The wrong kind of prose on the line

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A long time ago I was asked to contribute to a collection of pieces which came out in book form as The Bad Book Guide, or A Bad Read, or something like that - anyway, we were all asked to nominate a book that we hated, and to say why.

I think I was the only one rash enough to choose a book by a living author, Lady Antonia Fraser, and she hasn't spoken to me since. I don't think she had spoken to me before, so it didn't really change my life a great deal, except that I have never read another book of hers, which represents a certain saving of time over the years.

The book I chose to denigrate was a retelling for children of tales about King Arthur. One day I started reading my children the Fraser version of Arthur, which someone had lent us. Almost immediately there were cries of protest from the audience, on the grounds that they couldn't understand what was being said.

And they were quite right. The style adopted by Fraser was so arch, so archaic, so full of mock-medieval phrases, couched in a sort of National Trust cut-out kit language, that it was near incomprehensible. I can't remember now if she actually said "prithee" and "sirrah" all the time, but that was the effect.

The only way we ever got through the book was by my deciding to rephrase everything, as I read it, in real English, thus preserving the story and destroying the fancy dress it had been dolled up in. It was extremely hard work instantly translating Lady Antonia Fraser into proper English, but probably worth it in the long run. And if I were asked again to nominate a bad book, it would still be high up my list.

But it wouldn't be top of my list any more. Top of my list would be the Thomas the Tank Engine books.

People are not afraid to criticise the Rev W Awdry these days. Only yesterday Thomas Sutcliffe, in this paper, was bemoaning the crude Old Testament ethics that mar the Thomas the Tank Engine books, which I think is true, and true of the Old Testament, too, come to that.

But I would take a different tack. I would say they are badly and lazily written. And I am not saying this as a literary critic or an expert on children's literature - I am saying this as a parent who has found himself reading the Thomas books out loud to a child and often come close to throwing one across the room in frustration.

Because once you get past the initial charm of the setting and the engines with faces, and even when you realise that Percy and Thomas and Gordon all have the mental maturity of nine-year-old kids, you still have to face up to the fact that Awdry was a slapdash writer.

He recycled plots endlessly, for instance. How often do we get the one about the naughty coaches or trucks playing a trick on an unwary engine, or the one about the engine going too fast and causing an accident, or the one about the stray animal on the line? I have quite frequently drawn up short while reading a Thomas story, saying: "Hold on - we've read this before!" But we hadn't. It was just that Awdry had written the plot before, in another book.

I also found it infinitely depressing the way Awdry tried to vary "said Thomas" by writing "chuckled Thomas" or "sighed Thomas". I found it depressing the way the writing did not always match the pictures. "If it says: 'chuckled Thomas'," my son Adam would say, "why is the picture of Thomas making him frown?"

"Because," I would chuckle, "whoever was doing the pictures didn't consult whoever did the writing. And if it was the same bloke who did both, it makes you wonder."

I got so fed up with Thomas the Tank Engine eventually that I invented an engine of my own and told Adam stories about him. I called him Oscar the White Engine. I chose the name Oscar because I thought it was the kind of name that the Rev W Awdry would deeply disapprove of for an engine.

My son took to Oscar immediately and has not asked for a Thomas story since - indeed, we have turned it into a sort of interactive story-telling occasion, as Adam usually dictates the title of the story ("Tell me one called Oscar and the Pirates" or "Can we have Oscar Meets a Ghost?") and throws in lots of suggestions as we go along ("I don't want any of the pirates to be hurt"), which means that we have a lot of plot twists and we get a lot of characters in the Oscar stories who are not usually found on steam branch lines. I think the last guest character we had on board Oscar was Spiderman ...

Yes, that's my kind of branch line.

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