Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Art of Making Dirty

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of filth in life, and sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than getting down and dirty. No, I’m not talking St Trinians again, or even MP’s expenses. My subject today is the noble art of weathering your stock. Some people can weather stock, and some can’t. I fall into the latter category, so when I needed some locos, wagons and a DMU muckying up for my exhibition layout, I was delighted to stumble across Craig at The Art of Making Dirty – his own business specialising in weathering stock from any era.

The photos on his website had me drooling as the sample stock looked incredibly realistic. A few e-mails were exchanged, and Craig offered a very reasonably priced service with a good turnaround of a few weeks – perfect timing as I required some dirty stock for Aberdeen Exhibition.

Craig wasn’t simply offering ‘weathering’ as a take-it-or-leave-it service; his options are pretty much bespoke, ranging from a loco fresh out of works with just a tad of buffer grease and exhaust dirt right up to withdrawn and abandoned in a siding. I needed a couple of class 66’s doing in average condition, an EWS 60 to look work stained, a clean-ish South West Trains Turbostar, some EWS Seacows looking fairly smart, a couple of Dogfish looking decidedly tired and past their prime, a pair of typical parcels vans and the piece de resistance, a rail blue liveried 08 gronk in ‘the full monty’ of renumbering and looking rather worse for wear, being some eight years since a works visit. This was a lot of work in a short time, but Craig accepted the job, and my large box was duly posted.

When Postman Pat struggled up the drive a few weeks later, I couldn’t wait to see the results. And were they spectacular, or what?! The attention to detail was incredible. Along with general dirt that every train picks up in service were oil stains, dripping grease, exhaust stains, brake dust, rust and rain run off from guttering.

Freightliner 'Fred' - see how much detail has been applied to the bogies.

The clss 66 has clearly been having a busy time lately.

All items were of a superb standard, but the loco that captivated my attention the most was the class 08. When I showed my fellow operator, Sam, the loco at Aberdeen he almost wet himself and came out with my favourite quote, “I don’t want to pick it up, because I’ll get my hands dirty.” And he was right; the muck was so realistically applied that you feel as though your hands will come away with a mixture of brake dust and grease by just handling it! The detail didn’t stop there, either. The shunter’s paint has become faded and blotchy through years of neglect and treatment from carriage washing plants, and this was faithfully reproduced on the model.

Out of the box, this is the loco that I sent up to Craig ...

... and this is what came back. The application of the dirt, rust, oil and grease is meticulous.

The weathered stock attracted much attention at exhibitions, but none more so than the 08 that became the operators and visitors favourite, and worked at every show. Although the layout was sold last year, the loco has been preserved in a display case at home.

The pair of Dogfish looked fantastic, with evidence of ballast dust
in the unloading chutes, plus liberal rust and brake dirt along the underframe.

60026 clearly needs to spend a little time back at the depot to sort out that oil leak!

I can thoroughly recommend visiting the website to view the galleries of weathered stock – steam and diesel locos, wagons and coaches all feature – to get an idea as to just how artistic and observant Craig is when recreating stock in any condition. Even if you don't need any stock weathering right now, the galleries are worth a visit in their own right. By the way, I have absolutely no link to Craig or his business - I am simply passing my experiences on purely as a satisfied customer.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Hockey Sticks and Wheels of Steel

Ronald Searle* has a lot to answer for. Had it not been for him, I wouldn’t have had the most boring weekend of my life in the middle of nowhere – or rather, on the edge of nowhere, as I was right on the east coast of Suffolk, next stop Holland. I could only be talking about the Southwold model railway exhibition.

For several years, the exhibition’s friendly but persistent Chief Exhibitions Promotions and Public Relations Guru & Advertising Manager (or another grandiose title that clubs love so much) had been trying to persuade me to take my modern image lineside accessories range to the show to trade. And for several years, commonsense had told me that an isolated seaside town still living in 1959 wasn’t going to make enough profit for the Ferrari F40, holiday home in the Bahamas and the nubile beach bunnies who’d bring me my drinks to the beach hut that I aspired to. In fact, I estimated that I’d be lucky to get a McDonalds on the way home.

But, Jerry is tenacious and didn’t give in, and he waxed lyrically about footfall, the large number of visitors, average spend and the interest of modern image at the show, etc, etc. Still, my answer was ‘no’. Then he said that the show was held at a posh private girl’s school, and exhibitors stayed overnight in the bedrooms. Ah ha! Now you’re talking my language. At this point, all rational thought and business acumen went out of the window, and flooding in came visions of sixth form St Trinians pupils at a wild after-show party – the sort of party where pianos get thrown out of windows, flutes end up in weird places and Stoke Summit gets set on fire. In short, my kind of event. I’m in.

Feel the fear, we're maniacs!

In the event, I wasn’t quite in, because a couple of days before the show I had an accident at work involving a fork lift truck, sacks of potato flakes and a broken pallet. Guess what happened next?

