Friday, 23 September 2011

Semiotics has no 'off' switch:

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the original 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books, but I will assume that the number is fairly low. Below, I shall detail one of the dangers attendant upon being an ex-Lit student.

A couple of nights ago, I was reading my daughter 'Troublesome Engines', which, as stated above, is a Thomas book. I had got to the third story in the book when I suddenly found myself unable to continue reading with a clean conscience, and the rest of that bedtime story was attended by a certain degree of gloss. This is because, from jaded, adult eyes, eyes well schooled literary criticism, 'Troublesome Engines', goes a little like this:

Having redeployed his key worker, Thomas, to the running of the Branch Line, the Fat Controller attempts to economise and distributes Thomas' workload among his existing work force. Other engines are asked to perform non-contractual tasks which are below their skill-level in addition to their usual workload. In the course of these extra duties, Henry is sent to investigate a blockage which turns out to be an elephant, subjecting him to no little personal danger and humiliation. Furthermore, the Fat Controller refuses to modernise his equipment so that the turntable fails to turn one Tender engine (Gordon) meaning he is forced to run along the Main Line backwards - causing danger to himself and to the Fat Controller's customers.

Angry at these repeated breaches of contract (tender engines do not shunt) and the dangerous experiences in the execution thereof, Henry, James and Gordon go on strike. The Fat Controller takes a confrontational attitude towards his workers, refusing to recognise the validity of the complaint (engines on My Railway do as they are told) and instead goes to the only tender engine not on strike, Edward - hereafter called the Scab. The Scab, it appears, is quite happy to take on extra work in order to gratify his boss, but is quickly disheartened when the other engines remind him his work is non-contractual and, presumably, call him a Scab for good measure.

At this, the Fat Controller begins to see that his position is untenable, and hires from among the readily available workforce a naive, arselick of an engine, an enthusiastic young engine named Percy. Then, he calls Thomas back from his new job, and imprisons the three striking engines. The tank engines (and the Scab) are only too happy to break picket lines in order to undertake skilled labour, presumably at no extra wage, in order to show the tender engines that 'Common Tank Engines' can do the task as well the tender engines can.

After a few days of this, the Fat Controller releases Henry, James and Gordon on the proviso that they return to their old jobs and take no more industrial action. They do so and Thomas, Percy and the Scab are sent to 'play' on the Branch line for a few days. Now, Thomas immediately goes for a ride with his girlfriends, but Percy and the Scab 'play' with some trucks. This following section is a minor incident and is not really essential to the plot. However, if one bears in mind that all these trucks – also often called troublesome – are all female, it is not without relevance.

'“Stop! Stop! Stop!” screamed the trucks as they were pushed into their proper sidings, but the two engines laughed and went on shunting till the trucks were tidily arranged.'

 Letting off steam, indeed.

Everything, you see, has returned to normal. Those willing to undertake unskilled labour (Thomas, Percy, the Scab) have been put to work on the Branch line; less skilled labour, perhaps, but with ample opportunity of harassing, even assaulting, the female workforce. It is, after all, a position of power. Meanwhile, a 'compromise' has been struck with the tender engines; their place at the top of the engine hierarchy has been assured – they are asked only to work upon the Main Line – but they are still required to shunt, even though such work is not in their job description and below their skill set.

The moral of the story, therefore, can be read in one of two ways. It is either divide and conquer, or else it is unionise effectively. Either way, the reading stands; had the tender engines forgotten their snobbery and brought the lower status tank engines into their demand for better working conditions, had the tank engines relinquished their power over the trucks and all three grades shown solidarity, the Fat Controller would have been well and truly shafted.

Which, if I'm honest, is no more than he deserves.


  1. Brilliant. I really should look at children's stories in that way a little more.

  2. Glad I entertained. It does make me feel a little bit guilty, sometimes but... It's not like Toddler didn't enjoy the story, especially the bit where I had Gordon going "scabscabscabscab scabscabscabscab woooh wooooh!" A little bit of pastiche never hurt anyone.

  3. Written by a Tory! Clues in the name, The reverend Audrey spelt wrong - hmm nice frock.


  4. I am glad I'm not the only one to notice this. It was dreadful. Thanks for writing.