‘A life back on track’ – Chris Vine’s story as told to The Herald, Glasgow, 28 June 2010

June 29, 2010

From The Glasgow Herald, 28 June 2010 (story by Marisa Duffy).

On arrival at the Renfrewshire home of children’s author and model railway engineer Chris Vine there is no doubt it is the correct house.

In the garden, not one, but two pristine miniature engines glisten in the sunshine while inside an old-fashioned railway track winds its way across the hallway.

At the kitchen table Vine is signing copies of his books for one of the builders doing work on the house; the builder wants to buy them from Vine for a child he knows who loves the Peter’s Railway series. The pair are having a light-hearted tiff because the builder wants to pay for the books but Vine won’t hear of it.

The author of one non-fiction book, How (Not) to Paint a Locomotive, and four children’s books, Vine counts music mogul Pete Waterman and Tony Collins – chief executive of Virgin Trains – amongst his fans. However, this was not his original career plan. Two decades ago, having nurtured a lifelong interest in all things mechanical, Vine was a high-flying engineer at Rolls-Royce.

“It was always on the cards that I’d work with engines,” says Vine, who started making rudimentary machines at a young age. A student at Bristol University, he beat 400 applicants for an apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce in Watford before transferring to East Kilbride. He became the youngest manager in Rolls-Royce at the time before life went off at an unexpected tangent in 1993.

“I had a virus and literally slept for a fortnight,” says Vine. “I went back to work and then it recurred several times throughout six months. I had a sort of flattening effect, brain fog I think it’s called, which is a fuzzy head. My doctor gave me a month off work to get well and that was the start of two years off work.”

Six months after the first symptoms, his GP diagnosed ME. “It was very odd. I didn’t have it as bad as some people; I never suffered with bright lights and never had much muscle pain, just complete and utter mental fatigue.

“At the beginning, I could be bed-bound for up to five days at a time if I’d done too much. It used to drive me nuts. At the end of two years I went back to work for about six months, but it was unsustainable.”

There is no cure for ME, although many sufferers find that the symptoms gradually improve over time.

“People try everything for ME and I’ve tried lots of things as well but I am very scientific and a lot of things just didn’t work for me; they are just complete and utter quackery.”

For Vine, coming to terms with the restrictions on what he could do, instead of winding himself up about them, was pivotal. “Chill out, calm down, accept what you can do and enjoy it. Get maximum benefit out of what you can do rather than being furious that you can’t do more. Once I got that, it really gave a kind of pace to it.”

Like many sufferers, he has experienced scepticism about the illness. “A lot of people don’t believe in it. People say it’s the motivation . . . as if I was one of these guys who just always mooched about the place, but I was the very opposite. The answer is that people like me do get struck down with it.”

When he had found himself unable to work, he returned to his garden shed, turned on Radio 4 and rekindled his old hobby of making engines. His interest had started during his childhood in Kent. A friend lived on a farm and the boy’s father built a railway line across the farm between two houses. While still working at Rolls-Royce as an apprentice Vine built, from scratch, a miniature engine named Sam which ran on a circular track in the garden.

With time on his hands, he slowly started to make a second engine named Bongo. It took eight painstaking years to complete; six to build the engine and a further two to complete the flawless paint job.

In 2004 he took Bongo to an exhibition in London where the chief judge told him to write down how he had painted the engine because it was the best-painted locomotive he had ever seen. And so the first book was born.

“When I did How to Paint … there was a gap in the market. When you go to the exhibitions there are all these beautifully made engines and very few are properly painted, so it was very easy to publish that. It’s now on its third print run.”

Encouraged by the book’s success, he turned to writing books for children – an idea that he had been mulling over for years. “It’s an altogether different world trying to market a children’s book. I love writing them but marketing them is a big effort. I think I’ve done very well. I do some school visits and I go to model railway exhibitions.”

Book four is with the illustrator at the moment and will be published later in the year, while book five is already taking shape in his head.

Today ME still affects his life. “I think it has reached a plateau now. I don’t keep very well and I’m just generally more tired than I should be.

If I do too much, I still have relapses but they are rarer than they were and much, much shorter.”

While the book-writing has proved a much-welcomed focus throughout his battle with ME, it was also motivated by the desire to pass on a love of engines to his boys; as the real life Peter, Vine’s four-year-old son, appears in the garden and clambers atop the miniature engine, it appears he has achieved both.

Peter’s Railway to the Rescue by Christopher Vine, priced £11.99, is published in October. For more information or to order, visit www.petersrailway.com

The facts about ME

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/ Encephalopathy (ME) is a chronic fluctuating condition, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). It is sometimes diagnosed as Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS).

It affects 250,000 adults and children in the UK – one in 250 people.

The exact cause is unknown. People with ME often have abnormalities in their immune and nervous systems.

Common symptoms include muscle pain, persistent exhaustion, poor concentration and memory problems, headache, un-refreshing sleep and digestive problems such as nausea or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Up to 25% of people with ME are severely affected, either house or bedbound.

There is no cure, although symptoms such as pain and sleep disturbance can be treated to improve quality of life.

With time, most people can expect to see an improvement in their symptoms, although not everyone recovers to pre-illness levels.

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