Thomas the Tank Engine 70th Anniversary Special

It’s no secret; I like trains.

And a lot of that I owe to a little, blue tank engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome. 70 years to this day, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry published the first of his Railway Series which told the stories and adventures of the Island of Sodor; a place where the railway is still the perfect way to travel. But the greatest thing about The Railway Series and its resulting ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ television show isn’t that it has survived for so long; it’s that it is still some of the greatest children’s literature ever written.

thomas

The origins of Thomas the Tank Engine are just as compelling as the stories themselves. Awdry was faced with having to entertain his young son, Christopher, who was taken ill and so, being the doting father he was, Awdry recited a poem about engines getting stuck in tunnels due to rain for his sick boy. This then evolved into longer stories about different engines. After being persuaded, Awdry finally published ‘The Three Railway Engines’ in 1945; a book of his first four short stories, citing influence from watching steam locomotives hard at work and the stories he told his son. Thus, Henry, Edward and Gordon were cemented in the creation of the tip of the iceberg. What’s good about this is that they all had their own personalities. Gordon was the fastest engine on the island and so he pulled the express. This made him proud but boastful and oftentimes, he could not see his faults because of that. Henry was more bashful but learned to overcome his dread. Edward was sometimes over-looked because he was older but when he does get the opportunity, he is shown as being vastly wiser and he works incredibly hard. These are evident in real life steam engines; each have a different personality and each has a learning curve to adapt to. Add in the values and traditions of friendship and hard work and learning from their own mistakes that you find in all the best children’s books and colourful and detailed pictures for each page and Awdry was on to a winner. But what about Thomas himself?

first thomas

Like A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Thomas was originally a toy – owned by Christopher -and was given his own book the year following the release of the ‘Three Railway Engines.’ It mainly focused on the little blue engine and his short adventures that included not trusting trucks, being too impatient with a train full of passengers and inadvertently leaving them behind and remembering never to get on Gordon’s bad side. Sir Topham Hatt, – The Fat Controller, known as the Fat Director at that time – puts Thomas in his place by making him shunt trucks in the goods yard but when a new engine – James – has a serious accident, Thomas’s mentality changes and realises that he has the opportunity to put things right earning him is own branch line as well as two smart new coaches called Annie and Clarabel in the process. And thus, the next book focuses on James; which begat stories of Thomas on his own branchline; which begat the introduction of Percy; which begat the turmoil faced by Henry; followed by Toby the Tram engine; followed by Gordon; Edward and so on. The last book written by Reverend Awdry was published in 1972 and now The Railway Series had expanded to include mountain engines; tramways; welsh inspired narrow gauge engines; famous visitors and miniature engines. The books also had an amazing vocabulary, sticking with a more mature and in depth style that remained informative but also readable to a six year old without it being daunting. Yes, there were big words but being a curious child, you learn what it means and then that word is forever emblazoned in your head ready for next time. I wouldn’t expect books nowadays to use the words ‘Resource and Sagacity’ but the nature of how Gordon and James describe Oliver paints the picture perfectly without having to go into too much detail.

rws

Another great thing about the stories is that they gave an insight to the troubles faced by railways at the time so you’ve got visiting diesels claiming ownership of the railway because the mainland is going through dieselisation (where steam engines were being phased out); engines running away from being turned into scrap; and all manner of breakdowns and accidents. But it also showed us how great and diverse the railways could be. With engines becoming famous on the mainland, overcoming the road network and the devious double-decker buses; and people understanding the value of steam locomotion. As the stories went on, the characters developed more and built on their personalities more and more until each character had their own fundamental trait. Percy and Thomas would often play tricks on each other but still remain good friends; Edward had a methodical outlook; James was always adamant that Gordon was inferior yet Toby proving otherwise; and Henry had overcome his fear of the Flying Kipper (I swear, that train of fish wagons was cursed). I absolutely loved the illustrations, particularly the more recent ones. They showed some incredible details that added depth and certainly more scale than previously. The illustration of Henry below is one of my personal favourites.

henry

The books stayed popular and in 1984, with Britt Allcroft at the wheel, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ made it to the small screen. Narrated by Ringo Starr, the TV adaptation followed the stories of the books. Starr narrated with air of dryness to his delivery, giving the engines a somewhat sarcastic tone and quick wit. This was matched by series three when Michael Angelis took over narration, adding a bit more humour that didn’t stop at the slapstick. He also added in the personalities of the engines. I still find the retorts to be sharp and witty. The production was good too, favouring an actual model layout with all the engines reproduced in bright colours with moving eyes over animation. As the series went on, stories were being made especially for the show. This came with a bit of controversy from Awdry and retaliation from Allcroft. Awdry wanted a more realistic portrayal that was represented in his books but Allcroft had creative freedom and from a children’s TV producer perspective, creating something that appealed to the audience would be more captivating.

