Referendum Groceries

We’ve had a lot of talk about the EU referendum in the UK of late, and much of it has been pretty nasty. Occasionally, when surrounded by argument, a person has to resort to a coffee and pastry to cheer themselves up: I did, and wrote this.

I’ve made a plan for this week, for this show-down’s not for me:

The bickering and posturing between rival MPs;

Mud-slinging in the media, both social and in print:

And prejudice from journalists once thought intelligent.

 

The Leave campaign yell: “If we stay, we’ll sink into the sea

Between the cost of membership and swathes of refugees

We’ll drown in Greek-style penury and then we’ll lose our jobs

Which will probably be taken by hordes of Turkish mobs

The politicos in Brussels will take our sovereignty

And force us to adopt the single Euro currency!

We’ll have no more such nonsense! And we strongly believe

We can pay for all our hospitals by simply voting Leave!”

 

And judging by their single bit of paper through my door

The Remain campaign’s main rhetoric is similarly poor.

“If you don’t tick the Remain box on June 23

Then our entire population will attempt to flee!

For businesses won’t deal with us: there’ll probably be war

Between Britain and the rest of Europe by June 24

There’ll be no more foreign holidays to Portugal or Spain

For nobody will let us in if we don’t vote Remain

The Scots and Welsh will both devolve and be off like a shot

And we hear that even Cornwall has a devolution plot

And lastly but by no means least – who do you want in charge?

Do you really want a country led by Boris or Farage?”

 

Meanwhile, arguments fly back and forth on Facebook and on Twitter

And many sound quite personal and not a little bitter

So I’ve made a plan for this week that will keep me quite objective

And ensure that I maintain a purely rational perspective.

 

I’ll start by having breakfast, and I know just what I’ll want:

An Italian espresso and a French almond croissant

Then I’ll stroll along the pavement in my shoes that came from Spain

(With my German car as backup in case of heavy rain)

On the way to work, I may decide to make a stop

And pick up my weekly shopping at the local Polish shop

I could buy olives (which might well be Cypriot or Greek)

Or a bar of Belgian chocolate to see me through the week

If I’m feeling decadent, Dutch waffles could be an idea

And for later in the evening, a Czech or Polish beer

And perhaps I’ll buy some port (exported by the Portuguese)

Which always goes quite well with slices of Danish blue cheese.

If I get a call, I’ll answer on my Finnish mobile phone

With a tune from Mozart (Austrian) as a tasteful ringing tone

My work will be obliged to let me leave when I am through:

Since the European Working Time Directive tells them to.

Finally, I might meet up for coffee with my mates

Who hail from all around the European member states

And as Thursday dawns, I’ll sink into my Swedish-made settee

And ponder what the EU has ever done for me.

Whatever your views on the referendum, please vote on the 23rd if you’re eligible – there is some impartial information out there. I found this lecture from the University of Liverpool very informative.

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My Instagrammed Day

If Jane Austen were writing today, she might opine “it is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, that the pictures one puts on social media bear varying resemblance to what actually happens in one’s life.” That is, if she wasn’t paying the mortgage by writing inspirational memes or book 105 in the ‘Poppet, the Socially Anxious Puppy That Nobody Noticed” series.  It is something I often remind myself about, when perusing the sunlit photos of smiling children and happy parents on social media. It can often appear that everyone else is doing better than you in this weird parenthood game, and if you’re feeling a bit lacking in the Superparent (or even just Superperson) stakes, a glance at Facebook or Instagram can have you sobbing into your tea and damning yourself to parental purgatory.

“A big thumbs up from Jacob for his kale smoothie! #cleaneating #whoneedschocolate #parentwin!”  (Yours has just asked for chips for the ninth day in a row and regards anything green that isn’t cucumber in the same way they would regard radioactive waste. Then again, the poster lost you at ‘who needs chocolate’.)

