By Martin R. Clutterbuck
Recently, Martin Amis eloquently defended the posthumous reputation of Philip Larkin,(1) whose personal peccadilloes were attacked post mortem even more savagely than we have come to expect in this era of moral relativism. For at the end of the day, despite his human faults, Larkin was still a talented poet of the first rank, and a supreme spokesman for modesty, anonymity and plain speaking. Amis concluded his defence by asking his supposedly "liberal" and politically correct detractors to take one more dimension besides race and gender into consideration when practicing tolerance -- that of time.
One would hope that this plea would have equal weight in any defence of the Rev Wilbert Awdry. By our modern standards, he might be found wanting, but granting him the luxury of a temporal milieu, we might find that his stories are not offensive and have real intrinsic merit, which as we will see, is far away from gender- and race- obsessed issues.
The names and characterizations of the Railway Series are almost accidental occurrences on the way to the Rev Wilbert's quest for railway realism. The plot-lines are built to accommodate the fictionalization of real railway incidents, rather than vice versa. Thus it can be said of a three-year old reader, that "she knows more about railroads than most adults".(2) This didactic feat is rarely achieved in any kind of fiction, let alone children's fiction, and this is what makes Wilbert's oeuvre completely unique. It also explains the enduring popularity of his stories - the first now nearly 60 years old, videos or no. Therefore, for people who love railways, criticizing Awdry's plots or characters is to miss the "point"(3) entirely.
A related aspect to consider is the lack of saccharine quality to the stories. I would argue that unreconstructed common sense about railway operations, after all merely a branch of heavy industry, is of greater long-term educational benefit than much of the sugar-coated rubbish which passes for children's literature these days. The popularity of Thomas' HIT stablemate, Bob the Builder(4) may also stem from this "functional" sensibility.
All that said, it is worth examining the criticism, fuelled mainly by the TV show and its export to the USA. Some things jar with these new readers when they get to the older books, redolent of a bygone age and its attendant prejudices. So here they are:
This is considered first because it is contentious among Wilbert's touchstone audience (5) of real railway people everywhere, for whom steam engines are much more usually considered female. An engineman from Glasgow, for instance, might have a love affair with the "Duchess of Atholl", meaning Stanier's Pacific of the same name. A locomotive as valid rival for a woman casts doubt on the possibility to appease anyone in assigning gender to industrial machinery. More germane are criticisms that coaches are female, so that Thomas pulling Annie and Clarabel, or Toby Henrietta, may have looked cute in the 1940s, but out of place in the 1990s as an expression of male dominance over passive and subservient females. Guilty on all counts, but take the following comments into consideration:
Firstly, coaches do have some capability for action. They may hold back or run on against a locomotive's will according to momentum, gradients and braking ( or the lack thereof ).The Skarloey Railway stock (6) perform this role to the detriment of silly male engines. Coaches are by convention depicted as benign, the favoured vehicles to pull and worthy of complete respect. When a coach brake-pipe leaks and brings James to a halt, it is James' fault for bumping the coaches. Thus old-fashioned sexism is mitigated with old-fashioned chivalry.
Secondly, contrast with the male Troublesome Trucks (7), the bane of every train. These are better blamed for bumping innocent engines. They and the coaches obey the same laws of physics with opposite moral outcomes. All Awdry's truly villainous characters are male.
Daisy the DMU gets the same treatment as the coaches, with "female" traits of hypochondria and timidity, but she redeems herself and joins the "family" (Never to be Scrapped). Likewise Mavis, the first female locomotive and the last new character (1972). She shows that Wilbert might have actually had some idea of how his genre would be perceived in the future, as the bra-burnings were just beginning.
Wilbert never used any black human characters, who were not populous around the regions where the railway series started in the 1940s. This can be said of a lot of fiction. It is obvious that diesels are somewhat of an out-group and steam locos an in-group. Diesels are only grudgingly accepted, still "not real engines" and "for a diesel, not such a bad kind of engine"(8), which are spooky echoes of some people's tolerant, but racist attitudes.
On real railways, crews welcomed diesels with open arms, as they banished such chores as raking out ashpans, and were generally much cleaner. They were much more "available", faster and could handle gradients much better, obviating the "banking engines"(9) it is said are the origin of the Railway Series (10). Awdry admits all these broad advantages through the mouth of his character "Diesel"(11), but contrasts a tiny chink in the Diesel's armour, which is sucking objects into air intakes and stalling, to make the boasts hollow. This rather uneven treatment would mark Wilbert as a hopeless Luddite romantic.
However in hindsight, things have changed. Many important steam locos were thoughtlessly scrapped in the 1960s iron-rush, while today, diesels are being whittled away by electric traction, which is so bland it makes diesels' personalities look expansive. Which brings us back to the lure of steam machinery, fussy and temperamental. The wraith of hot steam is the genie giving the locomotive life, to be tamed only by the arcana of steam controls. Sentience is gained with more difficulty by merely turning a switch.
This is left to last, because it is the most visible and gives insights into Wilbert's personality. There is some sense that the engines are "workers" and that the Fat Controller is their "employer". Consider "Troublesome Engines"(12) from a trades union viewpoint. The engines decide they have legitimate grievances and decide to strike. In response the Fat Controller organizes a strike-breaking force of Edward, Thomas and the specially acquired Percy. These provide adequate services and the striking engines are humiliated. Even the title of this story, "Trouble in the Shed" alludes to the phrase "trouble 't mill" referring to industrial action.
