Children’s Stories: The Genius of Sodor

March 16, 2021

Rather like Beatrix Potter, of whom a priest I know once said to me, ‘there’s a lot of good theology in Peter Rabbit stories’, the Rev. Awdry has been sidelined for anything more than pleasing children with amusing stories.

In a world in which even academic study as specimen of an art form has been paid to ‘Eastenders’ and in music to the likes of David Bowie, any proposed acclaim for children’s literature and entertainment has been left ‘in the sidings’.

I have said once before I recall, that my belief is that between 1950 and the end of the century constitutes a ‘Golden Age’ for children’s broadcasting on TV. I recall reading also another person’s assertion which claimed that upon the advent of any new medium (such as household TV, which took off to arrive in almost every home only in the late 1950s here in UK) that the evidence shows that new and best innovations in and through that medium are made for the most part in the early decades following upon its advent.

I cannot substantiate that statement; although I can offer for the case of chidlren’s TV shows such as the complete oeuvre of Oliver Postgate (Ivor, Bagpuss, Clangers and more), and then add to that standard Sooty, Bill and Ben, Noddy, Hank, Rag,Tag and Bobtail. Then in following decade, the sixties, there arrived on our shores the great shows from Jim Henson, Sesame Street and The Muppets, and homegrown were Captain Pugwash, Rocky Hollow, The Herbs, and others, and starring great people like the late Peter Sallis and John Pertwee, the still extant Bernard Cribbins as well as a host of British evergreen comedy artists.

I believe this I have said has not been said in bias, and I have to declare an interest that I was born in 1950.

If I find in myself the perseverance to continue, I aim to make a series of written pieces, and by them offering solid evidence, will work towards establishing better my claims for children’s TV made here.

But this first item is dedicated to talking about ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’. Originally the stories is were published in sets of four in small postcard sized hardbacks which turn pages along their narrower edge. In landscape.

The earliest televised episodes were narrated by Ringo Starr, and a few years later the late Michael Angelis took over and worked on them for many many years as narrator. The episodes televised over the first few series or seasons were more or less lifted as they were from the books. Only when this stock of book stories ran out did new engines and new scenarios begin to emerge; but there are many tens of stories written by Rev Awdry and about the engines of Sodor; these lasted quite a while and gave birth to a large tranche of Thomas TV.

I am setting aside the stories which come after the last of Rev Awdry’s stories were made into television. These are not my theme (today).

I want to take you along through a typical ‘situation’ embedded in the stories and which is funny entertaining and wise. I do this to try to show you what kinds of behaviour and ethos I believe you as a parent are exposing your child to when s/he watches a Thomas story.

Situation: Stubborn Pride

Donald and Douglas are Scottish engines. Identical twins and largish engines. A pair which goes around together as do identical human twins most often. They are bosom pals. Fiery, abrupt, plain speaking, in the best Scottish tradition.

The story: Donald and Douglas fall out with one another, and they split apart into doing work separated from one another. At first they are each huffy and aggrieved, one at the other, muttering to themselves complaints. As time progresses the engines with whom Donald and Douglas have newly teamed, display, at least to the several perceptions of Donald and Douglas, a lack of co-ordination, which as identical twins the pair had themselves come to expect from one another.

Both twins begin feeling restive and discontented. Soon Douglas is saying ‘Donald would never have done that!’ and such like things about their new situations. The experience of working with engines whose work patterns are not a known quantity throw the twins’ thoughts back on one another. And not just for convenience sake but because they also have begun badly to miss one another, and each of them wants to make things up with the other.

So they meet up together and express their feelings and by doing so say what they have learned and what has been taught them by their tiff and separation.

Donald blurts out ‘I’m sooory!’ Douglas blurts out ‘No, I’m sooory!’ Donald again: ‘NO! I’M SOOORY!!” angrily. The Fat Controller intervenes and calms the two and they go off together contented.

The exposition: It’s almost an old wive’s tale about the two elderly friends in a teashop who sit and eat tea together and the time comes to pay the bill. One old lady says: ‘I’ll pay’ and there follows a rush for their several purses amid adamant and often vociferous protestations descending gradually into hostility about the topic who is going to treat whom to the tea.

Both with the twin engines and with the elderly ladies what is lacking and is most needed is a sense of graciousness in forbearance; that satisfaction to step away step back and accept with quiet thanks a charitable offer and deed.

