Stepney The 'Bluebell' Engine
Reviewed by Henry The Green
After more than a decade of reliable, predictable releases, the Railway Series book for 1963 truly broke new ground. It was the first volume to be illustrated by the team of Gunvor and Peter Edwards, bringing a new, almost photo-realism to the pictures. It was the first to truly anthropomorphize a real-life locomotive.* Most important of all, it was the first time the Reverend W. Awdry confronted the contemporary state of post-World War II British railways head-on. After dancing around the edges of modernization with Diesel's disastrous visit in 1958 and Douglas' vague allusions to why he “cudnae abide goin' back” to the Mainland in 1960, with Stepney the 'Bluebell' Engine the Reverend puts the harsh reality of the looming end of mainline steam and the nascent fight for preservation front and center. After this volume, the series would never be quite the same.
This is clear right from the start, where Awdry makes a disclaimer in his foreword that the children reading this book should not take out their feelings on British Railways officials, who might very well be their parents. The stories that follow are a mixed bag, as Awdry tries to inject more real-world situations into the world he's built while also maintaining his tradition of showing the lighter side of railway life.
The first story, Bluebells of England, is really more of a prologue than a proper tale. We find Percy trying to make sense of his conflicting emotions. He's been hearing reports of truly dreadful things happening to fellow steam engines on the “Other Railway”, a name that has always sounded ominous and foreboding. The accompanying illustration to Percy's description of a scrapyard must have had a tremendous impact to the first children who saw it in 1963. Imagine after years of bright, happy pictures from C. Reginald Dalby and John Kenney seeing engines streaked with rust and grime, their neglected faces frozen with sadness and resignation. The idea that someone could walk up to anything with a face like that and then take an acetylene torch to it! No wonder Percy almost bursts into tears at the very thought!
Douglas, however, is of little help. First he criticizes Percy's attempt at keeping cheerful with his adaptation of 'The Campbells are Coming' then he ascribes all the trouble Percy describes to the 'devil' diesel engine. Such a fierce display of temper; I'm surprised Awdry didn't speak to it in his foreword. However, Awdry does let Percy set Douglas straight, reminding him of the successful integration of the likes of Rusty and Daisy into Sodor's railway operations.** Percy then mentions the bright prospect of 'preserved railways' like the Bluebell, a movement that at the time was still in its infancy. Douglas grudgingly concedes, but still sees the situation through the eyes of a warrior who has to prevail or be vanquished as he describes Stepney having to 'fight' his way to Sodor.
At this point in the book we've seen a spirited debate, but otherwise nothing has really happened. We haven't even met our title character yet, and by the end of the chapter, he's said and done nothing but show up. The next story, Stepney's Special, plays out as a continuation of the first, and Awdry's usual tight narratives give way to a prolonged description of Stepney's fellow preserved locomotives. Adding to the disjointedness is the fact that Stepney is telling Edward all about this railway refuge when just pages before it seemed like Douglas was more in need of hearing about preservation from a literal example of it.
The actual Special of the story's title almost seems an afterthought, a way to get Stepney onto the Ffarquhar branch to set up the next story. Train Stops Play is the intermission of the book's arc, and the story that could most easily be dropped into another Railway Series book with little change. It's worth noting that when this book was adapted for the television series in 1994, this story was the only one that was not embellished in any way. It's a 'slice-of-life' story of a kind that would become fewer and farther between as the Reverend grew more sophisticated in his storytelling.
We're back to confronting the real world as Stepney returns to the main shed at Tidmouth and meets another unwelcome diesel visitor in Bowled Out. Having seen pictures of the degraded condition steam engines were in prior to their withdrawal, new meaning is given to the visitor's remark about the Sodor engines being clean. Manners notwithstanding, this time Awdry actually allows the diesel (or Class 40 as he'd come to be known on TV) to make some valid points, albeit reluctantly. Instead of mindlessly talking about being 'revolutionary' like Diesel or of skin-deep appearances like Daisy, Class 40 touts the fact that he's really a labor-saving device. The ability to save on crew salaries was an important reason behind dieselization in Britain as costs went up and revenue began to fall thanks to competition from road and air travel, and it's something which the steam engines don't immediately have an argument for.
However, the fact that Class 40 was such a jerk about an admittedly fair point is what makes his comeuppance satisfying. The Edwards' illustration of his bug-eyed shock at breaking down is an effective contrast to their previous straight-laced depictions of Captain Baxter or Bluebell and Primrose. Further, it sets the stage for a successful conclusion to Stepney's visit as he and Duck step up in the emergency created by Class 40's failure. It also gives us one of the best closing lines in the series.
I said the stories of this volume are a mixed bag, and indeed they are. Half the book is spent on setting up this new element of the universe Sodor occupies. Many have complained about Stepney's origins being bowdlerized for the TV Series, but I think that's unfair. If they'd been televised straight, exposition-heavy stories like Bluebells of England and Stepney's Special would have been boring and strained the show's five-minute format. Further, it would have been difficult to give Percy's scrapyard tale the same impact all these years after the end of steam. It should be noted that Britt Allcroft did keep some credibility by pointedly giving Percy, Douglas and Edward key supporting roles in the episodes Rusty to the Rescue and Thomas and Stepney. Even when changes needed to be made, Ms. Allcroft knew what she was doing.
That being said, there is something about Stepney the 'Bluebell' Engine that is more important than the strength of its individual stories or the compromises that came from its TV adaptation. I contend that without this book, we would not have eventually received Awdry's masterpiece, “Enterprising Engines”. Without Stepney, we wouldn't have Flying Scotsman. By making this initial break from simple, self-contained stories, Awdry gained the ability to craft works that asked more of his audience. These were no longer mere bedtime stories, these were a reflection of our world, and what we'd like to see it become. Further, by firmly making Sodor not a 'timeless' land but a very timely one, Awdry started something of invaluable consequence. The children who received this book in 1963 perhaps didn't realize it, but it was planting the seeds that would bloom decades later in the generation that would continue the work of their parents in preserving their railway history.
It may not be Awdry's strongest book, but Stepney the 'Bluebell' Engine is arguably his most significant.
*'City of Truro' may have been the first real loco to appear in a Railway Series story, but we never actually see his face.
**Indeed, it's interesting to point out the Class 52 diesel-hydraulic engine who eyes Stepney in one illustration, knowing now that those engines were pushed out of service as hastily as many steam engines were.