Thomas the Tank Engine goes to Copenhagen

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I'd like to join the debate over Thomas the Tank Engine -- the books, TV shows and toys based on him -- in the gift-giving spirit of the season.

The Thomas stories go back 65 years. They were written by an English clergyman, W.V. Awdry. They centre on the engine-characters of a railroad on a fictional island called Sodor. The current row is based on a critique by Alberta academic Shauna Wilton, whose three-year-old daughter loves the cartoons. The prof watched some and found them conservative, misogynist, opposed to "thinking outside the box" (no joke intended, I don't think) and hostile to individual initiative, which seems odd if they're so right-wing.

The backlash, or caboose-lash, has been strongest in the U.K. ("One hopes absolutely no one will take any notice of this silly woman"), where we are portrayed as slavishly left ("Save us from these PC prats") at the same time we're depicted in Copenhagen as right-wing climate-change deniers. At least Canada is being noticed, although Tiger Woods could say the same.

The Wilton critique doesn't really jibe with my own sense of the tales. Thomas is warmly called a "cheeky little engine" even as he causes trouble. There's a dour undertone, but I find it more Christian than neo-con, as befits a minister. Rev. Awdry felt both railways and the church were "the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination." Everyone referred to people as "man" back then, and there are women engines too. He even wrote some books on Belinda the Beetle, a little car, although they didn't catch on.

Nor was he just an obedient tool. He was a pacifist during the Second World War who refused to serve as an army chaplain, got fired for it and was denied the right to deliver a farewell sermon. During the war, he told the first Thomas story to his ill son. He may have been feeling grim and resigned, but he had acted on moral principle and accepted the consequences, which I find politically impressive, even if it's also Christian.

Shauna Wilton might say she was analyzing his stories, not their author. But a little context often helps. She herself teaches political science in Alberta, where you might easily develop a sensitivity to neo-con messages. I've known women who taught there and it seems to make one unusually ready to put up one's ideological dukes (or duchesses).

Mostly though, I disagree about kids. Shauna Wilton says kids will grow up to be citizens, and the "outlook they develop now ... influenced by shows like Thomas" is risky. I'm less worried. I know an 11-year-old who complained about a friend. When I asked if that meant he'd be less friendly from now on, he looked at me as if I was deranged and said, "NO" -- as in DUH -- "Why would I?" People of all ages are human and you befriend them not because they're perfect but because you connect. That's how kids relate to Thomas. Not to mention the exquisite toys, like a wood roundhouse and turntable two stories below me as I write. When what they called The Thomas Store closed on Toronto's College Street, local kids went into mourning. And unlike Bionicles or Transformers, these toys connect kids to the past, not just to a sci-fi future.

As for citizenship, there is no group to whom the imperatives of the climate crisis are clearer -- whatever its causes -- than kids, and they seem to have grasped most of that on their own. It's what happens to adults, after they grow up to be citizens and go to Copenhagen, that needs work. They could use a touch of the team spirit and discipline you find in the Thomas stories. Even the rich, capitalist railroad owner, Sir Topham Hatt -- a transparent double for the Winston Churchill of the war years -- takes responsibility for sorting out the messes that happen on his line.

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