Dear Mark and Sue
Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 16/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 29 minutes.
Wotcha Mark! Whataboutyer Sue! Hey, guess what? It's Monday! Guess what else? I got delayed again last Friday! You totally outdid yourselves, too. It was a big one, Mark; a whopper Sue! You should have seen it: it would have made your eyes water. Congratulations! I hope you're very proud.
(Of course, I was delayed again this morning, but that letter will have to wait until I've seen this one through safely. They're backing up again, Sue! We have - in the parlance of the railway announcer, congestion. We're being held at a red signal. This morning's letter is just going to have to stand in a queue of letters, whether any of us like it or not.)
Anyway, meine kleine steam enthusiasts, all of that means we're in for a big one now. A long stretch. Twenty-nine minutes is a lot of your time to waste, but I'm going to sit here and give it my best shot. I'm going to give it 110 per cent, as they say on the X Factor. One hundred and fifty per cent! Two hundred per cent! One thousand per cent! It's a big yes from me, Louis!
Pull up a La-Z-Boy, Mark! Source yerself a footstool, Sue! Send for supplies! Stock up on the Rich Tea and the Chocolate Hobnobs, gather around yourselves the means for making coffee and the apparatus through which to imbibe it! Sit up, settle down, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood and prepare for the long haul.
Okay, so here's what happened on Friday.
First of all, I got out of work early. "Back of the net!" I sang to myself. "In off the post! Linesman's ruled onside!"
I flew down the News International lift-shaft on wings of hope and joy, Mark. (Not literally, obviously. That would represent a serious breach of health and safety protocol. What I literally did was press the lift button, wait for the lift to arrive and any persons alighting on my floor to egress the lift, before slowly and safely ingressing myself into the self-same lift, waiting for the doors to close and the lift to descend to the ground floor, before allowing others to leave the lift first before patiently exiting myself. But inside I was flying, Sue! Metaphorically-speaking, I soared on wings of hope and whatever it was. Joy. Down the lift-shaft.)
I danced through St Katherine's Dock, Mark, I tra-la-la'd through the tube and emerged, starry-eyed and filled with heart-bursting gladness into the bright and beautiful Paddington evening. My train was there, Mark! It was on time! I was on time! I hopped, skipped and jumped down Platform 8 and even secured myself a seat. Sue, dude, you have no idea!
And we were off! We were the little engine that could, Mark! Steaming through the suburbs, bravely chugging towards home!
And then, at Maidenhead, we stopped. By Maidenhead Station, Sue, we sat down and stopped. For ages.
And so, like dust in the wind, my joy and hope and whatnots blew away and disappeared into the night. I didn't get home early, Mark. I didn't get to see my kids before they fell asleep. I got into Oxford late and the downward trend of the last week was confirmed in spades. In aces. In whatever other ways such things can be confirmed.
All that flying and soaring and dancing and tra-la-laing, Mark. All that hopping and skipping and jumping and seat-securing, Sue. All for nothing. Again. As usual.
It's all becoming rather disheartening again, isn't it? It's all enough to make a man begin to lose his faith. Why even the next day, as I sat on Saturday morning, at some obscenely early hour when normal (toddler-less) people are still tucked up tight dreaming dreams of better days, as I sat there with my two-year-old and read him tales of Thomas the Tank Engine, I thought to myself: I'm losing my faith in the railways.
I thought to myself: how I wish I still believed in the industry, efficiency and sheer willingness to do better that is so encapsulated in the world of Thomas and Friends. I thought to myself: how I wish I could get Percy the Green Engine, or James the Red Engine to work and back.
But I don't think I do believe anymore, Mark. I don't think I believe that you really do want to run the best railway service in the world, Sue. Do you? I mean: do you really? Do you look at those Swiss chaps, or the Japanese, the Germans, the Chinese (the Chinese, Mark! Keep an eye on those blighters - they've got plans, you just mark my words!) and think: we can make First Great Western the kind of train company that will make those foreign johnnies blush.
Do you think that they cast jealous eyes across the Channel, down the river and through the city towards London Paddington and wonder how they can emulate your achievements?
No, Mark. No, they don't. Why do you think that is? And what do you think you should be doing about it?
Well: I've got an idea. It came to me as the sun rose on Saturday morning, slumped on the sofa with a toddler pulling my ear and beating his little fists into my tummy. I'll tell you what we can do. We can all learn from Thomas. My little boy: he knows that Thomas knows the score.
Thomas the Tank Engine, Mark - it's got something to teach us about politics and struggle and the state of the world. It's as artful and subversive an apotheosis of Marxist theory as you'll read this side of your GCSE George Orwell primer. (Bear with us, Sue, this could get complicated.)
Let's look at the facts:
1. The Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hat - with his, er, top hat - is the man in charge. He is, literally, The Man. He rules the roost. He's the capitalist overlord, grown fat and arrogant on the industry and sweat of his proletariat underlings. He gives the orders, they do the work, he takes the profits and the plaudits.
2. The Steam Engines are the aspiring middle classes, betraying and bullying their prole brothers by their eagerness to please The Man: especially Thomas, the little blue turncoat, whose sole ambition in life is to be a Really Useful Engine. In order to appear so to the Fat Controller, he (and all the other engines) are ready to deceive and humiliate one another at the drop of a (top) hat.
3. The Troublesome Trucks are the rowdy working classes, the proles, feckless and lazy and always up to mischief and badness. The Fat Controller uses the Steam Engines to keep them oppressed, whipping them into submission lest they should rise up in glorious revolution and overthrow the ruling classes. Their revolutionary leanings are shown in the occasional derailing of one of the Engines. A small victory, for which they are mercilessly punished.
4. Thomas the Tank Engine is set on The Island of Sodor. Which, as you'll have spotted straight away, Sue, is an anagram of: Red Square, Moscow.*
Scary, eh? Who'd have thought it? The Reverend Wilbert Awdry - he was a sly old so-and-so, wasn't he? And here was me thinking all these long years that Thomas the Tank Engine was actually an examination of Protestant English post-colonial identity crisis! How wrong can one man be, Mark? How wrong?
* Okay, so I lied about the anagram thing. Although, intriguingly, The Island of Sodor is an anagram of Identity Crisis. (Probably.)