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RS Reviews: Enterprising Engines - Simply Enterprising!

Enterprising Engines

Reviewed by Simierski

There are few books in children's literature which tug at the heart strings, make you laugh out loud, feel the tension, anxiety, and then triumph in such quick succession, as the twenty third title in The Railway Series. First published in 1968, it was set against the backdrop of the end of steam.


From the humble steam shunters, to the massive express passenger locomotives of British Railways, they were all to be withdrawn, and cut up in the name of progress.


Enterprising Engines was so appropriately titled: it ridiculed the great enterprise set out by a national institution, determined to rid the land of the steam engine, and in equal measure it praised private enterprise through determined individuals and their steam locomotives.


I remember so vividly the first time I was read this book: I was seven years old, suffering with the chicken pox, and unable to sleep. One of the symptoms of this bout of chicken pox was severe disorientation; the room would spin when I closed my eyes, and tried to sleep. Unable to coax me into sleeping, my parents called upon my late grandfather, Stanley, to read me another of the “Thomas stories”.


Oh the irony – that my soon to be favourite children's book, did not feature Thomas the Tank Engine at all. Its influence on my life has been profound, and whilst the original copy given to me as a child has long since departed, a reprint was sourced, and now sits on my shelf as a reminder of happier times.


For it was Gordon's story, and Oliver's story, combined with the mischievous digs at the modernisation plan of the 1950s and 60s, which made the greatest impact.


Gordon – in fiction, a rebuilt Gresley Pacific, realizes that with the end of steam on the “other railway” - its real name, British Railways, never spoken in the books – he will be one of the last of his kind left. The very real pain and anguish, summed up in just a few sentences by the big engine (“What sir! All my Doncaster brothers, drawn the same time as me?”) right at the start of the book, sets the tone for that to follow.


Gordon is alone. A survivor. His pain is clear from the outset, but the grim first two pages, with the question of survival hanging over Gordon, and the revelation that his brothers were “All gone, except one” is almost instantly turned on its head, by the arrival of a famous, and instantly charismatic locomotive who needs no introduction, other than the sight of two massive, eight wheeled tenders, and apple green paint, shining in the yard lamps.


Gunvor and Peter Edwards illustrated Enterprising Engines, and their work is so woefully under-appreciated. The sheer brilliance of their impressionistic, yet detailed artwork captures both the sombre mood of the book's backdrop, and the scenes of triumph throughout.


Whether it was the two Pacifics, side by side, with details like the Walschaerts valve gear, superheater headers, lamp irons or the livery on 4472 being perfect to the reality, or the torchlight catching the word “Scrap” on the tanksides of Oliver, as he and Douglas were inspected, breathlessly waiting on the “right away”, the Edwards artwork added to the overall story in ways which artists, before and after, were unable to manage with such aplomb.


The stories themselves are nothing less than the best of Awdry. The first two stories turn the wheels forward, placing the emphasis on the loss of family, a bereavement, and then a heart rendering reunion, whilst allowing the necessary and wonderful good humour of the Reverend to shine through.


For Henry, arrogantly oblivious to the predicament of Gordon and Flying Scotsman, is more interested in the number of tenders he can obtain from the wily Duck, to get one up on the big engines – and his comeuppance in the form of six very old, very dirty tenders, filled to the brim with boiler sludge! Both the artwork and the literature combine for what is still a great source of hilarity.


By the turn of the second story, the situation has changed. Suddenly the diesels are present. They are real, and the first, D199, further emphasizes the Awdry's rebuke to the diesel revolution on the real British Railways: “Our controller says 'Steam engines spoil our image',” was not far off the mark, in reality.


Steam locomotives, bar Flying Scotsman, owned by Alan Pegler, were to be banned at the end of steam in 1968, from the national network.


At the time of the book's publication, Britain's railways had changed forever. In a little under a decade, all trains were diesel hauled on British Railways, Flying Scotsman, complete with second tender and Pullman coaches, was overseas, and whilst a few fledgling preserved lines were opening here and there, the rescuing of hundreds of steam locomotives from the scrap men was in its infancy.


Henry's story, where the humble steam locomotive, despite wounded with a failed regulator, saves both the haughty D199 and its train of oil tankers, and D7101 and its express, could so easily be ridiculed for being preposterous – a locomotive of 1930s vintage, rescuing not one, but two modern diesels?!


It is therefore gratifying, adding to the overall effect of the book as a whole, that the story is not only based on real life, but was written with artwork derived from photographs sent in by a young fan of the books.


And so to Enterprising Engines' finale. Simply titled “Escape” and “Little Western”, the last two stories intertwine their themes, and run from the nervous and frightened atmosphere of a faraway goods yard (“The 'Hisssssss' came again. This time, it sounded almost despairing”), to the tension of the inspection by the yard Foreman, looking over Oliver, Isabel, Toad and Douglas' train.


It is with the plucky escape of Oliver, the smallest of the Great Western tank engine classes, that we find the spirit of determination to beat the scrap man – to beat British Railways and their diesels – to triumph in preserving this way of life – at its absolute best. Douglas discovers the tank engine, complete with autocoach and brakevan, out of coal and in despair.


His last chance for freedom, after a journey, signalbox to signalbox, with snarling diesels searching for the escapee, is nothing short of pure fiction, but what wonderful fiction in a mould so quintessentially British. Awdry himself admitted of its fiction, but he believed that it was “just about possible”.


In reality, and after the book's publication a member of Oliver's class (the 14xx autotanks), specifically number 1466, was to be bought up by a few teenagers from British Railways, and driven to its new home. Life imitated art, and that is part of the beauty of the book which still shines.


Bear – the erstwhile D7101 – is bought for Sodor, for his usefulness, and charisma. Oliver, saved from scrap, is returned to full Great Western livery, and paired with Duck, where the two are used to reopen a branchline, in the Great Western mould.


Awdry was so far ahead of his time with this final story. One only has to look at the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway, the Severn Valley Railway, Didcot Railway Centre, and many more, to see the adage “We reopen branches” was not such an arrogant, conceit from the two Great Western engines, but a statement of fact of that to come.


Enterprising Engines captured my imagination initially through the comforting and emotive voice of my late grandfather. The stories within showed such depth of thought, history and emotional content that were perfect when read aloud, as intended, that to this day I can remember the voice, the artwork, and my own reactions to each story as if it were yesterday.


This book has greatly influenced my own work, and I would suggest most emphatically, that if you have watched the television series' interpretation, but never read the original book in full, do so now, and particularly for this:


The book is now more than a simple children's book, and I would argue it was never a simple children's book.


It was, when first published, a contemporary account of the changing landscape of British Railways. Now, it is proof that the determination of individuals to have a dream, and turn it into reality – the preserved heritage railway, was not ever the pipe dream it was decried as at the time of writing in the 1960s.


It serves to remind us of the early days of railway preservation, the very real losses to Britain's landscape and everyday life. It reminds us of the sacrifices made, and that the determined efforts of a few select individuals were not in vain, for preserving our railway history.


There's no doubt in my mind, and there never has been, that there was only one volume in the whole of The Railway Series, which was perfect, but there's no other word for it, other than “Enterprising”.


This, the overall theme, which was an aspiration for many railway preservationists at the time, and something achieved by many of the preserved steam railways of today, is that which remains with me, and will continue to do so, for all of my days.


Please tell everyone”, he went on, “that whatever happens elsewhere, steam will still be at work here. We shall be glad to welcome all who want to see, and travel behind, real engines”.


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