Really useful engines: On Thomas, workfare and worth

For reasons best known to no one, my children have got back into reading, watching and listening to Thomas the Tank Engine. As you can imagine I am devastated. I thought we were over this phase. We’d put it all behind us, weren’t going to speak of it ever again. The hateful phrase “really useful engine” was set to become a distant memory, but suddenly, out of nowhere, the old obsession has returned.

I really hate Thomas, and by that I don’t just mean the series, I mean the individual. “Thomas, he’s the cheeky one”. The cheeky one? He’s the most self-satisfied, obstructive, arrogant little prick on the whole of Sodor. Every single “adventure” involves him smugly deciding he’s going to outshine everyone else in being “really useful”. This invariably leads to some kind of major fuck up, usually involving a crash and some paint / bunting / milk churns, whereupon Thomas seizes on the opportunity to pile on the smarm in his efforts to “make amends”. God, I truly DETEST his supercilious little half-smile. Not that the other engines are that much better. The only one I like is James, except the TV series has got his accent wrong. Rather than chirpy Liverpudlian, it should be pure Leslie Phillips. He’s a rake, is James, welcome to chuff into my tunnel any time he likes *cough*.

As for the series itself, I am convinced it has got worse and worse over the past few decades, and by that I don’t just mean Ringo Starr being replaced by Michael Angelis as the TV series narrator (for a true low point in Thomas accents, I have a CD which is narrated by Pierce Brosnan). The greatest decline has been with the moral message. The early Rev Awdry books involve the engines being cheeky, vain and / or incompetent before receiving somewhat excessive punishments (such being walled up in a tunnel for not wanting to get one’s paint wet. “I think he deserved it, don’t you?” is how The Sad Story of Henry ends. And I am just the kind of liberal parenting wuss who adds “well, that’s just the narrator, Mummy doesn’t think that” every bloody time). Nowadays, though, it’s all about being part of the “really useful crew” e.g. a good, submissive economic unit who doesn’t get ideas above his or (very occasionally) her station. Years ago, we just told kids not to be naughty. Now we see fit to remind them that they’re faceless minions who mustn’t ever hope to be more than cogs in the machinery that benefits their Fat Controllers.

Iain Duncan Smith would like Sodor. It’s all very “workfare”. Every now and then one of the engines goes a bit “Cait Reilly” on everyone and needs to be smacked down with a quick reminder that we can’t all be big, shiny engines from the mainland. And Thomas is always on hand to reinforce the message by grinning proudly at the very idea of “shunting trucks and hauling freight”. Whoopee! Who wants to be like Spencer anyway? Not when you can be wheeshing along the same old tracks day in, day out. To expect anything more would be greedy.

It’s not that I think working as a Sodor engine would be all that bad (providing I didn’t have to spend my nights in Tidmouth Sheds in the vicinity of that tank engine knob). It’s not that I’m a job snob, believing myself to be “too good for this kind of stuff”, as IDS would put it. I’ve done worse things than shunt Troublesome Trucks all day. My worst job ever was clearing tables at a motorway service station, and the most terrible thing about it wasn’t the pay (£1.60 an hour) or the lack of status or the misery of having a bin liner filled with leftover truckers’ breakfasts bursting open and spilling down your leg as you tried to haul it to the bins out back. It was the boredom. It’s the most boring work I’ve ever done in my life. There was absolutely no intellectual stimulation and the fact is, in order to find jobs like that halfway bearable for hours and hours on end, you have to work pretty hard either at imagining stuff or at killing your imagination entirely. I eventually opted for the latter, which is why on the rare occasions when customers asked me the simplest of questions I’d find myself unable to answer (speaking? I’m not one of the people who’s paid to speak!). Clearing service station tables for hours on end didn’t make me a more useful person; it just made me capable only of clearing tables, something I’d been able to do anyhow.

Of course, there will always be tables and there will always be mess, thus there will always be tables that need to be cleared. But the point is, while you don’t need any form of training for it whatsoever, it’s hard work because it’s unpleasant. I am paid much more to do the job I do now, yet I’d rather do it for £1.60 an hour than go back to more “menial” work. The problem isn’t that people think they’re “too good” to do this type of work, it’s that those of us who don’t do it have swallowed the idea that we’re so much better. I find it hard to believe that I am “worth” that much more now, doing work that might be more intellectually challenging but is far more comfortable. I earn significantly more yet my earnings are, comparatively, still not that high. There’s something seriously wrong with how we reward people, and now the government is pushing the idea that some of them don’t need to be rewarded at all. They should merely be grateful for the “experience”. I think that actually, people – all people – are too good to be treated like this. How can some people be expected to work without the dignity and self-sufficiency others get from it? How can MPs use convoluted phrases such as “engage in unpaid work activity” and not feel ashamed?

I don’t want my children to grow up in a world in which people are told they’re not even worthy of employment. Jobs that used to be open to applicants straight from school are out of reach without degrees and weeks, even months, of unpaid internships. On-the-job training is considered a luxury. And now some labour is considered below even the level of “real” work and ministers delight in characterising all objections as snobbery. I honestly feel they relish the task of telling the little people, the not-quite workers, the sub-workers, that they don’t count. This isn’t even an issue of aspiration or ambition. It’s just about treating others humanely.

In Dream On, Thomas (my most hated Thomas story), Thomas learns that there’s no point in trying to be big and strong if you weren’t already “made” that way. It’s a moral flaw to even want to be more than “really useful” when there just are people who matter more. It’s a stupid lesson and I don’t want my children to learn it. I’d rather we went back to walling up foolish characters in tunnels. IDS for starters …


7 thoughts on “Really useful engines: On Thomas, workfare and worth

  1. Bless you for writing this, I am so glad I’m not the only one that hates that ‘really useful engine’ crap. Between that and getting annoyed at the fat shaming on Peppa Pig I’ve been starting to worry that I’m becoming a parody, but at least it seems I’m not doing it alone!

  2. “Can we fix it?” “Yes, we can!” was another irritant back when my son was into these shows. He was mad on those trains. Your piece made me laugh out loud. You’re so right about Thomas!

  3. I totally agree with you about everything else, but knowing about graduate labour markets is my job, so I can I just say something about the unpaid internships thing? I manage the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education for a university statistics and only about 50 out of 4000 graduates were working unpaid six months after graduation, and a good half of those were in jobs that were very clearly proper volunteering roles (eg. working on a wildlife preservation in Thailand for the WWF.) There’s a lot of stuff in the media that makes it sound like most graduates end up doing unpaid internships, but we actually know a lot about graduate destinations and there’s no evidence that they’re common outside media, heritage, some areas of not-for-profit and design, and they’re also not at all compulsory in those sectors. Students and graduates get really worried about it but they’re really very unusual. I worry that the hugely exaggerated figures that appear in the media (which are based on multiplying the answers from a small number of unrepresentative companies saying “yes, we plan to offer internships next year” – without even clarifying that they mean unpaid) are actually encouraging students to think they have to do then because they think everyone else is.

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