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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Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: 52 in 52 Book #23

Casino Royale

 

Continuing my Bond streak I decided I should head back to the book that started it all: Casino Royale. Set at the beginning of Bond’s double 0 career, this book excited me and provided entertainment and excitement on every page.

As anyone who’s seen the film would know, the plot of the story involves Bond trying to disgrace rich SMERSH supporter Le Chiffre by winning against him at cards. However, in the book the game is baccarat which I found vastly more interesting to Texas Hold’em. Accompanied by French and American agents René Mathis and Felix Leiter and Secret Service agent Vesper Lynd, Bond travels to a French casino to complete this goal.

Vesper Lynd is a particularly intriguing character, not least because of her almost bipolar personality changes. She leads you, and Bond, on through the entire novel right up until the last words of the last chapter. She is the ultimate Bond girl.

This book has all the quintessential points a decent Bond story should: a car chase, a beautiful woman for Bond to seduce, a show down between Bond and the main villain. It grips you with the plot and the twist at the end is both shocking and heart-breaking. The novel also gives ground to Bond’s character development in later novels including why he hates SMERSH and his outlook on the world.

Anyone who even vaguely considers themself a Bond fan needs to read this book. It is the point at which it all began and has been my favourite Bond novel so far!

 

 

Kat

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming: 52 in 52 Book #22

Diamonds are Forever

Continuing with my collection of Bond audiobooks, I started listening to Diamonds Are Forever to kick off the beginning of my latest placement and thus the start of long commutes. Every evening for the past week or so I have spent my journey home delving back into the world of espionage and following James Bond through another assignment.

So did I enjoy this instalment? Yes and no. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my previous acquaintances with Dr No and Goldfinger but I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as those Bond novels. Not to say that I didn’t like it. On the contrary, the excitement and action was some of the most thrilling, especially towards the latter end of the novel with a train chase. The ever changing scenery from London to an American race course, Las Vegas casinos to an old Wild West town and a cruise ship was constantly engaging and ensured you never got bored or dared lapse your concentration or you would miss an entire section of the plot.

I also loved the characters. Felix Leiter, one of my favourite Bond characters, makes an appearance and true to form, makes you laugh and stimulates some of the more interesting action scenes. Tiffany Case, the obligatory Bond girl, is another amazing character. Named after the jewellery case her father left as a parting gift for her mother after the disappointment of having a daughter rather than a son, Tiffany is a changeable, adaptable and interesting character. She has a lot more depth than quite a few of the other Bond girls and you feel genuinely interested in her and her interactions with Bond.

However, having finished the novel, I was left wanting. There is so much action in the middle section of the book that the less than climatic ending seems somewhat odd and ill thought out. It was almost like Fleming got to the last chapter and thought “Ugh, I guess I have to wrap this all up.” And put as little effort in as he could get away with. It is a stark contrast to the rest of the book which lives up to the high calibre of the series.

I would definitely recommend this book, despite the ending. It has some interesting twists and turns and keeps you hooked and wanting more. Just don’t expect that absolutely, mid-blowing epic ending and everything will be awesome!

 

 

Kat

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming: 52 in 52 Book #18

Goldfinger

My third Bond novel of this challenge was something I was looking forward to. As with the other Bond stories, I listened to audiobooks rather than reading them. As I’ve been travelling up and down the country during the Easter break I thought I’d spend the time wisely and catch up with my favourite secret agent.

As with all Bond novels, James is sent out to discover the misdemeanours of a villain. In this case his name is Auric Goldfinger, who as his name suggests is a gold merchant. However, as Bond discovers, things aren’t quite as simple as that.

Covering multiple locations from tropical Miami to rural Kent, Switzerland and American strong hold Fort Knox, this novel takes you on a world tour and an adventure just as exciting. There’s the usual dose of gun action, bond girls and the climatic scenes where Goldfinger and Bond come to blows. Oh, and this book contains possibly the best named Bond character of the series: Pussy Galore.

I enjoyed this as much as the last Bond novels. They are easy to get into and enjoy and happily kept me entertained for many hours. Bond fans will love this novel as it offers everything a good Bond should. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys spy and adventure novels.

 

Kat

The Man with the Golden Gun – Ian Fleming: 52 in 52 Book #8

The Man With the Golden Gun

Following on from my Dr No review , I stuck my next audiobook into the CD player in my car for the long commutes to and from work. It is another Bond novel, as I got three Bond audiobooks – Dr No, The Man with the Golden Gun and Goldfinger – in an offer. The Man with the Golden Gun turned out to be a thrilling way to start and finish my day.

As with Dr No, I have never seen the film The Man with the Golden Gun and therefore cannot compare the two. Jim tells me they are good films and along with Goldfinger, I plan to see all three before too long.

The Man with the Golden Gun starts rather dramatically with Bond attempting to kill M after being brainwashed by the Soviet secret service. After recovering from this brainwashing, M decides to make Bond prove himself. He does this by sending Bond to assassinate a gunman in the Caribbean: Scaramanga. Mr Scaramanga is a bloodthirsty individual who has killed several agents previously usually using the titular golden gun.

The following novel is a thrilling escapade with Bond having to use his wits to avoid Scaramanga identifying him for who he really is and killing him. There are others out for Bond’s blood and conveniently they have gathered with Scaramanga in a hotel in Jamaica. The ensuing espionage, shooting, bluffing and murder make for an excellent spy and adventure novel.

Compared to Dr No, The Man with the Golden Gun was a lot shorter. This length difference wasn’t very noticeable but the difference in action was. The Man with the Golden Gun had less adventure and physical action than its predecessor and occasionally lacked the enthusiasm of the other novel. That said, I still enjoyed very word, just not as much as Dr No.

A quintessential Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun is complete with sneaking around, gun fights, a Bond girl and an eccentric villain. Every Bond fan should read this novel.

 

Kat