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Thursday, October 05, 2006


What to make of the Thomas the Tank Engine phenomenon? These anthropomorphic steam engines are over 60 years old, and now command an empire of merchandising and events, with a tightly controlled image that is widely licensed (although we like the pixellated engine representations on this unofficial page). It's not just Tomy, who have cornered the market - they might offer almost every conceivable shape and size of Thomas product, but there are many, many more manufacturers, and the profits are huge.

But there are rumblings of discontent. Recently, a Radio Times poll earlier this year on the 10 worst British TV shows ever described Thomas and Friends as portraying 'a workplace riven by class envy where bitching, brown-nosing and backstabbing are the norm' (via the Guardian). Satirist Armando Iannucci has also listed Thomas as a personal hate, summarising the stories with the typically pithy 'insufferably arrogant steam trains laughing at diesels'.

Perhaps it goes further. In Tunnel Vision, Ian Jack writes intriguingly about a recent academic study that purports to lay bare the inherent classism and sexism in the Thomas series. Admittedly Jack is ultimate rather dubious, especially of claims that little Toby's tale has a subtext of immigration and integration. In truth, Jack was also being a little economic with the book's angle for dramatic purposes, as this letter from the authors attests. The Thomas material took up a tiny fraction of their book, Train Tracks: Work, Play And Politics On The Railways (you can listen to one of the authors talking about it here), which essentially looks at railway culture as a specific physical place, not just a transport network. The social subtexts of a widespread phenomenon like Thomas were just a side debate, but they certainly ring true.

Class conflict aside, it's sad that steam railway enthusiasts should have to debase their hobby with stick-on plastic faces and swallow the Thomas mythos whole in order to maintain their hobby. The Reverend Wilbert Awdry was a bit of a stickler for technological accuracy (allegedly dismissing the series' most enduring illustrator, C Reginald Dalby, for his lack of commitment. Read biogs of all the railway series illustrators). These days, it doesn't seem to matter if Thomas has two axles or three, thanks to the focus on multiple variations of the same characters, all relentlessly branded thanks to the savvy activities of Gullane Limited, the company that now has the rights to Awdry's creation. In short, the train obsession that Thomas inspires doesn't seem to be about trains in the technical sense. Instead, as any parent will tell you - see The preschool capitalist and media awareness at Phantom Scribbler - Thomas has an almost mystical hold on the pre-school imagination.

*

Thirty-two 32 international art galleries have come together to form Year 06 / What's New Media?, a self-explanatory weblog / running out of rambling first-person shooters to dramatize, Hollywood turns to the text adventure. Admittedly it's only a documentary, evocatively titled Get Lamp (the same naming strategy as the UK band Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. No-one has yet called anything 'Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold' though).

Some beautiful play spaces for children collated by the Cool Hunter. This kind of environment stands head and shoulders above the frankly rather fetid soft play centres in the UK / unusually, it's Japan, a country not known for its nostalgic view of railways, that hosts the world's first Thomas Land / the final part of 146 miles without a map, a journey from Winchester to Canterbury along the Pilgrim's Way / self indulgent ramblings, a weblog.