Jock the New Engine
Reviewed by OrangePastille
I was given this book as a present from a relative when I was a small child. I had not read the earlier Small Railway Engines at the time, so this was effectively my introduction to not only the Arlesdale Railway but the concept of miniature railways in general. Indeed, on being taken to a funfair pleasure railway a year or so later I was quick to remark that the train was “like Jock”. On another note, it was also one of my first Christopher Awdry penned Railway Series titles. I was enthralled with this new (to me) type of railway, being already familiar with the NWR and Skarloey systems.
In some ways, by setting the book around the 15’’ gauge Arlesdale Railway the author is able to tell stories that just wouldn’t be as effective if set on the Fat Controller’s standard gauge railway or even the 2’3’’ gauge Skarloey Railway. The events of Sticking-Power, where Bert pulls a train with glue (based on a real life demonstration at the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway) just couldn’t be told in a story set on one of the bigger railways. And although a railway engine pulling a road trailer would be an interesting occurrence regardless of gauge, the fact that it is a 'miniature' engine like Jock that is doing the pulling makes it all the more impressive. Again, this is a true to like incident, showing that a good writer does not have to resort to flights of fantasy to provide an interesting story. This shows that choosing to write stories about such a small (and arguably, obscure) railway does not mean that the author becomes restricted in his storytelling, in fact, as the above examples show, it may even enable them to tell stories beyond the boundaries of his traditional settings. At the same, the author, like his father before him, treats the Arlesdale line as a real railway just like the NWR and SR. It’s notable that the term “miniature” is never used in the text. This must have rubbed off on my toddler-self, for when one of my parents jokingly said that the aforementioned funfair train was “going to Dublin” (over 100 miles away) I never considered it odd in the slightest!
Another thing I like about this book is the way in which the author creates casualty for the construction of Jock. The first two stories, while interesting in themselves, serve to tell us why the the line needs an extra engine; it becomes clear that the existing fleet is overstretched, as evidenced by the Frank having to drop his duties to help Rex. This adds to the realism, to my mind it's far better than simply having a new engine just added for the sake of creating a new character.
Like many Railway Series books, Jock the New Engine is quite effective with regard to instilling good values in its readers. Consider the opening tale, We Need Another Engine. Here we have Frank, a diesel who is feeling rather disgruntled over not being included the Thin Clergyman's new book (itself a clever reference to Small Railway Engines). He becomes so absorbed in his sulking that he carelessly bumps into a shed support. This teaches young readers the importance of not becoming too self-absorbed. Later on in the tale Frank gets a chance to opportunity to redeem himself, when he comes to the aid of a poorly Rex. After this he is pardoned for his earlier mistakes by the Small Controller. Hopefully this should help emphasise the importance of forgiving those who are truly sorry and have tried to amend for their wrongs, along with the concept of redemption itself of course. In my opinion these are quite positive values for a children's book to convey.
Teamwork, as its name might suggest, also has much to offer young readers too in the way of life lessons. Jock’s cockiness leads to Mike playing a spiteful trick. Their attitudes ultimately only lead to trouble, when Mike ends up damaging his injector. Both engines soon learn the error of their ways, the importance of team work coming to the fore when Jock helps Mike home despite their earlier bickering. By this stage Jock seems to have become more mature, despite Mike's earlier tricks Jock doesn't belittle him in his moment of need. The saying 'don't kick a man when he's down' springs to mind here. At the end of the story both engines apologise for their earlier actions, and the importance of friendship and working together is emphasised, backed up wonderfully by Clive Spong’s 'family portrait' of the five Arlesdale characters lined up outside the shed (pg. 61). This makes for a rather warm scene in this reviewer’s opinion.
There’s plenty of humour in these stories as well, often conveyed through witty dialogue. A great example of this is the conversation at the start of Jock:
“Do you know what I think?” asked Bert one evening, soon after the next season began.
“News to me that you could,” said Mike cheekily.
“I suppose it would be," retorted Bert, "never having done any thinking yourself.” (pg. 36).
Another example of humour in this book can be evidenced in the ending to Sticking-Power. Here, as in many Awdrian tales, snide comments end up backfiring on their speakers. The tale had begun with Rex and Mike chiding Bert for feeling tired, claiming that he had no "sticking-power". However, by the end of the story it is Rex and Mike who are exhausted, while Bert feels more spirited, having just pulled home his train with the aid of glue, proving to them that he indeed has (quite literally) the “sticking-power” they claimed he lacked: “Never mind, some of us have it – and some of us don’t.” (pg.34).
With regard to Spong’s illustrations, they are top notch as ever. He helps create a great sense of scale (important in conveying what the Arlesdale Railway is about), look at his illustration of the Small Controller taking to Frank on pg.21, or his depiction of the standard gauge engines alongside the small ones on pgs.45 and 47, not to mention the cover picture of the diminutive Jock hauling the big road trailer behind him. His attention to detail is excellent; Jock himself is a wonderful example of this. Just look at his valve gear for instance. There’s also of course the shed scene on pg. 35, look at the tools lying on the workbench (complete with rack for chisels/screwdrivers), the notices pinned to board, the brush propped against the wall, and the steps leading to inspection pit in the background. These help add to the sense of scale mentioned earlier. Spong’s attempts at drawing scenery are not lacking either, from the woodland scenes in We Need Another Engine to the mountain backdrop on pg. 55, complete with pine trees. His ‘action' scenes are pretty good too, whether it’s the shed support breaking as Frank hits it on pg.11, or Bert’s look of surprise as a broken coupling causes him to spring forward from his train on pg.29.
So there you have it, a great little book that has much to offer; interesting stories, wonderful illustrations and valuable life lessons. As mentioned earlier, its setting allows for tales that just couldn’t be told in a book set on one of the other Sudrian lines. Indeed, on re-reading it recently I couldn’t help but think that it is a pity that Christopher Awdry never got the chance to write further volumes on this railway. We can only hope that someday he might get that chance.