This might have been an unconscious reference to the industrial unrest of the 1950s. But by the radical 60s, Marxist rhetoric was positively parodied in the mouth of Bulgy the Bus: "Enjoyment's all you engines live for, taking the petrol from the tanks of us workers. Come the Revolution..." Bulgy is certainly no friendly bus like Bertie (13) - more like Mao comes to Sodor.
Also, some kind of disapproval is shown for engines deemed to have acquired "bad manners" and hence "bad language"(14) from working in a quarry or factory. All the acceptable engines speak the neutral and middle-class received pronunciation, with the exception of Donald and Douglas, who have a Burns-authentic Scottish dialect.
So where does the Rev Wilbert Vere Awdry stand politically? His education and choice of profession would theoretically make him something of a High Tory. But his eccentric streak put him in the pacifist wing. Almost alone among vicars during WWII, he declined the role of padre in conscientious objection to the war, and lost his parish as a result. This in turn may have been the genesis for the Railway Series as the vicar and his young family settled into the poor urban parish of Kings Norton and his son Christopher got the measles.(15)
The Church of England is an erastian foundation, "By Law established". For a public school recruit of Wilbert's stamp, Ministry was one of a few safe and comfortable career options, alongside the Navy, Army, Colonial Service, Law, Medicine or the City.(16) His father, another train-mad clergyman, certainly provided a role model. The Church as a vehicle for upper middle class ambitions was brilliantly satirized by Anthony Trollope in the Barchester Chronicles. Such a milieu involves commitment to other all-English institutions such as the monarchy, cricket and the "green and pleasant land". All of these make their appearance in the Railway Series.(17)
While on the subject of the church, it should be noted that apart from the simple morals of his stories (essentially, "be polite", "don't tell lies", "don't be boastful" etc), religion hardly impinges. The Fat Controller sings some Christmas carols for Mrs Kyndely,(18) which is about as detached from formal worship as one can get. Thomas' Driver acknowledges the existence of God with a "God bless you ma'am".
It is the railways themselves which are the levelling force. For one, they are staffed by the working class, such as Edward's beloved crew Charlie Sand and Sidney Hever,(19) in Wilbert's eyes an especially privileged sub-section of the proletariat. Some of their dialogue may appear patronizing and quaint to modern ears,(20) but they are unsentimentally depicted.
Finally, railways have an important function in society, servicing ports, quarries and farming hinterlands. For the railway realism to work, their economic raison d'etre must also be convincing. Thus come the unglamorous loading of fish trains or working china clay,(21) neither of which seem worthy as a subject for children's literature, but Wilbert pulls it off.
To conclude, it is clear that the Reverend was far from a crude snob on any of the modern day's hot buttons, and would probably be horrified to know he had given anyone serious offence. He should be more properly viewed as a complex and fascinating mixture of high churchman and post-industrialist. He even embodied Time, as his stories evolved year by year from the 1940s to the 1970s, recording a way of life that has all but vanished from the UK, while admitting the arrival of modernities from helicopters to Rock 'n' Roll.(22) There are still plenty of steam engines around to remind us of that golden past, who thrive in the postmodern tourist/heritage industry. Some of this is Wilbert's doing.
2. Amazon.com, a parent's comment on "Thomas the Tank engine: The Complete Collection"
3. "Point" - machine to transfer engines from one line to another. US switch
4. Thomas was acquired by HIT Entertainment, creator of "Bob the Builder", in August 2002.
5. See his foreword to "Thomas the Tank engine: The Complete Collection"
6. Skarkloey coaches, modelled on Tallylyn Railway nos 1-5.
7. Troublesome Trucks: This is a TV epithet - "trucks" are always troublesome and feature in a very great many stories.
8. Gordon, in discounting Bear as a new arrival in Enterprising Engines (1968) and Donald on Boco (Mainline Engines, 1966).
9. Banking engine, or "Banker": kept on standby near hilly sections of track to give other engines and their trains assistance over hills. US helper
10. As a child, Awdry would listen to banking engines at night and imagine them talking to each other, which became the second story in the first book - The Three Railway Engines. Recorded in "Thomas the Tank Engine Man, Sibley, 1996.
11. In Stepney the Bluebell Engine (1963)
12. In 1950
13. Bertie appeared in Tank Engine Thomas Again (1949) and Edward the Blue Engine (1954). Bulgy appeared in Oliver the Great Western Engine (1969).
14. Particularly "Captain Baxter" in Stepney the Bluebell Engine ("but he's worked in a quarry, and you know what that does to an engine's language and manners.") and Duncan in Gallant Old Engine (1962 - "he used to work in a factory, and his language is often strong").
15. Well documented actual beginning of the Railway Series.
16. There was a tradition that the "third son" of a rich household would go into ministry. See Mike Rooth on Wilbert's friend the Rev Teddy Boston at http://www.ovlr.org/Rooth/MR.ParsonRR.html
17. The Queen's visit in the year of her coronation, 1953 in Gordon the Big Engine (1953); Stepney's intervention in a cricket match in Stepney the Bluebell Engine; The rolling vistas of Sodor from which animals stray onto the railway line in eg, Edward the Blue Engine.
18. In Toby the Tram Engine (1952)
19. Charlie Sand: refers to the driver releasing sand on the rails to give a locomotive traction when starting off. Sidney Hever: The fireman "heaving" coal from the tender into the firebox. Named in the foreword to Edward the Blue Engine.
20. For instance, "'Did ever you see such mud, Bert?' 'No I never, Alf'" in Gordon the Big Engine.
21. In Henry the Green Engine (1951) and Mainline Engines respectively.
22. Rock 'n' Roll: Duncan's failing as described in Gallant Old Engines.