So it wasn’t until the following year that I ended up on the A1095, which is the one and only road into Southwold. The town is located about 70 miles from Norwich and around 50 years from present day Britain. The journey took forever, going down endless twisting and turning roads – tracks, really – the sort populated by tractors, caravans, Rovers, horseboxes and sheep. Owing to the early hour, I didn’t encounter too many of these obstructions and made good time to the school which was located out of town in it’s own huge rolling grounds, known locally simply as ‘Suffolk’. Money really does talk.

Education, education, education - but only if you can afford it

Finding the exhibition hall was easy enough, so I drove up to the main doors to begin the long job of unloading and carting all my stuff in. I was greeted in the customary way, “You can’t park there.” I poked my head out of the tailgate, to see an apparition before me – a 1950’s British Railways Guard, in full uniform, topped off with the predictable peaked cap.
Oh great, it’s the ghost of exhibitions past. I have no real issues with fancy dress, in the right time and place of course. A Rocky Horror party, vicars n’ tarts or maybe an 80’s theme night – then bring it on. But dressing up to play trains – that sends a shiver down my spine.
“I’m not parked, I’m unloading.”
He pondered this, and then said, “Well, when you’re finished, you have to move your car to the exhibitors car park.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“So you’ll move it then?”
“When I’ve unloaded, yes. Where is it?”
“Over there.”
“Where’s there?”
“What did you say?”
“Yes, that’s right.”

That sorted that problem out, then. Thanks ever so much for your help in pinpointing the location to somewhere in the west. I’m sure I’ll find it. Die soon. So I lugged my stand in, and then went to move the car. Not, I hasten to add, because a British Railways Guard had told me to, but simply as a courtesy to other exhibitors who needed access to the doors. The exhibitor’s carpark was some distance away; in fact it was in Hertfordshire, owing to most of the available space being taken up with disabled parking. I needed a car just to drive to my car, which was ludicrous, so I simply made alternative arrangements that were rather more convenient and wouldn’t require a taxi.

Before opening time I took a quick tour of the exhibition to seek out any relevant layouts that were using my products – always a good selling point at shows. However, given that the most up-to-date layout was set in 1961, and some layouts pre-dated the invention of the wheel, this wasn’t likely. I began to have some bad feelings about the show.

The doors opened to the public at around 10, and the Mrs Slocombe Appreciation Society rushed in. Well, no, they didn’t exactly rush – they hobbled, wobbled, creaked, groaned, wheeled or drove those annoying dodgem things into the show – it was as if all the old folks homes in Suffolk had kicked everyone out while they did a spring clean. Nobody was interested in what I was selling; these were just pensioners on a day to the seaside filling in an hour or two. I began to feel that some of Jerry’s claims were just a tad overblown. He was bang on about the numbers – boy, do they get some people coming through the door – but I would have done better business by opening a bacon butty snack-bar in a mosque.

Consequently the long, hot day wore on without sales, and I got more and more bored. Had it not been for the St Trinians aspect, then I’d have sneaked out of the doors and gone home, after picking my car up from Luton on the way. Once the trading day finally ended, I made my way to the man who was sorting out the overnight accommodation. Who was terribly sorry, but due to unforeseen circumstances, couldn’t put me up in the girl’s block, and exhibitors were staying in the boy’s block instead. Whoa, rewind a bit – no one said anything about a boy’s block when I was booking the show. If I wanted to sleep in a schoolboy’s bed I’d have become a fucking vicar. In every sense. What, exactly, were the unforeseen circumstances? Well, it transpired that the main obstacle was the fact that even though it was school summer holidays – which seem to begin in April and end around Christmas these days – some of the girls were staying at the school as they were on one of those Outward Bound adventure courses. "Yes – and your problem with that is …..?" That stumped him.

It got worse. The girl’s block had recently undergone a refurbishment programme, and the photos proudly displayed in the lobby looked as though the bedrooms resembled those in The Dorchester. Whereas the boy’s block had last seen a paintbrush shortly after the war, and looked like a council flat in Manchester. I was not impressed. The room was the size of cupboard, and featured a cot instead of a bed. There was a sink with limescale covered taps, out of which dribbled a pathetic trickle of cold water. As I’d been stuck in the blast furnace of the hall all day, breathing in the stale air and medical ointments of 1500 wrinklies, I was badly in need of a shower. These were located down the corridor, but didn’t work – because it was the holiday, and the school was shut, they had been isolated. I was seriously unimpressed.

Equality rules, OK!

But, in a rare flash of inspiration, I had a brainwave. Presumably the girl’s block had working showers, so I made my way over there and found, without too much difficulty, the P.E. shower block. Thus I was able to have a long and invigorating shower, and emerge suitably refreshed in order to face the horrors of the night ahead. I should point out that the block was, sadly, deserted – everybody was participating in rock climbing or white water rafting or white-knuckle texting somewhere in the county, I presume.

