Saturday, 23 January 2010

Zach Dundas: The Dark & Disturbing World of Thomas the Train

The Dark & Disturbing World of Thomas the Train

Image via Wikipedia
By virtue of nursing a sick two-year-old, I am spending much of my day in the strange universe of Thomas the Tank Engine. This realm appears to consist solely of a quasi-British island known as Sodor (and, as I learn from the indefatigable Wikipedia, derives from a defunct Norse kingdom, no less) and its intricate, sentient railway system. And—let me tell you—Sodor is a sobering place.

Ask just about anyone with kids: Thomas is huge. Kids love Thomas; they devour the vast array of toys, books, movies and other paraphernalia spun off from the original work of the Rev. W. V. Awdry; if my kid is any indication, elaborate fantasy games featuring the little blue engine and his clan of steam-powered accomplices account for a large percentage of pre-K America’s imaginative labor. Narrating the televisual Thomas also seems to carry some cool-factor prestige. The mini-episodes we pull off our cable’s on-demand service feature the vocal stylings of the late George Carlin and the ever-looming Alec Baldwin.

What I don’t understand, as I sit here typing these words and watching the one where Thomas accidentally ingests a bunch of fish and suffers indigestion, is why.

The world of Thomas is dark and somewhat atavistic. The talking trains of Sodor provide transit for a faceless and nameless human population that appears to subsist in some kind of pre-War economy of small trades and manual farm labor with minor sidelines in mining and shipping. These people inhabit small villages and isolated rural hamlets; otherwise, Sodor seems largely empty, a land of lonely horizons, abandoned castles and dangerous viaducts. In some twisted realization of a mass-transit advocate’s dream, these peasants, proletarians and shopkeepers seem completely dependent on the railroad. Individual Sodorites (Sodorians?) seldom distinguish themselves among the herds of passengers—frequently dissatisfied with the level of service—who await Thomas and his comrades on station platforms. The anonymous and interchangeable drivers and workmen who labor alongside the trains epitomize the breed. In fact, Sodor looks to have achieved a uniformity of class and social condition that the German Democratic Republic would envy—with one notable exception.

That exception is Sir Topham Hatt. Jowly, dressed in sinister undertaker’s garb, stentorian and bullying, this Topham Hatt commands the railroads. Thus, he rules all of Sodor as a kind of industrial-feudal dominion. (I have recently learned that Topham Hatt also answers to the icy Orwellian sobriquet “The Fat Controller.”) In the absence of any visible outside governmental structure or other check on his power, the neutral observer must conclude that Topham Hatt is a Cheney-like law unto himself. Certainly, he wields unchecked authority over Thomas and the other trains, enforcing a capricious discipline through verbal abuse, “shunning” and arbitrary changes in work assignment pour encourager les autres.

The thinking of Marx and Engels has not yet reached Sodor, and the trains respond to Topham Hatt’s ironfisted rule in a predictable way: They turn on one another. Indeed, the roundhouse at Sodor’s main trainyard is a festering snakepit of jealousy, backbiting, gossip and one-upmanship. Thomas is forever sniping at Gordon. Gordon is a pretentious old bore. Percy and Thomas are classic “frenemies,” always on the lookout for any loss of face or transgression against the peer-enforced standards of the yard.

A grim scene. To make matters worse, the steam engines live in perpetual fear of technological obsolescence at the hands of the diesel engines, which Topham Hatt uses as a largely off-stage threat to enforce obedience. When diesels do appear, they are invariably portrayed as narcissistic sociopaths with Leninist delusions. (“We diesels know everything. We come to a yard and make it better. We are revolutionary.”) One little Thomas-brand book in our possession, Diesel 10 Means Trouble, has such a nasty edge to it that the wife and I have to expurgate our readings.

The redeeming factor here is that my kid doesn’t seem to notice any of this. Good thing, too, because his Thomas obsession recently went into overdrive. We used to temper his Thomas consumption with liberal doses of the jolly Bob the Builder series, which chronicles the exploits of a group of cheerful eco-constructivists engaged in a cooperative, low-impact takeover of a place called Sunflower Valley. Bob and the gang are forever throwing up solar-powered sunflower oil factories and yurts and chanting “Can we build it! Yes we can!” While these Bob-based affirmations remain in heavy rotation in our household, lately Thomas’s downbeat affairs have assumed much more prominence.

Is this, I ask, any way to run a railroad?

Source: (23.01.10)

Toughguy Napier

Old "Bogtrotter" Napier, General Charles James Napier to his mother, was a hardcase and probably one of Imperial Britain's most effective Generals. He had some views on social relations which may seem peculiar to us today (US citizens excluded) but which were quite mainstram in contemporary Britain. Here are some memorable quotes:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

"The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed"

"the human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear"

"Come here instantly. Come here at once and make your submission, or I will in a week tear you from the midst of your village and hang you"

And the best/worst thing; he always followed through.

