Monday, April 6, 2009

Reverend Awdry's Revenge

A little over a week ago I suffered an injury that was as painful as it was embarrassing. I walked barefoot off a step and landed with all my weight on the pointy wooden base of a toy tree left lying about. Cue some loud bilingual cursing, mixing the short, harsh-sounding and fricative laden expletives of my adoptive tongue, with some flowery, blasphemous and occasionally filthy choice hits from the lingua a me sì tanto cara. And later a trip to the medical centre, stitching, crutches, antibiotics, the works.

I'm really going to have to repackage this unseemly incident as some sort of war wound when I eventually sit down to write my autobiography. But for now it has to go down as karmic revenge for some things I've said in the past, seeing as the offending toy (that I'm not showing here on account of its grossness) belonged to a wooden set headlined by this pair:

My nemeses

Few words could adequately describe my contempt for Thomas the Tank Engine. 'Contempt', obviously, would be one of them. But even that, and the periodical mental outbursts along the lines of 'you've got to be kidding me' that punctuated my early readings to our first-born, weren't enough to ultimately persuade my partner and I to withhold the works of the Reverend W. Awdry from said child, and now his siblings. For one thing, we are not absolutely militant in our selection of the correct set of messages with which to raise the children; for another, there is likely something more insidious in the faux multiculturalism and carefully packaged cuteness and educational content of, say, Dora the Explorer, than in the crudely reactionary parables penned by the reverend. Plus it was simply too popular amongst Joseph's peers, and he enjoyed it very much.

To give a feel for the thing, let us take a minute to examine one of the opening instalments in the literary series, which actually predates the appearance of Thomas himself. One rainy day Henry, a steam engine working on the island of Sodor, enters a tunnel and refuses to come out the other side, fearful that the rain might ruin his beautiful green coat of paint with red stripes. After unsuccessful attempts to plead with him, or pull him out with the help of a nearby engine, without so much as a ultimatum the Fat Director, owner of the local railway, orders that he be walled into the tunnel, and left there 'for always and always and always'. The story ends thusly:
They took up the old rails, built a wall in front of him, and cut a new tunnel. Now Henry can't get out, and he watches the trains rushing through the new tunnel. He is very sad because no one will ever see his lovely green paint with the red stripes again.
But I think he deserved it, don't you?

In a later story we encounter Henry still stuck in tunnel, being taunted by other engines as they pass by ('Poop! Poop! Poop! Serves you right!' bellows Gordon, worker solidarity being at a premium on Sodor) and with no steam left to answer. 'His fire had gone out,' writes Awry, possibly intimating more than he intended. Finally, Henry is let out in order to rescue another engine in trouble, and comes back a changed train, full of discipline and good will. Lesson learned, and with interests, for he's understood in the bargain how to properly look after his appearance:
He is very proud of [his new coat], as all good engines are – but he doesn't mind the rain now, because he knows that the best way to keep his paint nice is not to run into tunnels, but to ask his Driver to rub him down when the day's work over.

'The Sad Story of Henry' comes from a collection entitled The Three Railway Engines, written in 1943 and published at the end of the war. Later stories crystallised the appearance and demeanour of the steam engines, who in the main are children, as well as the figure of Fat Director or Controller, a stereotypical but by no means satirical figure of industrialist in charge of the main piece of infrastructure at Sodor. The titular hero of the modern cartoon and toy empire, Thomas, turns out to be an insufferable character with an inflated sense of self and an overriding desire to grow up to become, in the words that he often parrots from his master, 'a really useful engine', and therein is encapsulated the bludgeoning moral of conformity and compliance of the whole thing. Add some dodgy imagery surrounding the otherness of the diesel engines, or the thuggish underclass status of the goods wagons, not to mention the fact that the only females in the original set of stories are carriages who can aspire at best to be pulled, and the discomfitingly retrograde picture will be complete.

It's just as well Justine and I don't put too much stock in the powers of moral suasion of these early narratives, so long at least as you manage to mix them up with more positive or nuanced messages. That said, our determination to allow the children to grow up bilingual in an English speaking country, which meant that a good proportion of the books and most cartoons available to them would have to be in Italian, forced us to do some especially conscious selections, and naturally we gravitated - or tried to - toward stories that emphasised imagination and possibility, as opposed to instruction and the imperative to fit in and comply. In some cases, we fell back on the stories we loved as children. Justine was recently delighted for instance to find Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library still in print in the original format, and I've been similarly pleased to rediscover some of the staples of my preschool years, most of which, as it happens, were authored by some seriously militant characters. The little dog Pimpa, who animates all things with her imagination and whom our children adopted in a flash, is the creation of Marco Tullio Altan, whose satirical work in newspapers and weeklies of the Left was headlined in the same years by the legendary factory worker Cipputi.

But a dearer place in my heart will be forever occupied by the poet, short story writer and lifelong member of the Communist Party Gianni Rodari, whom I discovered - and it isn’t really a coincidence - at the same time as I learned to comprehend the power of words to create imaginary worlds and hopefully change the one we've got. Il libro degli errori (The book of mistakes) and Favole al telefono (Fairy Tales over the phone) are books that I reread nowadays with genuine pleasure that borders sometimes on the wonder and exhilaration of way back then.

And just last year I finally discovered, thanks to the extraordinary translations by Anna Sarfatti, the often overtly political but in any case always delightful works of Dr. Seuss, and what a fortunate, happy encounter it was. Lucia subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Green Eggs and Ham for weeks on end, while her current favourite is the incomparable The Sneetches.

This is really not to say very much at all, except that there is a fine tradition of militant leftist children writing and it's not something I was more than implicitly and vaguely aware of until I had children of my own. Whether these literary encounters will help lead to a set of moral values rather than another, it's doubtful, although I figure they probably won't hurt. But at the same time as I marvel at the extraordinary selection of stories that we are privileged to be able to choose from, and that is likely unprecedented in the history of both our families, I regret the loss of oral tradition, in the mould of the very many rhymes that my grandfather knew, and the few that my father could remember, but especially the well-honed ability that other parents no doubt still have, but that I am completely inept at, of improvising stories on a theme, making do for the lack of an established repertoire or simply for the joy of creating in the moment. That's probably just as well, insofar as Lucia will get extremely cross if we get so much as an adverb wrong when we recite one of her few favourite books or songs, but perhaps that too is a function of the fidelity to such sophisticated texts that we have chosen to be bound to. And that is where the whole 'freedom to imagine' narrative can become conformity of a kind.

My old wooden train from when I was a lad. No tracks required.

A railway is a fine metaphor for the divide in children’s literature between the stories that tell you what kind of child you should be, and those that suggest the kinds of person you could become: for if you’re a train, the only alternative to staying on track is to go off the rails, so it’s either conformity or all-out anarchism and likely destruction. Like in the Jethro Tull song Locomotive Breath, dating back to my childhood but that I discovered some years later, or Francesco Guccini’s coeval La locomotiva, a classic much-bellowed during our family car trips inspired by the true story of anarchist fireman Piero Rigosi, who one day in 1893 seized an engine and sent it crashing at full speed against a stationary carriage at the station of Bologna. That too was a formative text of sorts.

And of course another anarchist sympathiser was Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, but that - as he himself would most assuredly write - is a story for another day.