The school was located some distance from town, so I’d signed up for the in-house catering. This turned out to be a fish n’ chips supper, which sounded great, except that no one had thought through the potential logistics of turning up at the local chippy and ordering 75 cod and chips to go. So when it finally arrived, it was cold and soggy and looked like the sort of meals that get served in the Guantanamo Bay Rest Home for Retired Terrorists. However, I was starving, and food is food. I sat with the club members of the layout positioned adjacent to my stand in the show, who thoughtfully invited me to join them. I soon wished I hadn’t. The conversation for the first 20 minutes consisted of why every train had derailed at a particular place on their layout whilst heading eastbound throughout the day. The discussion got highly technical and involved, and I think I was the only one who figured it out – it’s because your track laying is shit. Pass the ketchup, please.

After that, the conversation moved away from trains, and onto a higher plane – the relative merits of throwaway plastic cutlery. I swear that I am not making this up. Apparently, the plastic cutlery provided by KFC isn’t a patch on that included with Marks & Spencer salads, but even that pales into insignificance compared to the hand crafted knives and forks issued by dusky maidens on long haul Air Singapore flights. I had to leave. I won’t name the club, as they tried hard to be pleasant and hospitable; they just need to get out more. A lot more.

My cell had no obvious entertainment other than curtain swishing or cleaning the limescale off the taps – and I’d left my Cillit Bang at home. Bugger. So, I decided to find a pub and have a drink. I sought out the BH Boys to join me, but they were driving down to Felixstowe to go trainspotting. Great. So it’s just me then.

The walk into town took an hour, and I have to say that whilst it was all very genteel and attractive, it just wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I didn’t pass a pub, but eventually arrived at the seafront. It was as if I’d been transported back in time, to my dim and distant childhood. It was exactly as an English seaside town should look, and indeed, as they used to look before everyone discovered Benidorm and the British seaside resorts entered their terminal decline.

When I were a nipper ...

The beach was long, clean and sandy, with wooden breakwaters (I have fond memories of playing on just such beaches during family summer holidays). A row of brightly coloured beach huts lined the promenade, and to top it all off, there was the quintessential British seaside resort accessory – a pier, complete with wooden buildings, all finished in gleaming white paint.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside,
as long as I can get a bloody coffee.

Naturally, that was where I headed, as I was bound to be able to find something likely – maybe a café, bar, an amusement arcade or a pole-dancing club. Well, it did have a café, and it looked lovely – I could have spent all night there over a drink, watching the sun slowly settle over the millpond sea and reading my book. Except that it had shut at 6pm, because it was August and therefore the middle of the season, and if it stayed open then people might stroll down for a drink and watch the sun slowly settle over the millpond sea while reading a book. And they don’t want that kind of rowdy troublemaker in Southwold, thank you very much.

Wearily, I trudged into the town centre. The buildings, I have to say, were magnificent, with some really beautiful architecture, thankfully lacking the almost obligatory tacky neon signs or hairdressers called ‘Upper Kutz’ that dominate every English town. The streets were spotless, and I just couldn’t believe that I was in England, at around 8pm, on a Saturday night. It was as dead as Gordon Brown’s career, with no sign of life anywhere. There were some interesting looking shops, and quaint family owned cafes – none of your plastic Starbucks rubbish here - all of which I would happily have patronised, had they been open. Southwold goes to bed very early it would seem. Certainly, the accoutrements that accompany all other English towns on a Saturday night – gangs of drunk teenagers shagging each other, yobs urinating in shop doorways, tramps begging a for a holiday home in Tenerife, fast-food packaging discarded in every gutter, pools of blood and / or vomit, car alarms wailing, car horns blaring, drug dealers doing business to a background orchestration of police sirens – was missing. It was deathly quiet. It was serene, calm and pleasant. I felt homesick.

This isn't a photo, it's a video. Such is the pace of life in Southwold.

At length, I happened upon a pub. Well, not a pub, but a hotel with a lounge bar, which is as close as Southwold likes to get to the unwashed masses. At last, I could get a drink – until I entered and found myself in a Colonel Blimp theme night. The sea of white and grey hair that turned to face me was probably the same crowd that had been at the exhibition, but now they were all attired in cream or beige lounge suits and flowery summer dresses. I walked in attired in jeans and polo shirt, and immediately felt like a turd in a swimming pool. No one said anything, but I could feel them thinking, ‘By George, that’s one of those working class oiks, isn’t it? Thought we’d had ‘em all shot, you know. Bad egg, what?!’ Naturally I wasn’t inclined to hang around, so I beat a hasty retreat back into the deserted streets.
I looked in vain for a decent pub, but every hotel lounge bar was full of Hyacinth Buckets (“It’s Bouquet”) and before long I was heading out of town and returning towards the school. Oh well, back to St Trinians, and lets see if the rave has started yet. But sadly, the girls were out all night – they had some sense – doing an orienteering exercise and learning how to read maps or operate Sat-Navs so that they could escape from Southwold forever. I returned to my small cell, wrote up some notes in case one day in the future I could find an outlet for all my exhibition memoirs, and then finished my Clive Cussler novel. That ended the longest day of my life, bar none.