Now not only are there people like the old ladies and the twin engines, in a broader application we are all just like them too. I need to look at why we are all in some shape like these instances portray people.

Firstly there’s the idea to which Mr Perks in ‘The Railway Children’ admits, that any charitable act shown towards him represents a cheapening of their personal standing. Secondly – there’s that fear and shame that one becomes beholden to another who does you a good turn. Thirdly that haughty resistance which you say to yourself that you would rather another become beholden to you than be in a position of being beholden to them. Fourthly, that the right to make another beholden is on your side. Fifthly, and this is the sum of it all, there is that sense of one’s personal pride which rebels mightily at the thought of not paying one’s way, and moreso at having that pride threatened. And God forbid!, allowing another person to pay one’s way, especially when you have means of your own for you to pay your own way – charity is for beggars.

The drama titled ‘ A Woman Killed with Kindness’ was authored by Thomas Heywood in times of the Stuart kings of England, the early 17th century. And its existence, together with works of the same period such as Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’, not to mention Shakespeare and the great band of accomplished literary people of that time, shows indubitably that before Freud and Jung there was a discipline of study of human psychology as deep and revealing as any later expositions.

Thomas Heywood has his drama play out a narrative in which a woman has been unfaithful to her husband, and is ‘forgiven’ by him; and instead of her facing chidings and resentments she receives from her husband nothing but kind words, love and gifts and all sorts of good and pleasant things. In her weighty sense of guilt and pain she pines away and dies. The end.

It’s the psychological truth I am concerned with, of the observation Heywood makes on the act of the woman and the behaviour of the husband and the result of that behaviour. How a sense of guilt being so severe that it can cause illness and deterioration and even death.

Just as the anthropologists say that medicine men shamans have been seen to have power to be placing curses on persons in whom there’s strong belief in the shaman’s magic, and so have those persons waste away and die. Used to reprove and condemn miscreants.

I give these examples in order to demonstrate the powers not merely of simple suggestion to the human psyche, but more importantly of a sense of guilt or of ‘pointing the finger at’ in the case of the shaman.

This consideration is able to be applied to a psychology of unwelcome charitable acts, and upon recipients. Not that anyone would pine away were they gifted tax free a billion pounds (my funny) but certainly the ‘affront’ of a charitable act upon them would play heavily on many people’s minds in the mindset; powerfully enough to turn a friend into a foe sometimes, I’d think. Just take the people with the mindset which rages with envious jealously when a friend of theirs or a brother or sister has won a large sum on the Lotto. I suspect all such winners of the huger prizes find themselves having to desert all their old friendships and acquaintance and move up and into a bandwidth wherein people of wealth subsist. And further once in that bandwidth they shall find, I suspect, that simply for the sake of their privacy and to avoid being recognised and mobbed over a dining out by ‘admirer goldiggers’ they are forced to pay exorbitant prices and frequent highly exclusive restaurants and in fact as far as everything about their former life and former relations and relationships go, they are now ‘caged animals’.

As the dastardly Ray Say comments in the movie ‘Little Voice’, whilst he cracks open an egg into a mixing bowl “It’s not all glamour this game” - and the egg is rotten and stinks up his nose.

So – Donald and Douglas. The Rev. Awrdry has made the pair twins and identical at that. And bosom buddies just as many such sets of twins are to each other. The bond is strong and maybe in part is glued with a certain amount of narcissism? After all we all tend to like ourselves and we all think our points of view are the right ones, and other people’s not so where these conflict with ours.

The old man at the farm gate speaking to the young lad. The lad says: ‘They’re a funny lot down the road a bit in town. Not like we people here. And they speak a bit funny too’. The old man adds ‘Yes, the only person I find ok is myself, and even you’re a bit odd’.

‘How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye’

Donald and Douglas care about one another like they care about themselves. Recall: “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the message of Jesus given at the crucial Sermon on the Mount, an oration which T S Eliot thought the most important in history; and joined alongside and only equal to The Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Indeed Donald and Douglas are brothers moreso than most brothers, or sisters.

They work well together,each as it were knowing the other’s likely next moves and habits, ideas, ways and temperament; but it is only when they have split apart from one another to work with engines who are relative strangers, that knowledge of this kinship and affinity begins to hit home hard and to sharpen in the consciousness in each of them.