“Daria wins the Swimarathon AGAIN! Just goes to show what a little perseverance can do. #proudparent #shegetsitfromhermother #swimmingsintheblood’  (Yours refused to go into the water for nine consecutive swimming lessons, the cost of which you’re still trying to block from your memory)

“Glastonbury sunrise – mojitos at 4am after a hard night’s partying. Foo Fighters were amazing! #festivallife” (This year, you will be spending Glastonbury weekend volunteering on the bouncy castle stall at the school fete and wondering what you did wrong in a previous life. You would really prefer a mojito, though you know that you will be asleep at 4am before your child wakes up an hour and a half later.)

I wouldn’t say that I never share positive things on social media, of course. The minibrioche has had some great achievements that I couldn’t resist bragging about – sorry, sharing – but I tend to stop short of photographing the report card (not least because we all know what ‘natural leadership tendencies’ really means). I share photos of sunny days, plants (being able to grow a carrot without killing it or having the squirrels get to it first is up there with passing my driving test), festivals and things that make me smile. I’m quite sure that somewhere, someone is looking forlornly at my vegetable pictures and saying ‘why can’t mine be like that?’

Of course, it’s worth acknowledging the flipsides of all the perfect images and remembering that they may only show a fraction of what actually happened (Jacob spat out the smoothie as soon as he actually tried drinking it, Daria’s photo was taken after bribing her with a tonne of candy floss that led to a meltdown from her sister, and the Glastonbury hangovers will be even worse when the tent floods tomorrow. You know what they say about ‘red sky in the morning’…) As for me, I haven’t yet photographed the shred of courgette plant that was destroyed by the #bastardslugs or the sad-looking beans that I may have poisoned through my homemade, super-organic, everything-friendly slug repellent spray (#lovenature?)

12381188-Family-of-three-at-table-eating-fresh-vegetables-Stock-Photo-healthy

A typical dinner in the brioche household. Naturally.

 

Then again, there are positives here. I liked the #100daysofhappiness challenge, where people were encouraged to share things that made them happy for a hundred days, and to appreciate the small things in life. Cynicism aside, this attitude can only be a good thing. It’s easy to forget the things that make us happy in the maelstrom of guilt and unfinished tasks that make up everyday life; and it’s important to smell the roses occasionally.

More to the point, the Instagrammed life can be embraced wholeheartedly once you accept the idea of the barefaced lie. In the spirit of these things, I’ve taken a test run on my half term experience.

The reality: it poured. Watched awful crap on TV and worried about daughter’s lack of exercise. Forgot I had agreed to look after daughter’s friend* for the afternoon. Visiting child thinks that smacking adults is hilarious. Threatened to take visiting child home after fourth smacking incident until I remembered that both parents were out for the day. Googled ‘indoor soft play’ and spent a small fortune getting both children into one that was open. Every single person in the UK clearly had the same idea. Coffee awful. Children whinged in chorus for madly overpriced ice lollies, gave in after about 3 seconds. Drove home to cries of ‘my mum’s car is much bigger than this’ after both children had fought over who sat in which identical car seat and I’d threatened to make everyone walk the six miles home. Remembered half-term homework, daughter refused to do it, had no energy to insist. Consumed more caffeine than advisable.

Not something I’d put on Facebook. Unless…

(Picture of daughter in pyjamas) ‘Having a chilled out morning with my little girl. Nothing better than snuggles on the sofa on a rainy day!” #feelingblessed

(Picture of daughter and visiting child eating ice lollies) ‘Cheeky monkeys! A quick soft play session and an ice lolly before our fun afternoon of indoor craft.** So happy that minibrioche has such wonderful friends!’#BFFs #makingmemories #feelingblessed

(Picture of daughter standing next to a bicycle. Any bicycle). ‘Poor minibrioche! Rain stopped our half term bike ride treat today – but at least we had fun!!’ #landsendtomorrow #victoriapendleton #proudmummy

(Picture of a test tube, hastily culled from a stock photo site) ‘Minibrioche fitted in a few tests on antibiotic resistance before dinner. We’re getting there!!’ #sciencegenius #proudmummy #mariecurieridesagain

(Picture of a watermelon salad, again, hastily culled from the Guardian recipe page) ‘Mmmmm – yummy dessert! Well – it is half term after all!!’ #watermelon #specialtreat #nomnomnom

Yep, I think I’m getting there.

