James May’s Toy Stories by James May with Ian Harrison

In brief: The book to accompany the TV series about the toys of many people’s youths (i.e. if you remember a time pre-Play Station).

The good: Learned a lot about the history of the toys and got a close look at the Lego House.

The not-so-good: Hardcover hard to hold up for long (serves me right for buying the illustrated version).

Why I chose it: I am a fan of James and got to meet him last year. I realised I’d never read any of his books.

Year: 2009

Pages: 235 (plus an extensive reference list of the toys)

Publisher: Conway

Setting: Britain

My rating: 9 out of 10

I am a huge fan of the ‘old’ Top Gear (the one where there were only three presenters, not 32237980 of them) and after meeting James May last year, I realised I hadn’t read any of his books. Clarkson and Hammond, definitely but never May. There really wasn’t any reason why, so because it’s so damn easy in these internet days I went and ordered up a storm of the trio’s books. First on the pile was this heavy tome (naturally I went for the illustrated edition), which is both a great accompaniment to the TV series and an interesting history of popular toys.

In the book, May covers plasticine, Meccano, Hornby model trains, Airfix models, Scalextric slot racing cars and Lego. The only one I can say that I played with in my youth was Lego (we did make-your-own playdough) but for older fans, all of the toys are likely to be familiar. (And set off discussions about how rich your family was, depending on whether you had a train set or a mega Meccano box). The history of all the toys was fascinating, and the majority of them interlink with each other through buy outs and takeovers of companies.

Each chapter is devoted first to the history of the toy, how it was originally crafted and then on to how they are manufactured today. We then move on to James’ task for the TV show (e.g. building a life size Lego house, making a plasticine garden for the Chelsea flower show) and how it was achieved. In some cases, it’s pretty short but for other toys (e.g. the Scalextric and Hornby races) it’s a gripping tale. (I haven’t seen all of the shows in this series, so I automatically assumed that everything would go perfectly. But James May is one third of the ‘ambitious but rubbish’ team, so it’s not that straightforward.)

For me, this wasn’t a book I could read cover to cover in one sitting. I liked to pick it up, read a bit and when it got too heavy, check out some of the history online. Some of those Meccano sets are worth a fortune and there are so many books, magazines and websites devoted to model trains! I still enjoyed the Lego section best. Due to space constraints, it isn’t a comprehensive history but it gives you the main points. Plus you get to look at all the great things that were made for the house in detail!

I felt May’s writing was a bit more serious than those of his colleagues, but it’s difficult to make comparisons because Clarkson and Hammond’s book are usually 50% jokey. The subjects are researched well and the writing contains the typical British lingo of James May. If you’re a fan, or interested in the history of toys, it’s worth checking out.

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