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The Thomas the Tank Engine Man

Nicholas Jones' Tribute To The Rev. W. Awdry

When I was a child, railway stations always seemed to come in their own special material. This was a reddish-orange brickwork that would gleam in the rain and which I later learned was called terracotta. The first time I visited Wilbert Awdry, on April 26th 1993, I felt it fitting that his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire seemed to be made of terracotta, or something similar. When we reached the front door (I was visiting Mr. Awdry with my mother), I noticed that the house number - 30, I think - was a rounded, iron-cast artefact from the London Midland and Scottish Railway. It briefly surprised me, for I would have expected something with Great Western antecedents but above all it reassured me: we had clearly found the right house. Wilbert Awdry was approaching 82 when I first met him. I had gone along because my mother, who lived not far away in Wiltshire, had been asked to write a profile for a regular column in The Oldie magazine that was titled 'Still With Us' The Reverend was an ideal topic for this page. I wanted to meet the author of my childhood.

His modest home was better known by its name, "Sodor". Inside, the hallway behind the front door was hung with pictures of Wilbert as a handsome young man, in one of which he was part of a pre-war Oxford rowing team. The term "muscular Christianity" came to mind. These images of the kind of Englishman we no longer make contrasted sadly with the present. Mr Awdry was by now a widower, afflicted with osteoporosis. In the quiet room where he sat, it seemed time had long stood still.

Yet first impressions were misleading. We were warmly greeted by a big and often humorous personality. The two hours in which we were his guests raced by. And the modern world impinged very strongly – to be criticized with passion, at least in one respect. Wilbert played us a VHS of the TV adaptation of The Railway Series and made it very clear he did not approve of its content. Thomas had come not just to define his work in an age of children's TV but had taken it over.

It dawned on me that my recall of The Railway Series played well with its creator. As a child I had always been haunted by the picture of Henry bricked up in his tunnel. A postcard of this, which I still have, had been stuck on my bedroom wall. I had never really seen Thomas as the leading force in the books – which was just as his creator had intended. I explained that my childhood memories in fact always took me back to book number 10. Mr. Awdry read out letters he had received decades earlier, from mothers of children but also fathers – including those who were railwaymen. I realised that it was always their approval that most gratified him, for The Railway Series scrupulously followed railway operating practice. As we left, I sensed that Wilbert saw in me (or my recollections) the kind of child for whom he had written his stories. Before we left, I asked which of the engines was his favourite, believing for some reason that he would answer Percy. The answer deftly evaded the question.

The next day, when transcribing her notes of the meeting, my mother suddenly had an idea. She spotted that 1994 would be the 50th anniversary of the first book in The Railway Series: why didn’t we offer this as an idea for an arts documentary, to be made by me?

The story now jumps to January 1994. I’ve just crept into the children’s section of the large library in Kensington Town Hall. I find The Railway Series and gingerly check to see if book number ten might, by chance, be on the shelf. It’s there! I pick up Four Little Engines and start turning the pages. The experience is uncanny. After nearly 30 years I can recall the next picture in the book before I even turn the page. Once again I see Skarloey’s agony as he pulls the coaches round the corner and into the station. A memory of being read the story as a child by my mother flits through my mind but I can’t quite retain it. 

During the summer of 1994 I managed to sell the idea of a biography of Wilbert Awdry to both BBC and Channel Four, to my surprise. We returned to Sodor in Stroud and told Mr. Awdry. His health had deteriorated considerably in the last year but he agreed to be filmed by us, although he was irritated that it had taken the BBC this long to find him. We would turn up on September 16th with our camera crew. 

I deemed it wise to read the entire Railway Series first, in the order the books had been written. Reed Books gave me a set and I recall being stuck on the Circle Line at Gloucester Road while reading one of the titles, mindful that I must have looked a bit odd. In the course of this read, I suddenly remembered why I had carried the name Jem Cole in my head for years: he was a character in the tale of the steam tractor. Before we started filming, I told Wilbert that I had rediscovered Jem Cole and he was delighted.

We spent all day filming, cleverly disguising the fact that Mr. Awdry was in bed. He had got up specially for us the day before but to his great disappointment he had collapsed. We could now only film him in his bedroom, where now he spent almost all his time. The day went well and I rounded it off by filming Wilbert’s trainset (now semi–dismantled), his cluttered study – and that evocative picture of the serious young man in the rowing team. Before we left, I asked Mr. Awdry to autograph Four Little Engines.

My last correspondence with him was to write and congratulate him on his receiving a decoration, an OBE I think. I still have his reply. Perhaps our film had reminded the shadowy figures who dole out the medals that Mr. Awdry was "still with us".

He died almost ten years to the day I am writing this, on the night the BBC screened my film Genius of the Jet. The next day I learned the sad news and rang the BBC to ask if they might repeat our film of Mr. Awdry, to honour his memory. I’m pleased to say they agreed to do so without hesitation.

Nicholas Jones

March 15th 2007

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