Railway Ringo

As the TV show went on, original stories not related to the books where being made but they still held some regard to how a steam railway ran and operated. But after the turn of the millennium when production could be made cheaper with the inclusion of CGI, I felt that some of the stories lost their touch. It may sound ridiculous but for a children’s TV show, it became too childish. Kat and I firmly believe that shows such as the Herbs, the Clangers, Camberwick Green, Bagpuss and Thomas retained their charm by talking to its audience regardless of their age just like the books did. It might not be complex but you can understand if you were three or ten or fifteen years old. Thomas has now fallen into a strange rut where it has become alienated from that audience it used to have. It still focuses on railways and morals and life lessons but there’s now more engines than ever, the narration is dumbed down and that shine has been lost. Maybe I’ve just grown up and the zeitgeist has taken its seat but I’m not ending on a bad note, I refuse to!

engines

The books, however, continued to be made through the 80’s and 90’s right up to the very last one being published in 2007. These were written by Christopher Awdry. Yep, he had gone from being told the stories to writing his own again citing inspiration from actual stories from railways. Christopher published a further sixteen books bringing the grand total to forty-two and laying the series to rest. But even though I’m twenty-three, there’s still a part of me that firmly believes that Thomas, Gordon, Henry, Percy, James and company are still hard at work keeping troublesome trucks in check and taking holiday makers to the sandy beaches on the entirely fictional Island of Sodor. This is what all good children’s books should do; they should make you believe that no matter what, there is a world out there where anything is possible. And I say that because re-reading my Railway Series Collection every now and then, I don’t feel nostalgic or the like, I feel like it is still happening. Thomas the Tank Engine has now reached millions of people the via books, TV show, toys, Hornby models, clothing, video games, feature films – that starred Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda, no doubt – real life, full scale versions; absolutely anything imaginable. Negativity aside, I am still glad that Thomas and his friends still continue their adventures to this day, 70 years on. 70 years of pulling coaches, shunting trucks, crashes, breakdowns, elephant encounters, getting stuck in snow, struggling up Gordon’s hill, teasing and playing tricks, making friends but fundamentally, working hard and being a really useful engine. It’s clear that this train is still up to steam and isn’t stopping anytime soon.

me

Jimmi

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The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith: 52 in 52 Book #34

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Now I do enjoy The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series but somehow I feel a bit let-down by this installment. The cases in this particular book didn’t grip me as much as in previous books and I actually managed to read another novel in the time it took me to finish this one.

The character development in this book seemed a little haphazard. There are things going on with Mma Ramotswe’s and J.L.B Maketoni’s foster children which are mentioned earlier in the book but the resolution seems rushed and hardly a resolution at all. There’s little mention of J.L.B Maketoni’s depression from the previous book either. It’s almost as if the author forgot where he was going with these characters and so put in some half-hearted non-developments to tide him over. The only character who actually has substantial and exciting character development is Mma Makutsi, who opens her own business, the eponymous typing school, and sees developments in her love life.

Even the descriptions and African feel seem to have suffered. In previous books I’ve been able to vividly imagine the surroundings and characters as the story unfolds. I can smell the dust, feel the heat and see the baked but beautiful scenery normally but for this book I just couldn’t. The imagery was there but the immersion wasn’t.

I’m saddened a little by this installment but I have hope that the next installment, The Full Cupboard of Life, will return the series to normal form. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it.

Kat

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen: 52 in 52 Book #33

The Bone Garden

As you may have noticed, I have become slightly addicted to the works of Tess Gerritsen (an addiction I thoroughly endorse!). Her Rizzoli & Isles books have kept me entertained for a few weeks now and whilst waiting for the next few to arrive I decided to try one of her stand-alone novels: The Bone Garden.

Split between the present day and 1830s Boston, the two plotlines weave into one another very well. In the present day you have Julia Hamill, recently divorced, who discovers a skeleton in the garden of the house she’s just moved into. Wanting to know more, she teams up with the 89-year-old Henry Page, descendent of the original owner of the house, to find out who this skeleton was and learn more about the house she has moved into. Margaret Tate Page, the original owner and Henry’s ancestor, is the link between the two plotlines.

