Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Rev. W. Awdry - 'The Railway Series'

There is undeniably a fascination in re-reading books from childhood. Remembering who you were before you made the decisions or non-decisions which took you away from the person who originally read them, got you where you are today. It's a way, too, of stretching across time, as far as it is possible to stretch within the frame of direct experience. A photo can show what things looked like in 1982 (or whenever you were first able to read), but it fails to jog the memory in quite the same way as reading the same words and looking at the same pictures 24 years later. Doing this can also, of course, demonstrate how unreliable direct experience can be.

As a young boy (Six? Seven?) I used to read Thomas the Tank Engine stories, in common with most young boys of my and preceding generations (and succeeding generations? An awful lot of them are out of print now). I didn't have anywhere near all of them, but the four or five books I did have provided the requisite doses of comfort and excitement, and I was fond of them. Confronted recently with a stream of spin-off toys from the TV series which S. has been buying for a nephew and a godson, I wanted to see the books again, if only to reclaim the characters from the tiny tot day glo version which incorporates helicopters and doesn't in the least reflect the muted colours and self-effacing stories of the books I remember. 'Self-effacing' is wrong, since they are neither autobiographical nor first-person, but... modest, moral tales in which mischievous engines get their comeuppance.

I bought the modern edition of 'The Three Railway Engines', blanching slightly at the bright orange cover, and was surprised at how different it seemed from its former self. The stories so short, the writing so big! As for the pictures, they were scruffy and clumsy, not at all the precise depictions of twenty-four years ago. Yet they were certainly the same pictures: Henry's face, half hidden behind the wall built to keep him in the tunnel from which he'd refused to emerge whilst it was raining (not one of the series' most plausible plots), has its eyebrows raised in consternation as before. I subsequently found that this edition does the pictures a disservice by enlarging cropped sections and missing out the rest, so of course they appear less detailed.

Coming across some more of the books in a Shelter shop (laid out right across the window, as though to make sure I didn't miss them), I suffered the further disappointment that Douglas and Donald, the twin engines and old favourites of mine, actually have pretty awful Scottish accents. 'Ye wadnae be makkin' fun o' uz wad ye noo?' and the like. The illustrations here (by John T. Kenney) were a vast improvement though: beautifully muted blacks, greys and greens, and the clean lines I remembered.

Apart from 'The Twin Engines' and 'Gordon the Big Engine', most of the books in the display were unfamiliar to me, so I picked them out according to how pretty their covers were. It wasn't until I'd left the shop that I noticed that the three books thus chosen were all late on in the series, and all illustrated by Gunvor and Peter Edwards. These represented a departure from Kenney's almost photographic paintings, a general livening-up, a move from oils to watercolours, and from the 19th Century to the 20th. The stories take place across a rich landscape which has little in common with the idyllic but dull green fields of earlier volumes such as 'Toby the Tram Engine' (my other old favourite, alongside 'The Twin Engines'). There are hills, streams, ploughed fields, horses and farm labourers: the countryside buzzes with activity and visual interest. Toby himself re-appears in 'Tramway Engines', and is far more of a physical presence than previously. He's almost burly. As with the TV series, these illustrations are a move away from the modesty of the earlier books - although the stories continue to revolve around upstarts and the pricking of pride - but the move is in a more interesting direction, at least from an adult's perspective.


Richard said...

I'm pleased to report they're all back in print now!


Chris said...

Great. Are the pictures un-cropped in the new editions?

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