with a more relevant and thoughtful rant, perhaps!

September 11, 2011

"Reflecting Absence"

Has it really been ten years? I remember it, clear as day.

The two German classes were in Mr Pollard's and Mr Chesire's rooms respectively, overlooking the old Quad. At about a third of the way through the lesson, Mr Pollard came to the door, ashen faced, telling us and Mr Chesire to come into his form room to watch the events unfold.

We were all around the age of 13 - I had turned 14 only two days before as one of the youngest in my year.

We sat, and watched the repeated footage of the first plane crashing into the North Tower. We would later be told it had been American Airlines Flight 11. Then the unthinkable happened. A second plane appeared - and disappeared - as it hit the South tower.

No one spoke for some time afterwards. With the replayed footage earlier, many of us had not really understood exactly what was happening.

Meanwhile, my father was working in his office at the Nat West offices in central London. He, and many other money market dealers, had been on the phone to people in both towers, and after the first plane had hit, the news channel had been switched onto the television which normally showed stock market shares. One dealer had called out for someone to "switch that bloody disaster movie off" before a round of angry responses silenced the dealer in question.

The whole Nat West office followed my father's lead - everyone on the phones was telling the dealers still there to get out of the buildings. They were literally screaming down the phones, "get out - go, get out, you're not safe", as the second plane hit. The man on the end of the phone to my father went silent. I was later told that he was one of the few to make it out alive of the South Tower.

The world seemed to turn on its head that day. When the bell went for break, everyone stayed in the old quad, talking quietly about the day's events.

We watched more of it later that afternoon, watching the towers collapse, the aftermath of several hours sustained fires in the building - and it was only when we saw the dust clouds rising over New York that it really hit home the seriousness of the whole damn thing.

The images in newspapers, magazines, on television and online later that day, week, month, year - were incredible in their subject, but at best devastating. The brave men and women of the New York fire and police services had lost a great many people who tried to save as many as they could. The damage, both in terms of the destruction, and the loss of life were there for all to see.

Two giant towers - 110 floors high - which had dominated the skyline in New York for nearly thirty years. All of us - bar the teachers - had grown up in a world where these buildings existed. The death toll was insurmountable, and fluctuated wildly in the weeks that followed.

66 British Citizens would perish in the attacks. 372 foreign nationals of around 56 nationalities also died. 2669 American citizens died.

The site of the world trade centre has a memorial garden, which is still at this point, under construction. The design has been described as "reflecting absence".

Reflecting Absence. A perfect dedication for the event which changed the world forever.

September 04, 2011

"Rant of the Week: Railway Preservation"

This is all your fault Mr Walker! I really liked the idea of a "rant header" picture. So I'm nicking the idea and using a rather mad Sir Ralph Wedgwood as mine! (Which you penned, and extremely well at that!)

My rant this week generally relates to the sheer amount of diatribe that always gets aimed at 4472 Flying Scotsman - for those of you who haven't heard, the latest news as reported by a particular railway magazine is that 4472 won't now be in service until 2012. This has led to the Barrow Hill lineup of the four different classes of LNER designed Pacifics to be postponed until April next year.

My complaint is the manner in which this has all been reported. Generally it is not difficult to get a straight answer out of the National Railway Museum - they have been very upfront with all of the problems of the overhaul since it began, all the way back in 2006. It was never going to be a straightforward restoration: the locomotive has been utterly pulverized on the mainline, overseas, and on preserved railways for nearly fifty years now. That is before we take into account that the engine had a working life of forty-ish years before that, starting in 1923...!

It's by no means the same engine it was when built in 1923. It's had a plethora of boilers, probably replacement driving wheels, new chimneys, cabs, tenders and various other components and pipework that make up the entity known as 4472 Flying Scotsman. When bought for the nation by the National Railway Museum, she was a very tired engine even then - failing on her Scarborough trips every so often, until a decision to overhaul was made, and do it properly.

I've said it a few dozen times - this is the Rolls Royce of Rolls Royce overhauls. Everything is being checked, checked, and double checked, components are being renewed or replaced, and the whole thing is building up to what will undoubtedly be a fine locomotive which will earn its keep when completed. Yes, there have been setbacks - but would you prefer the setbacks now, before it is in service, or a Royal Scot style saga that ends up with the engine appearing "in service" before failing to turn a wheel for two years, and being dismantled for overhaul (again) so soon after...?

This particular locomotive is absolutely necessary for railway preservation. Forget the total cost of the overhaul (which people keep comparing to 60163 Tornado's cost to build - forgetting of course that Tornado's build was made artificially lower than it could have been through the various sponsors and goodwill of her covenators), remember that the ability of this particular steam locomotive to draw in crowds - wherever she goes - is something beyond the reach of many locomotives in preservation.

Yes, I'm calling it - railway preservation, particularly the smaller preserved railways, where she will undoubtedly visit in her first period of operation after this overhaul, absolutely needs her. 4472 will bring the visitors in their droves to these railways/centres/museums, and the simple fact is that she will almost pay for herself in her first period of operation, whilst directly benefiting many preserved railways simply through turning up.

So give the good people of the National Railway Museum, Ian Riley's Works, and the many more hard working volunteers besides, a break. They have worked unbelievably hard to overhaul a locomotive which by all accounts just kept giving up new and dark secrets of previous overhauls, and their dedication to the cause, which is the absolute gem in our railway preservation - a locomotive of immense beauty that touches the hearts of the general public in a way no other locomotive - bar perhaps Tornado most recently - has ever done.

Her importance to railway preservation as a talisman and figurehead should never be understated or underestimated, and we should all be sincerely grateful to those people putting her back on the mainline, and visiting a preserved railway near you sometime in the future.

That's why she's dual braked, after all.

Until next time!

September 02, 2011

"Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-ch-changes..."

Oh dear. I returned from my trip away to find my attic room - where I film The British Railway Series, and more recently, the Hero of the Scales review series - had been completely overrun with a "late spring clean". In short: not only can I not actually get at the train set to film, I can't actually get in to sleep in my own bed, which used to rest in a corner of the room, but has apparently gone down the dump...!!!

So no videos for a week or two whilst I try and tidy up everything. It's going to be great when it's finished mind - I will even have room for my new layout, "Sidcup" on one side next to Copley Hill.

Until next time!

September 01, 2011

"The Roll of Honour"

I came back from a brief holiday away in the South of England this week, and opened my inbox to find a beautiful selection of messages regarding the possibility of the first The British Railway Series book. The idea came to me that I could do a "roll of honour" which could highlight to a potential publisher the real, palpable desire for a book on the series.

I've received so many emails over the last month in that vein, that publishing them all in the intended roll of honour page on this book hasn't been possible thus far. But I will update the page every so often as I get around to reading all the emails. Here is the link: The Book Roll of Honour - which you can also visit by pressing the page tab above, too!

I can't reply directly to everyone - my apologies - but I hope by including your message on the roll of honour, and by answering a few general questions in a forthcoming blog regarding the potential book, that it will recompense everyone for the valuable time they took to write to me.

Suffice to say, I am very, very grateful, and a few of the more beautifully written emails really tugged at the heart strings a few times! Thank you so much to everyone who has written in thus far.

Until next time - when I'll be doing a Q&A on the book as it stands. Good night!