Autism and Thomas the Tank Engine have long been known to walk hand in buffer. But in the days before the TV series it used to be so much more enriching.
Forget the paraphernalia.
Forget those one-dimensional comic illustrations.
Forget that the franchise got renamed after one sole character in 1984 and eventually was populated by characters and storylines that the country parson and son who wrote the original series had nothing to do with.
In short, forget the franchise of “Thomas and Friends” and the millions of lunchboxes, thermos flasks, beginner underpants etc it may sell per annum.
And remember The Railway Series.
Twenty-six rectangular books each containing four interlinked stories of anthropomorphic locomotives on a network of railways on a fictional island written by a clergyman who had discovered a talent for writing while entertaining a son with measles, little knowing what he was stumbling on.
The basic autistic appeal was still the same as it is now, with the main characters each having a colour and a number, thus giving structure and yet variety (even if almost half of The Fat Controller’s team were blue).
But here was a franchise you could grow up with rather than have to put away with childish things in a hurry the minute you were out of year two as seemed to be the case with so many of them.
You could start as a toddler with how “Once upon a time there was a little engine called Edward” (Thomas didn’t appear till the second book in the series). You could go on to enjoy a developing arc in simple language.
The fact that some of the earlier stories bore hallmarks of a bygone era mattered little. The story of express locomotive Gordon getting his whistle jammed and the image of him desperately trying to stop the screeching from his jammed valve had you so caught up in the drama that you barely even blinked at archaic references to air raid sirens starting and horses upsetting their carts.
Maybe you didn’t understand what all the words and phrases meant but you learnt vocabulary, you learnt about life, death and emotions and you could enjoy them guiltlessly after the rest of your juvenilia had been consigned to either the attic or the jumble sale because Awdry, whose writing stretched from the end of WW2 to the early days of glam rock, knew that his readers were growing up and becoming rail enthusiasts themselves. There were even powerful tales of engines escaping undercover of night from the scrap men and hiding from informing diesels or simply being shut in their sheds for over twenty years with nothing to do but sleep. As I reached the age of ten, plots like these became easier to appreciate and could be enjoyed guiltlessly after a day of learning more advanced stuff.
And yes they were easy to memorise. Thanks partly to narrations on vinyl record by the likes of Willie Rushton as well as my poor father having to record his own on cassette to save him having to keep entertaining his young charge with them, many of the stories stuck in my head word for word long after my memory for the likes of Beatrix Potter had gone somewhat rusty.
When I saw that the now all growed up Christopher Awdry had begun writing his own titles for the series, I had no qualms about buying the new one each year. My folks didn’t mind either as it didn’t interfere with my general development and other more adolescent style obsessions had grown up alongside.
Only once did it lead to a seriously regressive phase. A visit with family to the Talyllyn Railway in Wales (the Skarloey Railway in the books) in the summer before the all-important beginning of studying for GCSEs naturally triggered a powerful wave of nostalgia and I spent most of the following couple of terms thinking of volumes I’d had in the past while resisting buying any but the latest titles in a vain attempt to keep the mental decks clear for set texts such as Brighton Rock and The Taming of the Shrew. Even when the biology teacher would put his hand on my shoulder and say “Come ON man you should be writing this up!” I felt a fair amount of inner embarrassment that my mind was distracted not by something like mountain bikes or even my beloved classic rock but by the mental image of Percy tobogganing helplessly down the quay into the brine.
But it was quite by accident at 19 that my secret was discovered one night by a few friends (names changed).
We had a longer drive back than usual from our after church group that night. Rob waited till Pete, Andy and myself had all piled into the little red Peugeot 205 his landlady kindly allowed him to use and then said “Let’s see how much of this you can remember Chris!” (My memory was well-known in that crowd by then)
I didn’t know what to expect but a familiar story came over on the in-car stereo. It wasn’t uncommon for a tape for said landlady’s kids’ entertainment to be in the tape deck even when Rob had the car. I recognised it as Dirty Objects from my childhood favourite Toby The Tram Engine but was surprised to notice that it wasn’t the Ladybird-published Ringo Starr narration but the old Johnny Morris recording from my childhood. Of course, Morris had changed some of the wording around, but I was still word perfect with the original and it was close enough for me to be able to narrate along.
I could have held back, but I thought that as Rob had challenged my memory here it would be ridiculous not to come out of the closet on this one.
“Did you used to have this book then?” inquired Andy. I held back from saying that I still did have.
“Er Chris…” said Rob “When did you last read this?”
We were almost at my house by now and the tape had gone into the next volume of the series so I decided to ‘fess up.
“Alright I’ll be honest. I used to have this tape and I always loved the stories and I can still remember them off by heart”.
Rob thought this was hilarious. “You’ve got to do it on the weekend away next week” he said.
I had a feeling I might be asking for trouble but I went ahead all the same.
After supper and a great night at the bowling alley on the starlit front at Southend near Andy’s parents’ church where we were kipping on the floor that weekend, I said to Rob “Have you remembered?”.
Rob had and sure enough once we were all seated in a circle drinking hot chocolate, I produced two volumes that I had brought down. I gave a nervous precis to what was about to happen and then passed Rob the first book. Rob flipped to the second story and challenged me to recite it from memory. The book was passed around the circle with me occasionally calling out for a prompt but mostly word perfect.
Rob even challenged me to show off at lunch with Andy’s folks the next day and remember how many engines there were. That one I had to think about…
Now I really felt part of the family.
It didn’t affect my standing in the group. If anything it was such a relief to have it out in the open. And now that exams were a thing of the past, I could be myself and breathe. I didn’t even feel the compulsion to regale people with facts or ask whether they had had the books themselves or anything like that.
The rise in awareness of autistic conditions coincided with the rise of the internet and its general revelation one is never totally alone in one’s geekiness but by then the original books had been stopped in their tracks by a disagreement between the Awdry family and their publishers and the TV people, seeing dollar signs, had begun not only to write their own stories but to create their own characters. Their stories showed scant regard for premises established in the books e.g. that tank engines do not need to use turntables or that Gordon only gets stuck on hills when pulling goods trains.
OK it’s aimed at little kids who probably won’t give a hoot. But I’ll bet a whole older generation of Aspie kids DID give a hoot about a series of books that not only charmed us as tiny tots but also challenged us as adults to fight on to the end and to realise that our vengeful actions can hurt more people than we intend them to.
And it didn’t prevent us from enjoying books aimed at higher levels either.