Sunday beckoned, and I was up early, very early so that I could nip over to the girls’ block for a shower. Then to the school dining room for a very presentable cooked breakfast, served buffet style so that you could eat as much as you could possibly consume, unless you’re from Essex. As my next meal would be around 9pm at McDonalds on the way home, I fuelled up accordingly. Breakfast over, I heaved myself out of the dining room and proceeded to the exhibition hall. There followed another boring day of sitting behind my stall doing absolutely nothing, except listen to old dears blathering on about the bloody weather, and discussing their ailments.

If I see one more colostomy bag, I'll wet myself.

Towards the end of the day I did the accounts, and discovered that I had made a net profit of £17.17 for two days work. The Ferrari F40 would have to wait a bit longer, the beach hut in Barbados would become a buffet in Barmouth, whilst the beach bunnies in bikinis were clearly going to be the blue rinse brigade at a coffee morning. So, not entirely a worthwhile experience, then. When the club treasurer arrived, with palms outstretched and grinning from ear to ear I mentioned this, plus the grotty accommodation problem, and he did at least reduce my bill for the cell by £10. So now I was in profit to the tune of £27.17, so I performed a little jig around my stand, which was more physical activity than the entire show had seen in two days. You can imagine my response to his, “… and would you like to come back next year?

I couldn’t wait to leave, so approaching closing time I retrieved my car from its hiding place and parked it outside the doors in order to speed up loading and departure. The minute the show shut, I was out, tailgate open and chucking the stuff in. Loading took longer than normal, given that I hadn’t sold any stock, but even so, I was on that only road out of Southwold and heading for England 2006 in double quick time. Going down the long gravel drive of the school, a large group of St Trinians sixth formers were returning from their adventure weekend. You know, maybe I could give Southwold just one more night …

* Ronald Searle is, of course, the original creator of St Trinians.
But you knew that already.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

All Aboard for Perth

This coming weekend is the Perth Model Railway Show – that’s Scotland, not Australia, in case you were wondering. I’ve traded and demonstrated at this excellent show for the past three years, and can thoroughly recommend attending. It is held at the Dewars Ice Rink close to the centre and railway station in a spacious exhibition hall.

Unfortunately, I cannot attend this year due to other commitments, but it is well worth travelling to, as the club members make you welcome, the venue is spacious and light (although does get rather hot, which I find ironic for an ice rink) and you get to see layouts which rarely venture south of the border – and it’s always a nice change to see something new and interesting.

It’s worth taking some time out from the show (I can feel the anoraks twitching at the mere possibility) to walk into Perth itself and down to the river for some fantastic views. If you stay overnight, the club social at the Carvery is well worth attending before hitting local hostelries to try out everything in a bottle. I recommend the entire top shelf of single malts, and see you in A&E, Jimmy!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Probably The Best Adverts in the World

Great adverts get noticed, and the more successful slogans stick in your mind long after the original product has dropped out of your mind – although perhaps not in the case of Wonderbra. Billboards make a great accessory, but have always been difficult to get hold of. Rather like the contents of a Wonderbra.

Up until 2007, Signs of The Times produced a range of laser-cut wood kits, and the good news is that Ten Commandments are now manufacturing ready-made resin hoardings in two distinct ranges – modern image and vintage eras. Either way, the cut off point is around 1968. Each billboard comes with a poster; should you wish to change the advert then a range of loose posters are sold at exhibitions. All posters are produced in limited runs; thus allowing a constant supply of interesting and new designs.

Some examples of the popular modern image billboards.

The steam age advertisments were launched at York Show and have been well recieved.

As the hoarding is cast in one piece, all that is required is some painting. Small details such as the advertising company nameboard and an identification panel number are supplied on the poster sheet, which is printed on very high quality semi-gloss card for durability. The billboards are suitable for wall mounting, or freestanding at common sites such as station platforms or car parks.

Hoardings provide an interesting cameo in their own right, especially some of the amusing and provocative contemporary adverts that have flourished in recent years. Some examples – the ‘Labour isn’t working’ advert, as seen in these pictures, is as relevant now, some 30 years later, as it was back in 1979 when it was launched. Others can be date specific, especially cars or gadgets, which change very quickly, whilst others can easily span a 20-year period without any trouble – travel posters are a case in point. Take care in choosing an advert that fits in with the period of your layout to add a touch of authenticity. Of course, once you’ve purchased the actual hoarding, there’s nothing to stop you designing and printing your own poster to display on it. Many examples of popular adverts can be found online, or if you are modelling bang up to date, then just take your camera around town – it’s amazing just how many adverts are out there, yet how often do we all walk past them without noticing?

Here's a typical roadside billboard; when I passed by the following week it had changed to Sky Digital!

Billboards change regularly; generally after 2 – 4 weeks depending on the contract, so if you see any that take your fancy, then don’t delay - today’s Mondeo could easily become tomorrow’s Matalan!

