June 24, 2010


by James May, with Ian Harrison
272 pgs, Conway

Review by SF Winser

I usually don't read TV tie-ins. I might read a book that series is based upon, but rarely the other way around.

However, I had been REALLY looking forward to watching the TV series 'James May's Toy Stories' is based upon. It was such a cool idea. Take a few of the world's best toys and do the kind of massive-scale things with them that we all dreamed about as a kid. Build an entire house out of Lego, build a Scalextric racetrack as long as an actual racetrack... That sort of thing. It sounded like enormous amounts of fun. But...you know... Life. It gets in the way. And I managed to see about ¾s of an hour worth of the show over two separate programs. I enjoyed what I saw... enough to pick up the book to see if I could catch something else.

What I ended up with was wholly unexpected. Here we have what is a pretty well-researched book, full of short histories of the individual toys, the companies and their inventors. Plus we get retellings by James May of the tasks undertaken. It's a well-rounded and fleshed out volume, not just an ad for the TV series.

May is a motoring-journalist of long standing, and his style is a lovely and oft-times funny read (This is the man who was famously fired from a car magazine for making cleverly hidden intertextual gags in his magazine columns). This is not a simple recount of the TV show, either. May takes to the task of telling the stories of this undertakings as if they were almost (almost) unrelated to making a TV show. Unless TV anecdotes were somehow relevant – like a camera-crew running over a toy, etcetera - they are left out. And if something in the show only really worked visually, or in-the-moment, then May generally avoids going into the incident.

May also adds in little bits of his own history with the toys, including an hilarious but oh-so-dangerous 'How to' guide to blowing up plastic kits with solvents and gunpowder.

Plus there's all sorts of toy-related ephemera scattered through the pages and collected at the end. Pictures of rare toys. Attempts by others at related adult toy-playing. Hints from experts on how to set up trains or make plastic-model kits. Or the Lego colour-chart. Or information on the entire Scalextric back-catalogue... The list of fun and interesting detail goes on.

As to the tasks, they're all wonderfully ambitious and the execution is always grand, though it is sometimes heartbreaking. I won't tell you which task they fail at, tragically, and after SO MUCH hard work by hundreds of passionate volunteers, but man, I almost cried.

May, his team, and an outstanding and enormous army of volunteers attempt: to build a garden made entirely of Plasticine for the Chelsea Garden Show, to build a working bridge from Meccano, to rebuild an old English racetrack in Scalextric (which involves bridging ponds, going through fences and a residential estate, and through the centre of an office building – including up an entire storey while inside the building), to design and build a life-sized Spitfire kit-plane, to recreate an old branch line in Hornby train-track and run trains from one end of the ten mile track to the other, and to build an entire house from Lego (Including Lego furnishings and toilets). Along the way they managed to break a few world records, win at least one unexpected prize and generally have an absolute blast.

I loved reading about them all – even the tasks that originally seemed a bit boring. The joy that people had 'playing' with these things shines through. You can feel the inspiration and manic energy flowing through the participants, even via the remove of text. Engineers, architects, hobbyists, school kids, and more – all were just blown away by the opportunity and the permission to play.

It appears to be permission we want and a part of life we should all indulge in, no matter how adult. May, himself, now has a box of Lego on his desk at home to play with while thinking through articles or paperwork. I might just steal that idea.

I still want to see the show, because it's obvious that there's more to some of these stories than appears in text - but at the same time, I don't think the show is as complete an experience as the book. If I never get a chance to catch up with the programme, I don't think I will have missed too much, and the book would still have been a worthy read.

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