Thomas the Tank Engine never really seized dudelet’s imagination when he was little. He enjoyed the stories but but focused much more on characters like the (frankly bizarre) Ballamory or books like “I Wrote To The Zoo” or Maisie with lots of little foldout windows. He enjoyed going to ‘Days Out With Thomas’ and waved at trains and learned the word ‘choo choo’fairly early on but he never really engaged at a deep emotional level with the world’s Favourite Really Useful Engine.
In contrast, trains, railway engines and Thomas are the centre of Little Elf’s universe. It’s getting a bit worrying.
Her second or third word was definitely ‘choo choo’. Her first sentence has been ‘Where choo-choo?’ She gets up in the morning, demands mummy, lies in bed with us for ten minutes then demands ‘choo choo’. I found her sitting on the lounge sofa in the dark this morning waving a copy of “We’re The Steam Team” and chanting ‘choo choo’. She has a variety of Thomas books and they all have to be read literally dozens of times a day. And it isn’t just Thomas – she loves trains in general. She’s been known to drag supermum towards the nearby toddler play area which is accessed under a railway bridge purely to stop and watch the trains going over. One thing which is guaranteed to get her out of the house is a promise of a ride on a train and the site of any picture of a train fills her with tremendous excitement. Earlier today, we travelled two stops from Clapham Junction. She positively shrieked with delight on seeing that we were actually getting on a train, insisted on having her own seat where she sat, bouncing up and down and shouting “Whee!” every now and then. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who takes such a visceral delight in the much decried function of traveling by train.
The class reading
Now the uninitiated may well be what I’m on earth I’m going on about and may well want to skim through the relevant Wikipedia article. The one-sentence version runs thus:
Thomas the Tank Engine is a cheeky little anthropomorphic steam engine who works on the Isle of Sodor railways with a large gang of other engines and who is bossed around by a thinly disguised synecdoche for the ruling classes called Sir Topham Hatt.
I’m not the only one to have noted the potential for the Railway Series to function as an allegory for the class system (though eParenting got it hopelessly wrong in positioning the engines as the middle classes). The original author of the series, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was an Anglican clergyman and it isn’t hard to see a strong streak of All Things Bright And Beautiful running through the stories.
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them, high or lowly
And ordered their estate.
This is, of course, the notorious verse from the original of 1848 which most hymnals tend to leave out. For example, you won’t find it on the version published on Wedding Guide UK. The Island of Sodor and the world of Thomas adhere firmly to that principle, however. The engines are hard working creatures whose sole anxiety is to be seen as ‘useful’; to be a Really Useful Engine is the highest accolade that can be given. “Oh sir!” responds the servile Thomas, as the Fat Controller (later Sir Topham Hat) declares him as such.
The reliable “skilled” labourers, however, the indentured men (though female engines like Emily eventually appeared in Thomas’s world), are quite distinct from the likes of the ‘troublesome’ trucks. The trucks are are the navvys of Sodor, bumping and grumbling and tricking the not-particularly-bright engines into going to fast or leaving them behind or…well, that’s pretty much it. Trucks seem to be gender neutral, a lumpen mass, compared to the coaches who are, encapsulated in Thomas’s harem of Clarebel and Annie, decidedly “female” – passive and towed here and there at the whim of their engine. It is, in fact, a very male series, though Birmingham City Council probably went a little too far in banning the books from public libraries for sexism. It should also be noted that the engines themselves are universally ‘lackeys of the oppressors, given that they are unable to do so much as start themselves without the assistance of a driver and fireman.
The Lacan/Freudian reading
Alternatively, the books are not-so-innocent reflections of their time, suffused with the affection of a life-long railway enthusiast’s for both his hobby and his young sons but implying deeper, unresolved childhood anxieties. The engines are young children, unable to cope without the support of their parents – the drivers are fathers and the Fat Controller is actually their mother or a universal envisioning of motherhood. Thomas’ defining characteristic becomes a kind of deep seated anxiety – on the cusp of achieving a separation of self from (in Lacanian terms) the mother – getting his own branch line – he is overcome by neurosis. Rather than a class warrior, he becomes the class worrier.
Little elf’s reading
“Choo choo! Choo choo! Choo choo! CHOO CHOO!”