The reason that I use these billboards on my projects is simple:

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Entering The Timewarp

As soon as you walk into almost any exhibition hall, you are taking a trip back in time. Most exhibitions are almost exactly as they were in the 1960’s, and see no reason to move into the 21st century. So why is this? Well, most shows are organised by a committee, a word that strikes fear and dread into the hearts of normal, sane people. These committees have been sitting since 1948 or so, and the people on them haven’t changed. Several have died in the interim period, but death is not a barrier to being on a model railway club committee. In fact, they tend to the most productive members.

"So we're agreed, then - our new layout is another GWR branch terminus. Cheers!"

Naturally, each committee wants to push it’s own agenda forward, and promote their own interests – which are rooted firmly in the past. Consequently, every exhibition they put on has around a dozen pre-war layouts then one token ‘modern’ layout – which is anything from 1960 onwards. That’s fifty years of history summarised in a single model – or as the committee refer to them – ‘smelly diesel layouts.’ It is that sort of open mindedness that has meant that the modelling hobby has stayed rooted firmly in the past, and cannot progress forwards. This explains why most clubs cannot attract new, young members to replace those who are – literally – dying off. And in turn, they’re strangling the hobby with their rose-tinted view that because they want to see and model steam train layouts from 1935 to 1955, then so should everybody else. The last steam train ran in 1968 – that’s a staggering 41 years ago – isn’t it time to move on?

Of course, it is important to exhibit some steam age layouts at shows; what I’m looking for is an interesting balance of eras and periods from history, and from all around the country. It seems pointless (and boring) to me to display 10 layouts from the same decade, and then maybe one from 1910 and one from 1985. I was once approached by a club who invited me to bring Valkova Road to their exhibition, because, as the organiser told me with a commendably straight face, "We need a modern image layout." No, I didn't attend, and made sure that he understood that I do not model to fill politically-correct quotas. The fact he even said it proves my point that these committees are as out of touch with real life as Gordon Brown is. And that is one hell of an achievement. It would be far more interesting for the general public – who, after all, are being required to stump up to attend these shows – to view a really good cross section of models that are representative of the various ages, as opposed to serving the self-interests of the club committees. The same committees, naturally, do not want younger members coming in, with new fangled ideas about something vaguely relevant to the outside world. And they certainly don’t want women; in fact they’re still upset about women getting the vote.

The AGM of the Little Gropetitt & Felthum MRC Committee attracted a lot of interest in 1995.

And they’re missing a trick here, because the few women who are actively involved in modelling (as private individuals, not club members) do a terrific job and have produced some of the best layouts on the circuit. You only have to look at the narrow gauge layouts built by John & Jane Jacobs (Kingston Regis and Nettlecomb) to see just how skilled female builders can be. Jane created every building on their layout from scratch, and the scenery is a joy to behold. It is one of those layouts where the trains are merely an added interest to the model as a whole; not just an excuse to run numerous locos around for hours.

Whenever my own layout was exhibited, it attracted interest from the general public – not the trainspotters. The family groups loved it, simply because they could easily identify with the street scene that was relevant to their world. It was also pleasant to have these family groups around the layout, as they had washed and applied deodorant before leaving the house; always welcome in absurdly overheated exhibition halls. They didn’t care that the class 47 loco had a radiator grill present that it only carried in real life for a week in June 1974. The roadworks, WH Smiths and numerous cameo scenes were of far more interest; it was their world in miniature. Valkova Road was never the best built layout at a show, or the most prototypically operated - but it was relevant and identifiable to the audience, and allowed good interaction between the operators and visitors.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Cup of Tea, Love?

In contrast to my experiences at the hands of Ashford Model Railway Club (who received some mild criticism yesterday), I am happy to redress the balance with some extremely welcoming, helpful and all-round pleasant exhibitions that I attended over the years. Some clubs have got it and some clubs just haven’t. A good case in point is the excellent show held by Stowmarket Model Railway Club in Suffolk. This is one of those shows that you look forward to attending, simply because the organisers treat you as a human, rather than just a bankroll.

Stowmarket Show is also held in a Leisure Centre, just like Ashford (see previous post). But that is where any similarities end, I’m glad to say. When you arrive, the doors are open to allow access – and it’s amazing how much difference this makes to your day and general demeanour. Stowmarket don’t stop at just opening doors, however. After being shown to your allotted area, helpful club members assist you with unloading and bringing your stand into the hall, rather than the favoured method of certain clubs who just watch you struggle. But the thing that really sets this show apart is that whilst you are assembling your stand – around a two-hour job – club members bring round a good old-fashioned tea trolley.
Bearing in mind that you’ve been up since pre-dawn, driven anything up to 200 miles to a show and then have to spend a couple of hours assembling a stand, this is a most thoughtful and welcome gesture, and might I say, very much appreciated. Once your stand is complete, the leisure centre has an excellent restaurant, so you can also get breakfast. This is how Shows should be. During the day, the exhibition manager and various club members check to see how you are doing, and provide cover so you can nip to the thoughtfully provided tea urn for a drink, and half an hour later cover your inevitable trip to the toilets. It creates a really good atmosphere and puts you in a good mood; which of course is reflected in customer service when you’re stuck on a stand selling stuff all day. Or to be more accurate, stuck on a stand with lots of stuff to sell that people look at but don’t buy. It just goes to show how a little bit of thought can go a long way, and that there really is no need for the peaked cap, hi-viz jacket clad brigade to interfere.

