In an age in which steam trains have all but died out, their stories have not only endured but have become a driving force for a worldwide publishing, television and merchandising phenomenon.
"Children identify perfectly with the characters," said Catherine, a French expatriate living in London whose two boys, aged three and six, collect Thomas locomotives. Like youngsters their age, she said, "Thomas and his friends don't always listen, they do things that end up in catastrophe, and they end up getting punished by the Fat Controller — the parental figure."
Thomas the Tank Engine started its journey in 1941 in the imagination of the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, an English clergyman telling stories to his ailing three-year-old son Christopher, down with measles in the dark days of World War II. He penned 26 'Thomas' adventures, and his son Christopher another 40 more, with more than 80 million books sold worldwide — on top of Thomas cartoons, toys, clothes, children's furniture and the obligatory website.
And still doing well, it might seem. He's even inspired a poem or two (that is, Will Self's transpetation has).
But I really don't know much at all about the history of this figure/icon in Britain. Images that spring to my American-grown mind would include: J.P. Morgan's coach (or are those the letters "H.P." -- from the first scene in which Harry Potter appears in It's a Wonderful Life), the monopoly-man icon (again, based on the Morgans/Rockefellers?), the grouchy cartoon baby with a cigar in his mouth, always either insulting women or throwing tantrums (his tears obscenely visible, strange caricature of repressed jouissance? but what's his name--does he even have one?), Citizen Kane and William Randolph...
Americans of course fly into an instant fit (like instant coffee...instant anxiety) whenever one makes allusions to an alleged European lineage. (Either that or perhaps what is worse: they habitually, hypocritically accept the worst sloganized condemnation without a critical blink.) Are there even grounds for such a lineage with regard to this figure? In Gore Vidal's apt phrase: "The United States of Amnesia." A phrase that doesn't quite do justice to the ingrained, default bigotry here. The thinly disguised nationalistic hubris. And it's true, nobody seems to have any time for historical continuities anymore. History being ended, and all. Chant on, ye delusional euphorics, ye spoiled anorexics, ye obsequious, mono-personality mega-workers, ye aspiring megalomaniacs, ye dismal apocalyptics, ye throwbacks and jerknees. Why oh why do we hate our freedom? Come on now, chant together. Stomp your feet, stomp your boots. Stomp you stompcruisers down the street. Young (Signifier) on the march!
Before we were ranting against predictable targets, there was a simple silly question being formed: Which came first, The Fat Controller or The Fat Cat? Sir Topham Hat or Harry Potter (not the neo-epic neo-Tolkein, neo-Narnia, blockbuster)?
Thomas the Tank.
Is it just me or have the eyes changed?
Burden and anxiety of Empire. So much conjuring-away to come. This has all helped me to understand Will Self's book immensely, I must say.
Incidentally, the hit song, "Ain't we got fun" was first popular back in the roaring '20's? It then slept for around 40 years until eventually being revived by The Beatles (via Kerouac, I personally suspect). Is there an economy to these images, or 'in' these eternally recurring signposts? This is why the cultural/linguistic/philosophical archeology practiced by Eco, by Benjamin, and by Derrida is so important. Without seeking to conceptualize--critically, but not too critically--an economy of these images, to view them critically and so begin to see them for the first time maybe, not stripped of their charm and aesthetic content necessarily (that would be the worst!) but also as inextricably bound to an economy of sorts (as historical artifacts) -- without such analysis, such rigorous, serious 'play'... the future is preemptively condemned, the horizon closed off. Victory declared and cake eaten -- too soon.
The greatest and sickest irony of my divided life was that if I acknowledged that it was I who had done these things, I was free from all remorse. Instead, like my mentor, I held myself to be beyond all morality, a towering superman whose activities could not even be observed from the grovelling positions of mere mortals, let alone judged. Yet it also remained perfectly plausible for me to deny that I had done any of theseawful things at all. Most of the outrages had been committed during little odds and sods of borrowed time, they were will o' the wisp happenings, scraps of the Holocaust, left-overs from the Gulag. Although I had liked to torture my victims, I seldom indulged in so long a session as I had with the pit bull. Usually I would call it a wrap, after a leisurely hour or so of soldering flesh, pulling nails and shooting up strychnine.
And if I willed it, really believed it, then the knowledge of the little outrages vanished from my memory, wiped out as surely as a computer file. Ah, but then the septic tank hit the jet turbine, I became craven, culpable and driven. More than worried for my own sanity. Perhaps I was the borderline personality Dr Gyggle had said I was, all those years ago at Sussex?
My eidesis, I now realized, had been upgraded. The next generation made my mind a cheap bit of virtual reality, allowing me only two basic game modes. I could play mad or I could play bad, and although the two simulations might parallel one another all the way to infinity, they would never touch. Moreover, unless I remained vigilant I would sneakily flit like a cheating kid between the two: mad/bad, bad/mad, mad/bad. It could be quite bewildering.
I could style myself the very Demiurge of Dissociation, if I so chose, because of my delightfully separate centres of self; and when they commingled fully there was a sweet melancholia engendered alongside the terror of the dark and the arrogance of the justified sinner...(Will Self, My Idea of Fun, 291-293)