Psalm 2:11-12 - Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
I’ve not been doing a great deal of reading lately, except for bedtime stories. Reading bedtime stories to a child is generally a delight, not a chore (at least up to the moment when you realise that the child’s enthusiasm for one more story has precisely nothing to do with or the merits of the book being waved under your nose, or the skill of your storytelling, but everything to do with postponing bed time). So when junior acquired a book of stories about Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, I was quite happy.
Thomas the Tank Engine was part of my childhood – as well as some books, I had a couple of records of the train stories (voiced, by Johnny Morris, the man who used to give animals “amusing” voices in Animal Magic, a BBC programme for which I had an inexplicable fondness as a small child). Nostalgic, innocent, wholesome, full of steam trains – what could be more splendid?
Unexpectedly, The Adventures of Thomas has become my least favourite bedtime reading. The main thing I dislike about the current stories is how much the railway network on Sodor resembles a dysfunctional society or workplace. For much of the time, the engines are insecure, anxious, harassed, stressed, thin-skinned, dependent, competitive and jealous. They puff around in mortal fear of being replaced or demoted, desperately trying to please the all-powerful Fat Controller. It’s like watching the baby executives on the The Apprentice jumping through hoops in their pitiful attempts to catch the eye of Alan Sugar, replete from gorging on his power-breakfast. The stories are, I think, intended to be very moral, but the lessons to be drawn from them seem rather limiting – don’t get ideas above your station (that pun was as inevitable as it was terrible), but do respect and fear authority figures.
Children’s stories shouldn’t have a big, clunking, moral, although they can painlessly teach some valuable lessons and ideas about life. These stories have what I see as an anti-moral – a perfect recipe for how not to grow as a human being. Live in fear, respect hierarchies, obey orders without question, don’t have autonomy, don’t question authority, don’t think independently, never be proud of what you’ve achieved, just let your life run on the rails prepared for you by a higher authority.
Years ago, when I read Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, a violent, hallucinatory novel featuring a demented marketing consultant and serial killer whose grotesque mind is moulded by the (imaginary?) influence of a figure called The Fat Controller, I wondered what it was about the Thomas the Tank Engine stories that got Will so worked up. Maybe it was just a piece of calculated gonzo-style outrage from the man famous for doing heroin on John Major’s jet during the 1997 election campaign. But now I’m beginning to see the dark side of Reverend Awdry’s jealous God for myself.