May 14, 2015

Is Thomas the Tank Engine Stalinist propaganda, or free-market pornography, or a series of books about trains with gray faces?


Oliver is sad because he's a right-wing propagandist :( (via YouTube)

Oliver is sad because he’s a right-wing propagandist 🙁 (via YouTube)

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of The Railway Series, which was, as far as I know, the first series of books to bring anthropomorphic trains to an English-speaking audience. This is only as far as I know, though—I’m not an expert in the history of books about anthropomorphic trains. I wish I were. But I’m not.

Anyway, everyone knows that the appropriate seventieth anniversary gift is platinum tenuous sociopolitical ruminations, and to thank Thomas, Percy, Bertie, Freighty, High Speed Raily, and Long-Term Right-Wing Infrastructural Disinvestmenty (my favorite of Thomas the Tank Engine’s delightful friends), the hot take economy has not deviated from tradition.

Behold The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that has itself made news for urging people who did not sign up for the Vote for the Conservative Party e-mail blast to vote for the Conservative Party. (According to the Independent, “the sending of the mass email may have breached the Telegraph’s privacy policy.”) On Tuesday, the Telegraph took a break from celebrating the imminent collapse of the welfare state to publish an article called “Why do so many liberal parents hate Thomas the Tank Engine?” The article did not answer that question, but it did include the following photo captions:

Imperialist stooge? Thomas the Tank Engine
Is Thomas really just harmless fun?
One mum thinks Thomas and friends is sexist, is she right?
Really useful: a Soviet worker and Thomas the Tank Engine
Postman Pat’s antics don’t impress some parents
A scene from the first ever Railway Series book, in which ‘disobedient’ Henry is bricked up in a tunnel
Rev Wilbert Awdry with his son Christopher (far right) and the rest of the family in 1948

Do you really need to see the accompanying images? No, you do not need to see the accompanying images. These captions are sufficiently revealing.

We touched on the political ambiguities of Thomas the Tank Engine last year, but the Telegraph gives us some more evidence. It cites a few reviews on a website called Common Sense Media, along with a few more on the UK’s best-named website, Mumsnet. The Telegraph’s Paul Kendall also mentions  a 1990 Guardian piece and a 2012 Slate column, which was pretty tongue-in-cheek. That is all the evidence Kendall provides.

So is it really true that many liberal parents hate Thomas the Tank Engine? To find out, I turned to a second Telegraph piece, also by Kendall and published yesterday, called “Why sour Lefties are wrong about Thomas the Tank Engine.” This piece wasn’t any more convincing, though it did feature an interview with Christopher Awdry. This is the best part of the article:

“But father simply saw steam engines as male and the carriages as female.” He added that the vicar did eventually introduce two female engines—Daisy and Mavis. Today, there are many more.

Everything about that quote is amazing, though sadly neither it nor the rest of the second Telegraph piece offers definitive (or even totally vague) proof that “sour Lefties” “hate Thomas the Tank Engine.”

I really, really hope that the tragic Amtrak accident in Philadelphia does not provoke the Telegraph to publish any Thomas-related thinkpieces.

But okay, that’s the British press. Can American media shed some light on this subject? In a rather marvelous piece, NPR’s Elizabeth Blair asks “Just How Do ‘Thomas & Friends’ Drive Sodor’s Economy?”:

Is Sir Topham Hatt a robber baron or a paternalistic CEO? Are Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends part of a union? How does anyone make money on the Island of Sodor?

Blair does not posit a mass left-wing parental outrage that isn’t there. Instead, she discusses economists’ and economics journalists’ fascination with the series. Does Thomas the Tank Engine paint a portrait of “a genuine, Hayekian coordination-of-information free-market type of capitalism,” as law professor Paul Horwitz suggests? Or should we listen to Britt Allcroft, the creator of the Thomas & Friends television show, who says:

“I do have the skinny on this, you know,” says Allcroft. “Sodor Railways is a cooperative. It is owned by the passengers and the railway staff and—very importantly—all the engines.” Sir Topham Hatt, Allcroft posits, is an official appointed by the cooperative. “He has a contract that’s renewed on performance,” and that’s why he can be so gruff. “He needs to keep his job,” she says.

You should read the entire article for plenty of other genuinely entertaining economic insights. But you should also, perhaps, simply enjoy Thomas classics like A Crack in the Track and Day of the Diesels without allowing any political subtext to overshadow the fundamental ridiculousness of a series of books, television shows, and marketing products that take as their protagonists a bunch of talking trains.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.