PsychoGeography #61: The truth about Thomas the Tank Engine

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My ritualised flensing of Graham Greene a couple of weeks ago has got me thinking about my own experience of fictional topographies. I'd like to be able to tell you that when it comes to countries of the mind I've always sojourned in the most toney, that my erotic yearnings lead me inexorably into the arms of Emma Bovary at Yonville; and that when I'm not flossing my own teeth I'm striding towards the Mill on the Floss.

My ritualised flensing of Graham Greene a couple of weeks ago has got me thinking about my own experience of fictional topographies. I'd like to be able to tell you that when it comes to countries of the mind I've always sojourned in the most toney, that my erotic yearnings lead me inexorably into the arms of Emma Bovary at Yonville; and that when I'm not flossing my own teeth I'm striding towards the Mill on the Floss.

Sadly none of this is true. I haven't even been hanging out in the invented terrains of satirists - More's Utopia, Swift's Lilliput, or Butler's Erewhon - although I do buy the occasional cheap day return. No, the fictional place I'm most familiar with is the Island of Sodor. Sodor, sounds kinky doesn't it? Or rather, at once kinky and dull, like a conflation of Sodom and sopor. It's neither; Sodor is the invention of the Reverend W V Awdry, author of the hugely successful Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

Thomas is a cheeky little steam engine, whose rubicund cheeks and button nose burst forth from the steel plate of his boiler. Together with a lot of other human/train hybrids - Gordon, James, Percy et al - he inhabits a pre-Beeching, prelapsarian world firmly under the direction of the Fat Controller. Hmm, let's ponder that for a second: the Fat Controller. This sounds kinky too - you can imagine a card up in a phone booth: "NEW FAT CONTROLLER OFFERS TO SIT HEAVILY ON YOUR FACE, CALL 879 ..." But I digress.

I was familiar with Sodor during my own childhood, but not nearly so much as I was with Narnia, Middle Earth or even Moomin Valley. So, arriving on Sodor as an adult it's hardly surprising that such suspect associations soon entered my mind. Had I known I'd be staying so long I would've maintained better mental hygiene. When my first son became a Thomas aficionado I was unfazed. I bought the books, the story tapes, the spin-off merchandise, and sat with him for hours on end watching the television version, thrilling to Ringo Starr's nasal narration and ever-curious about the way the steam of the model engines is apparently simulated using fag smoke.

I then left Sodor for a few years - only to return with a vengeance as two more sons got the Awdry bug. Now I can safely say that a day hasn't gone by for pushing a decade and a half, when I haven't set foot on this idealised interwar terrain. I've been to the quarry with Percy, up into the hills with those gallant old engines Rheneas and Skarloey, stuck in a tunnel with Henry, and flown above it all with Harold the Helicopter. I thought I knew Sodor pretty well, until that is, my youngest boy was given Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection. This chunky volume not only has every one of the charming stories, it also boasts a map of Sodor on its end papers.

With a profound shock I discovered that the island of Sodor had a disturbingly real location and a distinctly over-imagined topography. I don't know if the map is the work of Awdry himself (now sadly deceased), or has been extrapolated from the information in the stories, but suffice to say, unlike Swift's floating island, Sodor has a distinctly earthy likelihood. It's big too, completing filling the Irish Sea between Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man, perhaps 500-odd square miles in all. There are ports - Tidmouth, Arlborough, Normanby; peaks - Culdee Fell (2,040 feet, Sodor's highpoint), Cros-ny-Cruin and Wardfell; villages - Ballahoo, Ulfsted and Cronk; there are lakes, rivers and strands, in short all the features you would expect if there were a landmass in this location. Most disturbingly the placenames also have a horrific ring of plausibility, mixing as they do Norse, Welsh and Latinate roots.

How I wish I'd never discovered the map of Sodor. The stories give us the island's economy - quarrying, mining and farming - but the map suggests a socio-cultural perspective on Sodor that I'm powerless to resist. Certainly, with its close proximity to the Isle of Man one suspects that the Sodorians (or should that be Sodormites?) will not be liberal when it comes to one's sexual orientation, while paradoxically, their adherence to a nationalised rail network suggests strong political conservatism. But all this is blown out of the water by those talking trains with humanoid faces. Had the Rev Awdry been at the hallucinogens, or was he just trying to remind us that Anglicanism is a broad gauge church?

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