Friday, 19 June 2009

You're Not Coming In Here

By far the most surreal experience I ever had at an exhibition was at Ashford in Kent. Well, I say ‘at an exhibition’; in fact I never made it beyond the doors to the venue. Yes, it transpired that the show would commence with a lockout, presumably as a result of a lock-in the previous night at a local hostelry.

It all began with the usual invitation to trade at the show – and believe me, it is not cheap to trade at a show, it often costs hundreds of pounds by the time you factor in the fact that clubs actually charge you for attending, then of course there’s petrol and a night in a B&B or Travelodge for a 2-day show; plus you have to eat and so on. However, I didn’t have any shows in South East England, and being a prosperous area I thought I’d give it a punt to try it out.

So it came to pass that I loaded up the car and drove the 165 miles to Ashford in the wee small hours in order to arrive shortly before the appointed time of 07:30. I was met by a wet (as in raining) club member sporting the inevitable Hi-Viz vest (look at me, I’m important) who directed me down to the Leisure Centre’s basement carpark where I could unload and access the building. Like all basement car parks, this was damp, dank, musty and smelt inevitably of faeces. I didn’t look, but I know it was there. Maybe Chanel could bottle this fragrance and sell it as ‘Essence of Ashford.’ I certainly know that everytime I smell stale urine I remember my visit.

Welcome to Ashford Exhibition

Anyway, I waited, and waited and waited some more. Nothing happened, the doors remained firmly locked; more and more cars and vans arrived, all eager to get in and set up. Well, maybe not eager, but these things have to be done. It was also noticeable that the Hi-Viz clad Club Stasi, who are usually so prevalent ordering people around at such events, had quietly melted away, rather like an MP facing questions from constituents about his claim for moat cleaning.

Time ticked by with agonising slowness, and after 90 minutes the thrills and spills of the basement carpark were beginning to wane. I’d tried all the entertainment on offer: Burger-King wrapper spotting; counting the number of non-working fluorescent tubes; cleaned the car with baby wipes and written a list of things I’d like to do to the exhibition manager. There was also the practical considerations as well – the show opened at 10:00 to the public, it was now 09:00 and it took two hours to set my stand up from scratch. Ergo, I wouldn’t be ready on time. Add to this that now everybody but everybody would be trying to force their way into the doors simultaneously, all with large and heavy boxes, boards, control panels and McDonalds breakfasts – well, it was a recipe for disaster.

Shortly after 09:05, however, the doorman arrived. He wasn’t the doorman of course – he had a peaked cap so was probably a Security & Surveillance Surgical Truss Tsar or some other made up title.

"You can't park it there!!!"

Whoever he was, he had finally dragged his carcass out of bed, ambled a couple of miles into work a couple of hours late and decided to make the most of his new found power. He unlocked the doors and proceeded inside. The assembled crowd thrust forward as one, anxious to make a belated start on their stands. But it was not to be. Blakey wanted to savour his moment. “You can’t come in yet. It’s not convenient. I’m not ready for you.” Well, the model railway crowd are generally a tolerant and genial lot, and there is no problem that can’t be solved by a nice cup of tea. But not me. I am neither tolerant nor genial when faced with an idiot in a peaked cap with a made up job title and an attitude problem who sorely regrets having been born too late to have served in the Pogroms. I’d been up since 04:00 and hadn’t had a cup of coffee. I was livid. “Then in that case, you can shove your fucking show up your fucking arse you wanker!” I announced grandly to anyone and everyone in the vicinity. I stormed back to the car, gunned it as if auditioning for Trader in a Reasonably Priced Estate Car and roared off to McDonalds in search of some much needed sustenance. After fortification by way of a couple of McMuffins and a good dose of coffee, I hit the motorway and returned to Grantham, where I had a far more entertaining weekend scouring my oven.

This incident highlighted a common problem – if you are the exhibition manager, then the weekend is not about playing with trains, it is about managing and organising an exhibition. If I’m paying a couple of hundred quid and making a 330 mile round trip to attend your exhibition, in order to make your club money, then I expect at the very least to be allowed into the building. There should be a system in place, as with all businesses, so that if the keyholder fails to show up, then there is a means of communicating with them (called a telephone) and preferably someone more reliable who can stand in. Hiding away and hoping that the problem will go away is not a good enough answer. Imagine if the manager at Asda thought one Saturday morning, ‘Ah bollocks to it. I’ll have another couple of hours kip; they can do their shopping later on.’ And then when he finally did turn up and open the store, tells the assembled hordes, “You can’t come in, it’s not convenient.” I wonder how long he’d remain in his job? A period a lot shorter than Old Blakey in Ashford, that’s for sure. But whereas at Asda there’d be an investigation followed by a sacking, in model railway world the mantra is ‘Oh, we really don’t want to make a fuss, it was nothing, really.”