Aber Bogtrotter hatte doch Humor. After conquering the province of Sindh in present day Pakistan, he sent a one letter telegram home to Blighty; "Peccavi"

The Catholic confession of sin in Latin meaning "I have Sinned"...

Source: (23.01.10)

He is my brother, my best friend forever

I usually do not watch any Idol shows except in order to find cases like this. I love the guy. This might be the coolest Asian guy I have ever seen on television. He is, in essence, psychologically constructive. Let the Asian brother brighten your day:

Harmonica and beatboxing

I saw a short excerpt from "So you think you can dance" today. The dancing was not much, but I really liked the music. Some girl performed a jerky dance to the sound of combined harmonica and beatboxing. Check it out below

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Mr Bob Carpenter

This afternoon I will have a visit from Mr Bob Carpenter. He is similar to his vocational brother the builder in every respect except for his slogan, which in Carpenter's case is: "can we fix it!? Yes, we can, although it will cost you". Never really went down particularly well with any children's hour audiences. But I digress.

He is to build a new ceiling in my living room. This is to cover the naste blue tubes his incompetent plumber chum hung from the bathroom to the kitchen beneath my present ceiling. I thought this would be covered by the cost of the bathroom (a whooping great pile of cash) but it seems it wasn't.

Following the bathroom affair, we spent almost half an hour with Mr Carpenter in awkward silence whereupon he guaranteed that "we would agree on a price" for the roof.

I only hope we won't have to do so before a district attorney.

We'll see this afternoon.

Childhood Obesity

I just met some of the students from last year's nannyclass. It would seem the growth aspect of puberty had come to an abrupt end months before the poor students realized they could not eat three garbage cans of junk and smoke a pack a day without putting on some pounds. Some of these pounds had seemed to manifest themselves solely in acne as well.

The result was a lecture in books, covers and the validity of each as basis for judgement.

Although the person within was still the same unmotivated, spoilt but entertaining in its own way tanning cream catastrophe, the exterior had been renovated in an unmistakably baroque style. I hope for their sake that they actually absorb some of their curriculum and take a more performatively experimental approach to it. It would improve their health and probably also state of mind as well as diminish one of the counts of indictment against western civilisation.

Where's Waldo

Everyone knows Waldo, so today I tried a time tested approach to adjectives with Zapperclass with great success. Using a scan from a Where's Waldo book I asked each student to pick a person in the painting and describe it to two of his friends. If any of these picked the right person they got to exercise their descriptive powers next. The conversation went something like this:

Zapperkid 1: Ok, my man is blue. He looks angry and has a saucer in his hand. He is wearing a yellow and black sweater.

Zapperkid 2: Yes, I can see him now it is the third guy on the right, the one beneath the table.

And so, in addition to working with adjectives, they got a small taste of prepositions as well.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


I went squashing on Sunday with Lady B and Sir Bob Niceandeasy. Originally Lady B was going to join us both, we'd just take it in turn playing against each other. However, following the purchase of some rather tight high waist trousers, Lady B has become rather self conscious with regard to the dimensions of her lovely backside. Thus, she chose to molest one of those horrid treadmills which makes you seasick instead, leaving me and Sir Bob to it as it were.

Previously, I and Lady B had practiced for several sessions, and I had had my ass handed to me repeatedly in this capacity. However, to family and friends I have consistently claimed to have won with the counterproductive effect that no one really trusts my representation of the outcome of such battles. Imagine my despair, then, when I went on to beat Sir Bob 5 games to 1 (bearing in mind that the blighter was Lady B's Nestor and revered idol of le monde de squash)!

Sir Bob, having put up stiff resistance and showed admittedly superior skill, found diving for the ball less appealing and indeed physically defensible than I did, high as I was on adrenaline and fear of losing. In a nerve racking final set we went head to head, although not literally, at 10-10. I succeeded in placing two sneaky, hard ones above the lower line, the kind of strikes that makes enemies. However, Sir Bob, being of a humorous and easy-going nature took his loss with a smile and was seemingly more than happy to escape the wretched den.

Despite threatening to denounce my claim to fame as fraudulent, he, as the sportsman he is, lamented his loss to an incredulous Lady B. However, it seems to be untrue that sportsmen get all the girls; the evening was spent showing off with Lady B preferring to retreat into the world of three prostitutes and their mom in New York (that is, the infamous HBO product "Gaining carnal knowledge in the urban areas")