Saturday, 11 January 2014

Another James May Toy Story

I never was a child who loved building things with Lego, nor was I ever a modeller. Constructing little plastic buildings simply didn't appeal, even though I had adequate encouragement from Dad, whom I remember was for a while keen on Airfix kits, and successfully put together various figure models of the military sort, painting them beautifully, such as a Roundhead officer of the Civil War. But his example did not inspire me. I was not good with my hands, nor did I want to be.

One Christmas, when eight or nine, I was given a basic Meccano set, which I fiddled around with for a short while because it was clearly a superior present, had cost my parents money, and I felt I ought to show some appreciation. The metal plates were green and red, the axles were dull grey metal, and the nuts and bolts and cogs were brass. It took ingenuity to make anything impressive out of my limited set of components, and I hadn't the inventiveness. Besides, I soon found that tightening up the nuts and bolts hurt my fingers. I quickly lost interest, and returned to my books and world atlas and cyphers. I was not made of the right stuff to be a Junior Engineer.

Childhood passed, and soon enough I began to think that an opportunity had been missed that would never come again. I began to grieve for a Lost Childhood even before I was out of my teens. Too late, I wished that I had put at least some effort into boyish things, instead of ducking out of everything that seemed boring, or vacuous, or perplexing to understand, or slightly dangerous, or involved an impossible co-operation with someone else.

But my own nature had stopped me embracing or developing a love for things typically boyish, and especially things mechanical. It could never have been otherwise. I had to accept that boys who had done amazing things with Meccano - or who had found pleasure and satisfaction in any number of other classic childhood toys and games - were gifted or talented in some way that was quite beyond me. I strove to conceal the fact that I'd been different, inept at all forms of play except possibly board games and cards. In my view, I'd had a failed childhood, certainly a substandard one, and I was desperately anxious not to admit it.

All this said, I retained a nostalgia for the toys I'd never had, or had never wanted to play with.

So I was fascinated when James May began to present a series of TV programmes from 2009 devoted to showing how the classic toys of yesteryear - boys' toys, that is - could be used to achieve some astonishing feat. Wikipedia has a full description of them all at's_Toy_Stories. I featured The Great Train Race (the toy Flying Scotsman running on an immensely long toy track between Barnstaple and Bideford in North Devon) in the second half of my post It's not just gender on 16 June 2011. A week ago he did a programme on building a motorbike and sidecar out of Meccano - and then riding it around the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy circuit - while the racing was on! He was in the saddle, and his friend Oz Clarke was in the sidecar (at least some of the time, anyway). There was the usual Man Lab team on hand to come up with the design and trouble-shoot problems.

Yes, it all sounded like men reverting to children in a self-indulgent way! But I think James May was perfectly sincere in his wish for children to see the true potential in their toys, and how they could have grown-up thrills from them. Just as Man Lab had been an attempt to convince modern adult men that they can recover and build on the skills of their fathers. And I didn't see why a failed girl-child like me shouldn't be carried away by May's enthusiasm. It was an achievement to race a cherished toy train over an extraordinarily long track; or to create a balsa wood model glider capable of flying twenty miles over the sea and landing on Lundy Island; or, in this instance, to put 15,000 bits of Meccano together to create a roadworthy vehicle that would stand up (just about) to the rigours of a 38-mile racing circuit through mountains. He was speaking directly to my own latent, and emotional, yearning to achieve something really worthwhile. I did not think the project was daft or trivial.

The team put together this bike, seen here after the 38 miles had been covered:

The round blue bits in the side view were electric motors, as was the black thing bolted to the rear wheel. The rest was bog-standard Meccano. No soft seats: just shaped metal plates - with nuts and bolts to dig into one's botty! Somewhere on board was a battery that would run out of power every few miles, and have to be replaced. So in fact there was a van behind, with the engineering team; and in front was a Range Rover for the film crew. Plus a discreet police motorcycle escort. The filming however gave the illusion that for much of the time James May was struggling out there on his own, day and night.

The bike was, amazingly, street legal. The Isle of Man Government had granted a Certificate of Approval, and a fee of just £12 had secured a tax disc:

Interesting that their 'Department of Infrastructure' was responsible; even more interesting to read the Manx language equivalent: Rheynn Bun-troggalys.

This was the bike as completed. There was no time for road testing before the race began.

May and Clarke had to leather up, hop on board, and get to the starting line in Douglas pronto. They were assigned a departure slot of only a few minutes. But when given the flag, nothing happened. At least not at once. The weight of two men, and friction between various rotating bits that had not yet been worn smooth, were a bit too much for the little battery. But after a few seconds they inched forward and then gathered speed. Well, they got up to walking pace. The spectators cheered.

At the first incline, Oz Clarke had to get off. The bike hadn't the power to carry two uphill. Being the sort of person he is, Clarke contrived to spend much of his time away from the sidecar sampling and purchasing the locally-produced bread, beer, and smoked kippers. Plus a trip on the Isle of Man Steam Railway...

Meanwhile, James May was discovering that Meccano wasn't really designed for such extreme uses. Two wheel rebuilds were followed by a failed wheel bearing that needed a long stop at a machine shop. But eventually he got going again. Here he was at Sulby, about halfway round, with sunset approaching:

He was now under pressure to complete the circuit before the next day's race started. He was so far behind schedule, and the bike was still going so slowly, that he'd have to continue into the night:

Coming out of Ramsey, the mountain section had to be tackled. But at this point, something loosened up and the bike began to go much faster, despite the hills. Dawn saw May tired but elated, as he descended into the northern suburbs of Douglas, and picked up Clarke (still carrying the kippers) for the home stretch.

Now, the last couple of miles. At this point the bike began to feel slightly wobbly, as if a strut had come unbolted, or something had worn away. They decided that there was no time to stop and investigate - it was the finishing line or bust. They pushed on. The crowd was waiting.

Then the finishing line came into view. And at last they took the chequered flag in triumph!

Now that's what I call a happy ending. And what an inspiration to Meccano fans, although I was not personally converted to a life of metal construction. I was so pleased for May and the rest of his team, though.

I have to say the Isle of Man seemed a very nice place indeed, if not always sunny. If I wanted a few days there, Monday to Friday say, I could presently go with Flybe from London Gatwick and take 20kg of baggage for just £54 - that's using a late-morning or early-afternoon flight. No doubt there are extras that bump this up, but the likely final cost doesn't seem outrageous. However, four nights' bed and breakfast have to be added on...another £200? Plus buses and evening meals, and some train and tram trips. It's doable, but not this year!

The flight would take an hour and a quarter only. That's not long!


  1. My parents could easily have given their children an occasional present but chose instead to spend money on their own pleasures. We had a car at a time when very few did but hardly ever taken anywhere in it except to spend an evening in pub garden in the summer...

    When it came to presents the meanness extended to finding second hand toys, I would have quite liked some shiny new red and green Meccano but instead he somehow found a mixed lot of old buckled and twisted pieces in strange colours, half rusty nut and bolts and no chance of an electric motor ever... As for Lego I had to visit cousins who had piles of it but were not much interested but being fairly new and expensive we never got a single brick between me and my sisters.

    They occasionally tried boy's toys like a replica Colt gun but soon realised that I was just not interested. This is all part of the lost childhood many of us must have experienced...

    Let your fingers tap out a search and find out if you can find reasonably priced accommodation, looks like an interesting island. You could always find a cheap flight to the north and get free accommodation...

  2. I would take Fiona and the caravan there id i could - I don't like flying much - but I know without looking it up that the cost would be horrendous!



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