‘...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Reconcile quickly with your adversary, while you are still on the way to court. Otherwise, he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison...’

Even so, even when their conclusion is to go and make amends with one another…

‘Finally he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have plenty of food? But here I am, starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’

….their equal senses of pride and importance, dare I say, of precedence?, irks and rankles within each of them at the crunch when the actual apologies are to be made. Each wants the honour, and the largesse, the entitlement to be the generous party, and thereby of necessity and reciprocally, each wants to see the other disadvantaged rather than themselves being so.

Of course it’s like money and power, all in the head, and without any material substance or presence other than bits of paper with fancy printing or a uniform and a station of office; but psychologically we as humans respond and constantly subserve our senses of status and entitlement, of humbleness, or right. As the common man says; ‘I don’t want him to get one over on me’. Saving face is a great provoker of self-torture.

There’s comedy in the situation of Donald and Douglas on TV of course; and it’s comic very much so because we recognise others and maybe some of us ourselves in the episode? I do believe we are being called by Rev Awdry under God to refer ourselves to our own selves and our dispositions to what we ourselves would have done, whenever we are watching the ‘apology’ event? If the thought of this self referral makes you feel awkward, you’re probably visualising rightly, and have some self-insight.

Lastly to graciousness. Graciousness can be learned; although not on its own and learned only under the aegis ultimately of The Lord Jesus. An attempt at a proper and just appreciation of one’s blessings and of one’s undeserving state is a prerequisite. Getting there is hard, as is remaining there, or near there. We as a species are easily bogged down in trivial griefs when the great scale of things is the perspective. I know I myself can be lifted in mood by a parcel through the door, and brought down by a fix on a machine not taking. The parcel might well have come tomorrow or even have been lost, and the fix might well at another day and a modified try take very well – but we need to bear in mind that sometimes we lose – and that maugre the parcel or the fix, my life for almost every part of it is not diminished in objective fact by it, but only my mood. Just like power and money and pride and guilt – going on inside the head and jerking us around all ways all the time.

Buddhism I think aims to free up the person from these internal imps and goblins steering us from inside; but is that an answer more than a personal coming to terms? Another topic for another day?

Graciousness is a levelling off off interrupting passions and urges and reflexes, and in which virtue one can improve by simply ‘putting oneself in the other’s place’ and in Donald and Douglas’ case, envisioning how pleased the other is to be able to endow you with a gift; how much it is boosting their self-esteem and gratifying their perhaps shaky sense of them being important in your eyes. Do you know they love you? Do they know you know they love you?

Graciousness, in part, and without haughty condescensions, sees receiving gifts as an action, a positive constructive action, and showing due consideration to the giver. Your acceptance is a stamp of approval; not just of the gift but of the giver also. Taking the gift and thanking them for it is another sign of concord and approval. Some of us, me sometimes, need such ‘boosters’ now and then.

One last thing. A gift is a gift. I joke that I bought my wife for her Mother’s Day gift a bottle of washing-up liquid and a packet of washing powder. I joke because one does tend to buy and give gifts for others based on what you yourself would want or like; even sometimes when you know the gift you choose is marginal at best in the feelings of the recipient. You maybe want to ‘teach’ them something that you think is important for them to know; or to introduce them to an activity which you find fulfilment in doing, and so on

A gift- if it is truly a gift – again is chosen when one is ‘in the recipient’s shoes’ and when giving it. Not always of course, not say for a person with a drug habit maybe? But I guess you know what I mean?

This act of choosing a gift is an act of graciousness when done properly.

The tête-à-tête between Donald and Douglas ends with an intervention and by that intervention it is resolved. The Fat Controller gives a command of sorts – a recommendation backed by his authority as boss - for them to just get on with their work together and stop wasting time arguing.

Thus one needs authoritative arbitrators to resolve disputes – very few disputes I suspect are harmoniously closed without them, and such arbitrators may even take the shape of necessity. Say in the fact that one has, in the end, to live with a person, and allow for his or her foibles, as he or she allows for yours. Another form of graciousness, is one which nature works out in relationships, and it does so because in nature acts the Providence of The Lord steering us to a better place in our minds, and hearts, and deaths

The Fat Controller is some such force as this Providence of The Lord Jesus’, a spiritual guide, mediator and advocate, whose insight and care and wisdom not so much imposes or impinges on us as guides and shows and teaches and heals.

Amen. Amen.