It is very difficult, watching a Thomas the Tank Engine dvd with your young children, to escape the suspicion that the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was anything other than a thoroughly vindictive and authoritarian old scrote, with a spiteful streak the width of the Fat Controller’s stomach. You would not leave your kids with him in person. The errant rolling stock are subjected to ghastly punishments and humiliations — including one engine being bricked up in a tunnel for months on end while the others laugh at him.
As the Canadian academic Shauna Wilton pointed out recently, the programme does indeed ‘promote(s) a rigid class system that stifles self-expression’, as well as being sexist: the only females — Sodor, Annie and Clarabel — are carriages and are pulled by the males. None of the engines are poofs, although Henry’s livery seems to me a little camp and you can imagine the unctuous Thomas doing a spot of cottaging in his spare time, unwisely propositioning policemen, asking for his funnel to be polished and so on. They have mad, smug, spooky faces, the engines, and they rattle along through scenery dredged from a 1940s comic book to the accompaniment of a clunking piano motif written by a refugee from the 1960s Beatles wannabes, The Marmalade — a chap called Junior Campbell. I know of no parents who like the programme. ‘Take your idiotic chubby eyebrow-less face and your inane little stories and go jump…’ one Canadian mum wrote on a website, summing up the view of most of us. As I say, I know of no parents who like it. And I know of no young kids who don’t.
In this, the Revd Awdry is a little like that other whacko and bitter purveyor of dross to the kiddies, Enid Blyton: despised by parents, loathed by academics, adored by children. From the same generation, both writers were ultra-conservative, patrician and had no truck with changing mores or indeed literary artifice. Blyton at least allowed girls to intrude into the action in the Famous Five, whether as the perpetually simpering Anne or the scary proto-diesel dyke George, but it was Julian — en-route to the Bullingdon Club and the Tory front bench — who ran the show.
Attacks upon Blyton are not new, of course — I remember them vaguely from when I actually read her stuff, back in the mid-1960s. But the usual thing to say about her writing then was that while she was an appalling stylist and clearly possessed of the most reprehensible political sensibilities, she could tell a good story and it was this that the kids enjoyed, in spite of her ideological shortcomings.
Much the same has been said recently about Thomas the Tank Engine — but if you think about it, this is very hard to argue. There aren’t really any stories in Thomas the Tank Engine apart from various engines being humiliated and punished as a consequence of their misdemeanours or their hubris. And that’s the conclusion you should reach, I reckon, in both cases: the kids like these stories not in spite of the narrow conservatism of the writers, but precisely because of it. Children feel most comfortable in an ordered and clearly demarcated world, a world divided into hierarchies. They have a Manichean view of good and evil and they like to see the baddies get punished, preferably in a thoroughly unpleasant manner. They may also identify with gender stereotypes which conform to the roles they have already been assigned or, more controversially, have worked out for themselves from a very early age. Children, and especially little boys, are conservative, when they are not actually fascists.
Maybe this is why the most popular children’s books tend to come, however unconsciously, from the political right. Wind in the Willows, with its class warfare against the uppity stoats and weasels; Winnie the Pooh with its gentle hierarchy of stupidities. When I was 11 or 12 I recall being mesmerised by Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a book from the centre right if ever there was one, militaristic and paternalistic and in which both females and stupid foreigners were assigned strictly marginal and purely instrumental roles. I even remember the Guardian complaining about this at the time — much as, 25 or so years later, it complained at the sexism and racism of Harry Potter, the lack of disabled access ramps in Hogwarts, discrimination against the house elves etc. J.K. Rowling may herself be a charming and impeccably liberal woman, but the ideology of the Harry Potter books does not reflect this mindset, no matter how often she tries to tell us that Professor Dumbledore is, to use the old-fashioned vernacular, as bent as a butcher’s hook.
She knows what kids like — as did, of course, Roald Dahl, perhaps the most successful children’s author of the last 50 years and a man who did not remotely even pretend to be liberal; hard right, Roald was, with an abiding affection for Margaret Thatcher — and it shows in his work. Today the coolest and most captivating books for boys in the ten-to-12 age group, and adored by both of my two lads, are Charlie Higson’s young James Bond confections, which sort of pre-imagine the spy’s childhood at Eton. Is it possible for a scenario to be any more right-wing? Ian Fleming plus fagging?
Higson’s stuff, I suspect, will endure, and has already done astonishingly well; Blyton and Awdry’s stuff has of course already endured. But what of the progressive opposition? The counterbalance to Thomas the Tank Engine is most of the rest of the stuff on toddler tv, epitomised by the execrable Balamory — a colourful fictional seaside town in Scotland where every second person is gay, black or disabled, where girlies take the lead role in each episode and where nothing bad ever happens to anyone.
My daughter found it witless and vapid even when she was two years old; she yearned, I think, for certainties and retribution, for the reflection of reality which she was beginning to experience, however gently, in the non-fictional world around her. ‘Put Thomas on,’ she would demand, clambering down from the sofa in abject disgust as this rainbow coalition of ineffably friendly and inclusive people began helping one another in a friendly and inclusive manner. And I would accede and slip a disc into the machine and hear the lugubrious Scouse tones of Ringo Starr begin to relate the tale of a bad-tempered crane called Cranky which eventually got smashed in half and all the engines came to laugh at it and tell it that it had received its just deserts. Not a nice man, that Revd Awdry, but he rocks.