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The Glorious Railway Series
on 13 November 2015
The Railway Series in its 26 original stories is the greatest series of books for young boys ever created. The 26 Reverand W Awdrey's works span 1945-1972 and created a perfect little world on the Island of Sodor. This is the original series so not the books of Christopher Awdrey or the more modern and much less brilliant versions. This boxed set is beautifully designed with a bold colour and Thomas the Tank Engine prominently featured. The box itself is a little flimsy and needed a touch of repair after first contact. It largely does its job though of keeping these wonderful books in their lovely container.
The original series is un-matched. It tells the stories of a host of train and related characters. Unlike modern, commercialised versions it tells the stories through a moral prism that fits so well with the natural order of a young boy's thinking. This is The Railway Series, not The Thomas Show. It is so much better for featuring well developed characters spanning several different themes rather than being about selling the brand of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Indeed, Thomas is not even present to start with. The first story is something of a pilot. The star is Edward. His star wanes a bit later on as it is not the most interesting character but fascinating for Edward to be the focus of the original idea. The first book's pilot feel is emphasised by some of the character names not yet being finalised. A Fat Director shows up in the first book. He is of course The Fat Controller. The Controller is a wonderful character. He is strict and disciplined but considerate. He is the father figure for all of the engines. In a patriachal world it is The Fat Controller who plays the role of patriach - or dad.
Some of the characters have become classics. Gordon the Big Engine is a particularly great one. He is the big brother. Older brothers can associate with him easily. He is strong and fast, smaller engines look up to him. But he is loyal and kind quite often. Some other characters take other familial roles - Henry for instance is a friend or more probably a cousin. He is a little bit apart because he is green and he is not as macho and brave as most of the others. Thomas the cheeky little tank engine is one engine among many. He is the naughty little brother who wants to play but does well and is rewarded.
The host of characters works surprisingly well. Young boys of even 2 years old can memorise dozens of engines. Quite remarkable but a fantastic learning experience. The learning through the actions of the characters and the reinforcement of a set of behaviours is educationally effective. The seemingly natural obsession with trains makes this set of stories so exciting for young boys.
The stories are so well written and interesting it also seems to be good for girls. There are very few female characters. The early ones are the chattering coaches being pulled about by the boy engines. That reflects the world the stories started in. The world of the mid-1940s was still of course a male dominated one where many men had just given their lives in the devastation of World War II. It is only later in the series as it passes through decades that bring about greater female participation in public life that more prominent female characters emerge. Fascinating to see the history of Britain through the eyes of an establishment figure observing changes in the world around him.
The artwork of The Railway Series is good but not great. There is artwork on most alternate pages but it does not particularly stand-out and certainly is not as good as the television series of the 1980s. The style is somewhat muted so lacks the eye-catching vividness for the very young. Still, the different engines are largely unique enough to be easily identified so their role in life can be quite easily seen. Also fascinating to see the different times through different images. The clothes passengers wear change slightly through the series.
The books are hardback and small. Good for little hands to hold while sturdy enough to survive.
The stories themselves are memorable. Some are beautiful like the story relating to Mrs Kyndley. Some are exciting fun like the race between Thomas and Bertie. Some tell much deeper stories about the sorrow of the passing from the age of steam to the age of cars.
Even those who were born after the age of steam can feel nostalgic for that era. A great time when trains were the dominant feature of British culture. For a dad there is hardly anything better than reading The Railway Series to his children.