Following Margaret’s birth and the death of her mother to childbed fever, the 1830s section of the story follows Rose Connolly, Margaret’s aunt, and Norris Marshall, a medical student at Boston’s Medical College. These two characters are thrown together after discovering the body of the first victim of the West End Reaper. As the Reaper continues to kill and suspicion falls upon both Rose and Norris, the pair have to discover the truth and protect themselves and Margaret from a hidden and sinister threat.

I found both sides of the story gripping and the way it was told was superb. Every time I thought I knew what would happen next, something else happened entirely. I loved the contrast between the events of the 1830s and how they affected the characters in the present day. Another wonderful inclusion was the character Oliver Wendell Holmes (Senior), who attended the Boston Medical College in real life back in the 1830s and made significant contributions to the medical field. I actually went and read more about this man because this book sparked my interest.

I would say this book is not just for crime and detective novel fans but also ones who enjoy historical fiction. From my post-book research I have come to appreciate the level of detail and historical accuracy portrayed in the book and feel it makes it more engaging to nerdy people like me. Do give it a go; it was good enough to make me cry!

Kat

The Sinner by Tess Gerritsen: 52 in 52 Book #32

The Sinner

As I’m sure you all expected, I’ve managed to read another Tess Gerritsen novel. The Sinner is the third book in the Rizzoli & Isles series and, as the plot no longer references The Surgeon, it makes for a fresh and stimulating new plot to get your teeth into.

After the homicide of a nun in a chapel, Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr Maura Isles go out in search of the culprit. In an intriguing and twisting investigation that includes babies, ex-husbands, India and cover-ups. You see a lot more of Maura than in the previous books and she interacts with Jane a lot more closely. It’s great to see the beginnings of a brilliant working and, I suspect, personal relationship between these two women.

It is a fact that I do like strong female characters to read about, but believable ones. I think Tess Gerritsen does a great job of developing not just one but two amazing female leads. Throughout the book we see a side of Jane Rizzoli that wasn’t present in the previous novels and we see the chinks in her armour more clearly. However, this enhances how much of a tough and determined woman she is but allows the reader to get closer to her and empathise with her. Maura’s past and insecurities are also brought to light in this novel and I love how Tess has managed to contrast her so well with Jane: whilst Jane is resilient, tomboyish and doesn’t take any rubbish, Maura is fashionable, more feminine but still maintains an air about her that others may find intimidating.

Whilst this book isn’t nearly as graphic as the previous two, it does brilliantly detail the deaths and autopsies. The description is still superb and I think that whilst the personal development of the characters took more precedence I this book, this in no way detracts from the way the investigation and victims are portrayed.

I would say these books are great but read them in order. The friend who got me into this series hasn’t read them in order and actually hasn’t read this particular book either. I feel you get a better sense of the characters and how they grow if you read them in order but this book could stand alone if you’re not bothered by such things. Highly recommend.

Kat

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith: 52 in 52 Book #31

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Number three in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, this book continues the story of Mma Ramotswe and her private investigation business. Like in previous instalments, there are several cases mixed in with personal developments of the main characters. The essence of Botswana and its people is there in abundance and the descriptive passages are of the same high standard as before.

The cases in this instalment I felt were much improved from Tears of the Giraffe. Poisoning, a wild child and the titular morality of girls in a beauty contest make the investigations varied and interesting. It is also nice to see assistant detective Mma Makutsi taking on a more challenging case and the differences between her detective style and Mma Ramotswe’s.

Mma Makutsi isn’t just taking on tougher cases. As J.L.B Maketoni, Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé, becomes ill with depression, she takes over the running of his garage and also mans the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency single handed for a while. Whilst this might seem to be a lot of growth for one character, it is done in such a way that it feels very natural and Mma Makutsi’s style of management suits her character to a tee.

The reader also gets to see how Mma Ramotswe’s and J.L.B Maketoni’s foster children are settling into their new lives. There are some heart-warming scenes involving the children and although they don’t feature prominently, they are a lovely addition to the long-term narrative. I look forward to seeing more of them later in the series and watching them grow up.

As always with this series, if your interest is in Africa or detective novels (or both) then give this series a try. I do recommend reading the books in order though.

Kat