(*disclaimer – if your child is a friend of my daughter’s, it’s almost certainly not them, and I know mine is probably worse. Incidentally, if you send her home early because you can’t stand another rendition of ‘I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves’, I’ll back you all the way.)

(**disclaimer – we didn’t do any craft. I haven’t quite worked out what ‘craft’ is, but everyone else seems to do it so figured I’d include it here)

The Doctor’s Lament

To be sung to the tune of Que Sera, Sera

When I was just a little girl

I asked my mother – what shall I be?

Can I help people when they are sick?

Here’s what she said to me.

“Join the NHS

You would be a good GP

A job and a family

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and went to school

My teacher told us in History

Aneurin Bevan changed the UK

With a new policy

Called the NHS

All medical care for free

No health inequality

1948 – it’s the NHS

 

When I was in my early teens

I asked my teacher what I should be

“I like helping people, and I like science,”

Here’s what she said to me

“Join the NHS

You’re good at Biology

Make sure you’ve a good degree

Join the NHS!”

 

When I grew up and left my home

I studied medicine at university

It cost lots of money, I studied for years,

But here’s what they said to me

“Join the NHS

People always get sick, you see

They’ll help you pay back your fees

Join the NHS!”

 

Now I’ve a doctorate of my own

Spend all my hours in A&E

I see lots of patients, day after day

And I am proud to be

In the NHS

From scrapes to neurology

We treat everyone for free

In the NHS

 

BUT…

(this verse to be sung in a minor key)

Yesterday in the House of Commons

A politician called Jeremy

Said we should treble our working day

‘Do more with less – for free:

Or the NHS

Is consigned to history

We’ll bring in a PLC!”

So we’ve gone on strike.

We’re the NHS

Not a PLC

Healthcare should be free!

Liberal Angst Will Eat Itself

Being a self-confessed woolly liberal (the Guardian quiz confirmed it) I have a lot to feel bad about. If there’s one thing us liberals are good at, it’s feeling guilty. We feel bad for our class, racial, national or educational privilege (often, all of the above). We purposely choose houses near good schools and then feel bad that we’re not ‘supporting’ the sink school in a completely different area by sending our children there instead. We hate McDonald’s from an environmental perspective, but don’t want to criticize others for seeing it as a cheap treat for the kids. We eat quinoa because it’s supposed to be healthy, and then worry about its impact on Bolivian agriculture. We check labels for supply chain transparency and worry about being an inverse snob for refusing to buy fast fashion. (Never shop with us, it takes hours).  And over the last few months, my pincushion-like conscience has been prickled once again by something I hadn’t considered in depth before – cultural appropriation, and specifically, the contents of my jewelry box.

There have been a lot of articles on cultural appropriation (the Wikipedia definition is here; I found Derek Clifton’s article helpful). Others have summed it up better than I can – perhaps, as a white person, I ought to be cautious about even trying to define cultural appropriation. Leaving that aside for a second, a quick definition of cultural appropriation might be ‘the adoption of an element of someone else’s culture by privileged (usually white) people, and trivialising that culture by doing so’. A fairly straightforward example would be the use of a Native American ‘war bonnet’ on the catwalk – turning something that has a specific meaning in Native American cultures into a dumbed-down oh-so-alternative (and expensive) accessory for the very rich. Imagine Vogue writing that Buddhist robes are ‘all the rage at New York Fashion Week’ and that Summer 2016 will be ‘all about that sexy saffron vibe’ and you might get an idea of why cultural appropriation makes people cross. Similarly, pop music is often cited – Elvis was celebrated as the ‘King of Rock-And-Roll’ for doing what many African-American musicians had been doing for years, and Miley Cyrus managed to offend everyone on pretty much every level with her infamous twerk. So far there have been no statements about Victoria Aitken’s rapping being culturally appropriative – perhaps because everyone is too busy cringing – but it opens up some interesting questions. So far, so clear cut – cultural appropriation is a Bad Thing for the woolly liberal.

rihanna-mosque-00-600x450

Rhianna uses a mosque for a fashion shoot. Not OK.