The Council (who own the Leisure Centre) send the organisers a standard letter of non-apology and promise to review their procedures (i.e. do sod all), and to ensure that the club book the venue for the following year, offer a 10% discount ‘for the inconvenience’ – after putting their prices up by 10%, of course. Which is why I have never been back to Ashford, although in fairness, for some reason, they didn’t invite me back again. Strange, that.

"I 'ate you traders!"

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Train Now Arriving ...

The latest release from Ten Commandments modern image scenic accessories range are these rather good whitemetal station platform VDU monitors. They are very simple to make up, consisting of a pole for freestanding VDU’s, or a bracket for wall mounting. The actual monitor may then be fitted at any angle onto the base, making this model versatile and flexible. Complete by painting in the colours of your choice – and these vary greatly, depending upon where you’ve chosen to model – and add one of the thoughtfully provided pre-printed visual displays as a finishing touch. The printed screens come in a variety of formats, from 1980’s style simple white text on a black background up to modern multicoloured displays. These models will add a touch of authenticity to modern stations, and could also be used effectively in bus stations, or if you have space, an airport terminal. Great value, easy to build and provides a realistic finishing touch for any modern layout.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Don't Dress For Dinner

During my time on the show circuit, I became increasingly appalled at the unbelievable dress standards that appear time and time again. Rail enthusiasts bemoan the fact that they are ridiculed as ‘the bobble hat brigade’, but to be honest, some of them do the hobby no favours at all. Summer is by far the worst time of year; at least in winter people tend to cover up some of the most shocking fashion offences. I believe that Trinny & Susannah should be present on the door of each show, and bar entry to anyone who fails a simple dress code.
I’m not talking about dressing in a suit; my grievances are directed at those men (it’s always men at shows who are the offenders) who are graduates of the Vicky Pollard school of wardrobe and fashion.

Firstly, mandals – or men’s sandals (a complete contradiction in terms). I have no objection to seeing a pretty 20-something girl sporting an elegant pair of strappy Jimmy Choos (or even Primark) – but I do not want to see a 60-something bloke with huge gnarled twisted trees roots sporting great lumps of earth between the toes which are probably cultivating next year’s crop of Maris Pipers; uncut yellowed nails that have got so long they are bent over backwards and could easily stand in for a JCB on a building site – and judging by appearances, they probably have been - shoved into a pair of Jesus sandals. Especially when I’m having a sandwich.

Those that have the decency to cover up these grotesque features maintain the sandals, but encase them either in knee-high grey / black / white / unwashed white that have turned grey or black socks or knee-high football socks. There’s just no helping some people. Except with an AK47, but that’s not noticeably legal. Yet.

Many traders and layout operators tend to have standardised polo shirts these days, featuring the name of the business or the club on them. An excellent idea, it looks professional, at least if they see a washing machine and an iron from time to time, and prevents the wearer from choosing something out of their own wardrobe. I applaud this idea wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, there are no such conventions for visitors to shows, who wear anything they like - apart from the unfortunate omission of deodorant in a distressing number of cases. Given that most exhibition halls are superheated to equate to the interior of a volcano, this is not pleasant. Despite the heat, and regardless of whether it’s mid summer outside and the humidity has gone into stratospheric levels, many visitors pile into the shows with innumerable layers of clothing, topped off by the ubiquitous padded anorak, just in case a blizzard should hit Surbiton in mid July. Then they wonder why The Sun takes the piss. The clothing layers are enhanced with a backpack so large that Sir Ranulph Fiennes turned one down for his recent climb up Everest, given that he was only popping out for a couple of weeks. These backpacks don’t seem to contain anything other than the latest copy of Model Rail magazine, but are used to smack into innocent bystanders at crowded layouts, block the view and generally remove the odd eyeball or two. I abhorred them on my small tradestand, because whenever the person wearing one would attempt a 3-point turn on my stand in order to leave, the backpack would invariably take half the bloody stand with it.

Then we come to the hats. The traditional bobblehat now seems to be in terminal decline, thank God for that, and has been replaced by the good old baseball cap, and here I do send a rare bit of praise out – at least at shows people manage to wear them the correct way round. Cowboy hats or Australian Bush hats are creeping in to several shows now, but I assume that its just people acclimatising themselves ready for global warming. Not that parched desert conditions will see off the anoraks, of course!

Here's One I Prepared Earlier

My interest in modelling stems from creating realistic scenic dioramas, usually in 4mm scale as I can’t focus on anything smaller than that. Most modelling techniques are extremely simple and require only patience and practise, as with most things in life (apart from flat pack furniture, which can only be assembled after a bottle of California Zinfandel and requires a considerable amount of swearing, sweating and general all round loss of goodwill and bonhomie). I believe in putting my money firmly where my opinionated mouth is, so I will be demonstrating such techniques on the Ten Commandments stand at the Peterborough Show in September ’09 and Nottingham next year.

