The Eight Famous Engines
Reviewed by Cowcatchers and Sideplates
If you were to ask me “What’s your favourite RWS book and why?” I’d struggle. I only really discovered it when I was around 9 or 10, when I stumbled upon narrations of Enterprising Engines on YouTube. They piqued my interest; the language used was not something I had heard before on Thomas & Friends, and was certainly different from what the Television series at the time was offering. I then heard narrations of Small Railway Engines; which also struck me as I’d never before seen these little engines - the only little engines I knew at the time were Skarloey, Rhenaes and co. I subsequently received copies of these books for my own reading. I then preceded to watch more of these narrations and in future received more books, and well..the rest is history.
It took me until late 2014 - when I was now 13 - to complete my RWS collection. By then I had heard every RWS book on YouTube, so lost was a sense of discovery, I suppose you could say.
To link back to the question, I’d have to go back to a RWS book that has stuck in my head since I was little: The Eight Famous Engines.
As I have explained, I primarily got into the RWS when I was about 9, but I did have exposure to it as a kid. I owned a copy of Three Railway Engines, and my granddad owned a compilation book, which contained most of the Dalby era books, and - The Eight Famous Engines.
There’s a pretty good reason why The Eight Famous Engines stuck in my mind. Reading it as a kid, the styles of Dalby and John T Kenney contrasted. There you had, what, Tank Engine Thomas Again, where the colours were bold and bright, and the engines looked like toy trains - then reading Eight Famous Engines, and the colours were darker, the engine looked a lot larger, the people were more visible - as a kid I always wondered why that one looked different to the others, I’d only discover the change of illustrators when I got older.
Another reason that particular book stuck with me is because of the story Gordon Goes Foreign. I can remember a distinct night where my auntie read that story to me. I always wondered where this London Euston was and what St Pancreas was.
I’ll take a moment to go over the stories however. Percy Takes The Plunge involves Percy getting too big for his wheels and landing into water - where he proceeds to get cheeked by Henry later on. I like this story because it shows that even though we might be experienced in some areas on a subject, we can falter in another. Percy may have charged through a flood to get his passengers home, but that doesn’t make him a water expert, he just happened to have succeeded that one time. It would be like repairing a tyre on a car and thinking you’re experienced with cars, then failing to change the car battery.
Gordon Goes Foreign - as mentioned - was my introduction to the names of London train stations. I love how Awdry has poked fun at the various stations of the capital, and indeed it’s not just London, as someone who lives in Birmingham there’s Birmingham New Street, Birmingham Moor Street, Birmingham Snow Hill..feel free to name more if there is.
It also showed Awdry’s appreciation for his target audience; not many might understand the ending line of “it’s not Kings Cross, it’s St. Pancras” until they’re older - I certainly didn’t!
Triple Header explores more of the James and Toby dynamic Dirty Objects first dabbed into. James has become one of my favourite characters as of recent years and I find him rather fun to write for - I enjoy reading him react negatively to having to push a standing still Toby, when he had previously stated being right on time is something he’s rather good at. It’s aided by the engine he has to push being the very engine who puts him down in the first place!
The Fat Controller’s Engines, had Awdry had his way, would have been the very last we’ve have ever heard of Thomas, Percy, Sodor, ect, and it comes across in his writing. The engines have now become celebrities and are going to the United Kingdom for the public to see them, but Thomas - being Thomas - finds a way to make some form of hiccup, which almost puts a dampener on the plans. There’s a real sense of urgency with how minute details are described before the engines head off; Topham pacing the platform, looking at his watch - you get the impression it’s not going to be right unless Thomas is present. It might look like a foreshadowing of these days of the series nowadays where Thomas has to appear in some form. Thomas is part of their family, and had helped to make the series what it was. And the engines becoming tired at the show and longing to return home feels heart-warming; the life of constant attention isn’t for them and they’d prefer to get back to their own lives.
The Eight Famous Engines represents a lot of what I love about the series; irony, misfortune, redemption, it would have made for a good last book. Nowadays, in terms of story, I might prefer James and the Diesel Engines, or Enterprising Engines, but this volume, the start of another era for the series, intrigued me as a child and I personally think planted a seed for my later appreciation of the series.