However, having read a lot of articles on cultural appropriation – and the inevitable below-the-line comments that accompanied them –  I found myself following my usual trajectory from ‘how terrible’ to ‘oh God, have I done that without realizing it? Does that make me a bad person? Help!’ Sure, I hadn’t done anything as daft as dress up as a ‘Pocahottie’ for Hallowe’en (as well as anything else, the ‘hottie’ ship has well and truly sailed) or had the Mahabharata tattooed across my backside because the writing looked pretty, but there are a lot of grey areas to think about. A lot of the music I love is made by people who have different social, national or ethnic backgrounds and experience to my own – is there a problem with my listening to K’naan when I am not myself a Somali-Canadian? I hope not.  Is there a problem with my learning flamenco if I don’t have Spanish Gitano blood? I hope not, just as I hope there wouldn’t be a problem with anyone of Spanish Gitano descent learning Irish dancing if they fancied it. However, there are even greyer bits of grey areas. I saw a slew of comments on a cultural appropriation article debating the usage of the word ‘ghetto’, a term which has become associated in the last 20 or 30 years with American – usually Afro-American or Latin American – urban culture. A quick Google of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals some deeply misogynist lyrics I won’t reproduce here, a discussion about the origins of gangsta rap, and photos of people (of all colours) in baggy shorts wearing a lot of jewelry. In the more mainstream sense it is used to describe a poor urban area, specifically in the USA, populated by an Afro-American and/or Latin American minority. However, the word ‘ghetto’ originates in 12th Century Venice and refers to an area in which Jewish people – also an oppressed minority – were forced to live. Discussions flew back and forth on whether it was really appropriate for non-Americans (my italics) to use the ‘ghetto’ term. Could a Venetian be accused of cultural appropriation by referring to an area of their city as ‘the former ghetto’? It was all too confusing.

saints bracelet And then there was my jewelry box. Being frankly too old and too skint for bling, my jewelry box wasn’t likely to be a cesspit of cultural appropriation. Then I remembered a ‘saints’ bracelet’ I’d bought from TopShop ages ago. Originally, the bracelets came from the Catholic tradition – my own – as an aid to prayer, but I’m pretty sure that TopShop (or the magnificently named ‘bling, inc’) weren’t really expecting their customer base to see it on their shelves and think “that’ll come in handy during Mass!”. Did this mean I was guilty of culturally appropriating my own culture? Did it trivialise my own culture if I, as a now- not-really-a-minority-and-at-least-middlingly-privileged sort, wore a saints’ bracelet? Would it be disrespectful to Catholics who were still oppressed, even if I wasn’t?

Ready to implode with liberal angst, I remembered a wise statement from an Indian friend who had passed a rather lovely salwar kameez on to a white British colleague. “She originally asked for it to wear on holiday in India,” she explained, “which made sense – she was wearing it in context. Then she started wearing it when she got back, which was OK if a bit impractical. But it does grate a bit when she wears it down the pub to get pissed and tell everyone who will listen how authentic she is.”

So, perhaps the shorthand for it all should be “wear stuff that you like, have some respect for the context, and don’t be a prat.” I think that’s easy enough for most of us.

A Letter to the Education Secretary

My child is not a genius. He’s fairly bright at best,

He doesn’t have attainment medals glowing from his chest,

He’s pretty well behaved – at least, I don’t hear that he’s naughty –

He’s not a music prodigy, or known for being sporty.