Unfortunately, many modelling skills and techniques are being lost, as mass produced goods from China are taking over the market and creating a scenario where people think that modelling is taking an item out of box and plonking it down on a layout. But where is the creativity, and the sense of achievement at having created a unique and personal model in that? A completed model looks incredibly complicated and many people have said to me in the past, “Oh, I couldn’t do anything like that.” Wrong answer. It is simply a case of taking the initial plunge, being willing to learn, and to incorporate all the lessons learnt into the next project. Nobody has ever created a masterpiece on their first attempt; it is often years of patience and learning that enables them to hone to their skills to a fine art; but the learning (these days I should say ‘a journey!’) of the art is stimulating and enjoyable in itself.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Quote Me Happy!

Are you paying too much for your car insurance? If you’ve been to an exhibition recently, then no doubt you’ve seen the proliferation of operators on layouts wearing headsets and microphones. At first I thought they were very enthusiastic Direct Line employees doing some weekend overtime, but no, it turns out that they are using these headsets to speak to other people operating the same layout. Not in Mumbai; not even in Muswell Hill – these guys are speaking with somebody around ten feet away. Now this strikes me as rather odd. I mean, why go to the time and expense of installing a high tech communications system for the purpose of speaking to people who could be easily spoken to by virtue of simply opening your mouth and letting the words spew forth? Although I’d love to tune into some of the conversations that they might be having.
“Hello Jim, can you send an express passenger train round, please?”
“Ooh yes, but only if you talk dirty to me.”
[Long Pause]
“That blue loco is a bit mucky, don’t you think?”

Okay, I’m sure that there is a clearly defined and very convincing reason why these people need such a system of speaking with each other, and it’s obviously not just a case of showing off how clever they (think they) are. I’ll leave it there; Churchill are on the phone and they’re going to try their luck at beating all my quotes for next year’s car insurance. Oh, YESSSS!

"I'm sorry sir, I really can't tell you if the fifth wagon on that freight train has air brakes or vacumn brakes. But I can certainly offer you home and contents insurance with 10% off in the first year ... hello ....hello?"

Friday, 12 June 2009

Well I will walk 500 miles, and I will walk 500 more ..... Just to exhibit my layout!

Valkova Road’s debut appearance was at Aberdeen in November 2005 as the layout had been invited to appear there before it was even completed. This was quite a hike from Grantham, some 425 miles, as I would travel via Sunderland to pick up my fellow operator Andy on the way. Nevertheless, the 9-hour trip was very pleasant in the Mondeo, and the advantage of making a debut at a show so far away was that if anything went wrong; well who would know?
Arrival at the venue was around 7pm, and the helpful and welcoming stewards who assisted with unloading met us. After a couple of hours the layout was erected and tested, so it was time to get details about our accommodation. I approached the Exhibition Manager and asked where our overnight accommodation was located, as it is customary for an exhibition to sort out your sleeping arrangements, having invited you in the first place.
“Er, overnight accommodation?”
“Yes, our B&B – where is it?”
“Ah. You’re thinking of staying overnight, then?”
“Well, yes – we rather thought we might. I mean, we haven’t travelled 425 miles in 9 hours to do a daily commute, now, have we?”
“Um. Yes, I see the problem. Grantham’s that far away, is it?”
“Give or take a mile or so, yes.”
As a result, we managed to find a room in a nearby Travelodge type of place, although all they had left was a smoking room (ugh), which meant my clothes would stink of stale smoke for the weekend.
The weekend itself was very successful; the exhibition staff were friendly and visitors interested – and apart from one elderly man who tried to walk off with one of my locos, the public were well behaved. The layout performed very well with only one minor point failure all weekend, so that was actually a bit too realistic to be convincing.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Engage brain, then open mouth...

I built a layout for exhibition purposes in 2005, naming it Valkova Road. The layout was designed to be a microism of contemporary Britain and was not set anywhere in particular – the aim was that the exhibition visitors could identify it with wherever they happened to live. The trains were almost incidental to the overall city scene. The model incorporated everything that can be seen in present day British cities – throngs of people in the streets, traffic jams, well known shops and companies, a theatre with constantly changing shows; a hotel, vibrant billboards etc, etc. It also served as a mobile advertisement for the product range I was making and selling at the time.

When writing exhibition guides, I surmised the layout as ‘a generic model representative of a typical British city.’ Generally the layout received very favourable comments from the general public (i.e., non-rivet counting fascists) whenever it appeared, but my favourite exchange took place at Renhold. An old man and his wife studied the model for some considerable time and seemed genuinely interested. I approached him, and he asked, ”Where’s this supposed to be set, then?”
“It’s generic.”
“Generic? I've been there, it looks nothing bloody like it.”
Keep on taking the tablets, Granddad.

When the layout appeared at Ilkeston, two visitors were overheard to say,
“Hey, this one looks pretty good.”
“Yeah, it’s ok, but there’s too much emphasis on the scenery and not enough on the trains.”

That’s the problems with cities these days – they just haven’t got their priorities right.
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