Train to glory

Fifty years ago, as Britain emerged triumphant from a gruelling six-year war, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry published his first book and created one of the world's most enduring fictional characters. The Three Railway Engines introduced Thomas, a talking steam engine. With his irreverent sense of humour and winning smile, he muddled through some 30 adventures between his inception and the Rev Awdry's death in 1972. Originally conceived as an entertainment for the vicar's bed-bound son, Thomas the Tank Engine is now big business with some 200 book titles to his name as well as a television series. (Who could forget Ringo Starr's deadpan voice-overs?) An exhibition currently at the National Railway Museum in York explores the continuing appeal of the brave little engine and his friends. You can climb aboard a model of Thomas, watch Thomas videos and examine the Rev Awdry's collection of Thomas memorabilia, including the wooden model which originally brought the train to life for his son and a relief map of Thomas's imaginary country.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Thomas quite so universally popular with children and grown-ups alike. Perhaps the date of his birth is significant. Think about it. Thomas is a small, plucky, cheeky chap who always succeeds in the face of seemingly impossible odds. In short, he is the spirit of wartime Britain. In the secure, class-conscious world of The Railway Engines, goodwill always win through, evil will never go unpunished, and at the end of the day responsibility will rest with the Fat Controller, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Winston Churchill. Awdry, albeit unwittingly, was not merely telling a children's story, he was creating an allegory for an England we have lost.

IAIN GALE

Leeman Rd, York (01904 621261) to 3 Mar

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