He’s reading not too badly, can decipher what’s on signs,

His writing’s not too scrawly if he keeps between the lines,

He doesn’t have additional needs as far as I can tell,

And up to yesterday, I thought that he was doing well.

 

But then I got the test results, and thanks to you, I’ve learned

That instead of being proud, I really ought to be concerned.

A five year old that reads and writes seemed pretty good to me –

(Even though he gets confused between the letters B and D)

But it seems he’s way behind, and the levels that he meets

Only indicate a future washing cars or sweeping streets.

His spelling should be perfect, and he should be writing prose

That echoes that of Dickens’ or Edgar Allen Poe’s

He should know abstract maths and science, engineering too,

And write in perfect cursive – which I know that I can’t do.

 

And since he can’t, say experts, then the problem lies with me:

I clearly feed him crap and let him watch too much TV

I believed it when the experts said I ought to give him space,

To let him do the things he likes and learn at his own pace,

I didn’t teach him how to read before he started school,

Because they said I’d do it wrong and he would look a fool,

I don’t know what the others did, but rest assured, I see

That my five year old’s a failure and the fault is down to me.

 

You told us in the news last night that kids need to be smart,

To concentrate on SPaG and STEM and not on books and art,

Our children should learn more and more, enjoy themselves far less,

And the best way to ensure this is by giving them more tests.

Well, Education Secretary, I guess I don’t agree

For knowledge for its own sake’s an important thing for me

I want my son to love to learn, be curious, be keen –

Not just be another product of the UK’s test machine.

 

So when my son looks scared at every piece of work he gets,

When he only reads and writes under the greatest of duress,

When his teachers are burned out and stressed with no time to inspire,

And you tell the schools they’ll close unless results keep getting higher,

When all the joy of learning’s gone and there’s no time for fun –

That’s the kind of education you’ve created for my son.

One fish, two fish…

It’s National Poetry Day and party conference season here in the UK. Which naturally brought my thoughts to verse..

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

This one reads the Morning Star,

This one does not drive a car.

Say! what a lot of fish there are!

One fish bends a journo’s ear:

“There weren’t so many here last year!

The Tories will have much to fear

Because there are so many here!

Here and there are lots of new fish:

(Hiding somewhere is a blue fish)

This fish is called Jeremy,

And few fish are as red as he.

The red fish all applaud with glee

Whenever they see Jeremy.

For he rejects austerity

Because it isn’t fair, you see.

Jeremy has a grey beard

And many blue fish think him weird.

“Jeremy!” the papers sneered,

“No proper leader has a beard!”

What will the red fish now agree,

At their meeting by the sea?

A fish steps up and takes the floor,

She’s one we haven’t met before.

Here is a chance to prove her worth

By showing how we save the earth.

(And don’t forget what this could mean

When lots of people voted Green)

Will she talk of car emissions?

Will she talk of air conditions?

“Please save the planet,” this fish begs,

“By avoiding milk and eggs!

Meat-eating is just for jokers,

And carnivores are worse than smokers!”

Oh well, they still have Jeremy –

Those cheery red fish by the sea –

Who does not like austerity

And wants to set the workers free

By making all the rich fish pay.

But will they pay up? Who can say?

Let’s say goodbye to all the new fish

And go North to see the blue fish.

Here things are a little tense,

Here they’ve built a great big fence

To keep all the protesters out

In case they might throw eggs and shout.

But here are lots of fish in blue,

And some have brought their spouses, too.

One fish gets a little hot:

“We’re not nasty – no, we’re not!

Whoever says so is a Trot!”

One outlines her policies

On migrants and on refugees:

“Of course we wish them every cheer –

We just don’t want them coming here.”

One dislikes the poor and needy:

“Frankly,most of them are greedy.

The reason that they have it rough

Is cause they don’t work hard enough!”

One proposes downing tools

And selling hospitals and schools.

(The doctors might get quite upset

But none of them are striking yet)

Oh dear! The blue fish do seem cross:

Let’s have a listen to their boss.

“We have to make the people see:

They should not vote for Jeremy!

His policies are far too weird

And most of all – he has a beard!”

Oh, what a lot of fish to see

In the North or by the sea.

Some are mad and some are glad

And some are very, very bad

Is politics a sort of fad?

I don’t know. Go ask your Dad.

(with apologies and thanks –  again –  to Theodor Giesl, aka Dr Seuss)

Totalitarianism in Thomas the Tank Engine

Simple stories of little engines on the Island of Sodor. Could there be a political subtext? Or have I just read them aloud once too often?

Few people in the English-speaking world will be unaware of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, where a fictional island based loosely on the Isle of Man is populated almost entirely by talking steam trains with human-like faces. This series, which began in 1946 as a series of whimsical tales for children written by a country vicar, has mushroomed over the years into a huge franchise that the reverend could hardly have imagined (and apparently disliked). The talking steam engine has featured in a television programme, been relocated to an Appalachian village for a Hollywood film, and been the subject of a huge spin-off series of books featuring tractors, barges and diggers. There have been studies showing that the “cheeky little tank engine” is a comforting focus for children on the autism spectrum. But as I settled down to read yet another book from the modern series to the mini-brioche, my inner academic surfaced once again, and the totalitarian subtext became disturbingly clear…

We begin with the first page of the book “Thomas” and the introduction of a concept which is prevalent throughout the series – the desire to be a Really Useful Engine (sic).

Thomas - Right-to-Buy adherent?

Thomas – Right-to-Buy adherent?

While the phraseology appears innocuous enough, a glance at the context reveals an underlying reinforcement of post-Thatcherite societal norms. Thomas surmises that only with “his very own branch line” can he be valued as making a true contribution to society – without this sense of individual ownership, Thomas feels invisible in the social structure of the Island of Sodor.  Was this subliminal propaganda for the Right To Buy policy? Perhaps.  And yet, Thomas is no oppressed hero for the masses. The property owning (or kulak) class, represented here by Gordon the Express Engine, is relentlessly mocked by Thomas without apparent provocation – or punishment from the real power, the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt in the – ostensibly – more politically correct US version). We shall examine his role in more detail later.

Furthermore, if Thomas is supposed to represent the proletariat striving to make good, we see no solidarity with the truly oppressed – the Trucks.

The Trucks - systematically oppressed

The Trucks – systematically oppressed

These anonymous figures function as a universal scapegoat, to an extent that draws chilling parallels with the Cultural Revolution.  The Trucks are rarely even mentioned without the disapproving epithet ‘Troublesome’ – an echo of Mao’s ‘class enemies’? –  and are blamed automatically for every mishap on the line. Once again, “Thomas” sets the tone here. On hearing the news that another engine has derailed and that a breakdown train is required, his first reaction is to blame the trucks – “Bother those trucks and their tricks!” This is reinforced by the ‘official’-style figure of the Driver, who states that the accident was the fault of the Trucks without seeking a fair hearing from their side. Outright victimisation of the Trucks is the norm in this series – in the later story “Gordon” , we see Edward the steam engine behaving aggressively towards the Trucks, and although their obvious distress is noted – “’Oh!’ they cried, “Whatever is happening?’” this is not only dismissed as harmless horseplay but is positively encouraged between the engines. When they attempt revolutionary activities (pushing Emily into a pond) we hear nothing of any subsequent attempts by the governing powers to find the root of the issue – we can only assume that a depressing cycle of arbitrary arrest, show trial and punishment ensues.

Gordon – kulak representative?

Yet ‘Thomas And Friends’ also casts a critical eye on the Tender Engines – sending the message that over-achievers must be cut down to size, and that total conformity must be adhered to at all costs. Gordon the Express Engine is shown as ‘a proud engine’ that is mocked by the others.

Notably, it is Gordon who is the only engine to express any degree of recognition of the trucks’ plight, albeit with a dubious moral disclaimer – “Don’t play around with the trucks, Edward. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it”. Admittedly Gordon displays snobbish behaviour in other areas – he pours scorn on engines who shunt trucks based on their position in the class system, and defends outmoded convention (again echoing the ‘Olds’ of the Cultural Revolution) by declaring that Henry should stop whistling at stations. However, Gordon’s supposed redemption by suffering the mockery of others after a humiliating accident is one which cannot withstand any degree of liberal scrutiny. Humiliation is used as a tool of the State to ensure conformity.

The Fat Controller wields absolute power on the Island of Sodor, though satellite regimes are alluded to at the Quarry (Miss Jenny) and the Mountain Pass (the Thin Controller).

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

Fat Controller / Supreme Leader

It is the Fat Controller who dispenses bounty or punishment as he sees fit; it is the Fat Controller who determines the function of each of the engines; and it is the Fat Controller who ensures that the engines maintain absolute obedience to the regime – or, as he himself puts it, “Engines on my railway do as they are told!” The ‘Thomas and Friends’ series can show the Fat Controller in the Benevolent Dictator role– sourcing ‘special Welsh coal’ for the ailing Henry, or accommodating the refugee engine Oliver – but his absolutist style of government is apparent throughout the series. His own story (“The Fat Controller”) tells of his suppression of a strike – the striking union of Tender Engines are replaced by smaller engines who pledge total obedience to the regime:

“’If I choose you, will you work hard?’ he said.

‘Oh Sir! Yes Sir!’ peeped the little green engine.”

The tender engines, meanwhile, are imprisoned and basic utilities withheld – “There was no coal for them, no washdown and they missed their passengers.” The eventual collapse of the strike, along with the subsequent “re-education” of the strikers, is achieved by humiliation and deprivation of basic rights –illustration of a state ruled by fear. The Fat Controller states again and again throughout the series that non-conformity will result in exile, at the very least – “Only Really Useful Engines can work on my railway!” We can only speculate at what form of gulag-like ‘education’ programmes might be employed for habitual dissenters.

Nowhere is the totalitarian ethic more apparent than in the stories of Jack the Front-Loader and Alfie the Excavator, two Stakhanov-like figures with a near-obsessive devotion to manual labour.

Jack and Alfie - idealised worker figures

Jack and Alfie – idealised worker figures

These propagandist tales go even further than the utilitarianism demonstrated in earlier ‘Thomas and Friends’ stories:  demonstrating to workers that work must be an ideal in itself, without reference to personal reward or to the purpose of the work done.

“Jack and Alfie were loading the dump truck, Max. Dust and dirt were flying everywhere. Work had never been such fun!”

In each story, the absolute work ethic is augmented by a theme of self-sacrifice – Alfie risks himself in a building declared unsafe by the Foreman to rescue a family of kittens, while Jack endures significant injury in holding up a damaged bridge to save Thomas. It is made clear that while his peers admire him for his heroic act, and while the State is prepared to cover his medical care, he must expect no reward or special recognition – indeed, his only reward is to stay with the Pack and be allowed to continue his labour.  Consistent with the ‘idealised worker’ model used by many totalitarian regimes, Jack is keen to be part of the collective, work as hard as possible without question for the good of the State, and provide unthinking devotion to the State’s ideals. The workers of the Pack are all shown as productive, but Jack and Alfie’s preparedness to sacrifice themselves unquestioningly for the good of the  State is presented as the ideal to which all workers must strive – even as Really Useful Engines.

So amid this propaganda, what subliminal messages are being fed to impressionable minds? Will they latch on to the Thatcherite theory of property ownership, the class struggle against the Tender engines, the systematic legalised oppression of the Trucks or the unquestioning ethic of the Pack under the totalitarian regime of the Fat Controller?

I posed this question to the mini-brioche.

After some thought, she sighed. “It’s just a story. Trains don’t actually talk in real life, you know.”

Oh well. It’s still better than Barbie.