A Double-Header* from Taddlecombe: Name first then Story
Story of the Little Red Engine
Once upon a time
you could go from Newbury to Lambourn on the railway. Real trains too – locomotives with fire-boxes and smoke-stacks and pistons – the whole boiling. They looked very smart in their GWR livery, but when the war came a Henry Ford colour-scheme was imposed: ‘any colour you like, so long as it’s black.’
What the trains said
would have sounded like the usual racket to most of us, but to Diana Ross and her little nephew John Scott, living near the line, it was a kind of bird-song: ‘chuffa chuffa chuff’, dig-a-dig-dig’, and (Johnny’s favourite) ‘Whoooeeeooo’. Surely there was a story here? One that would do particularly well on the wireless, for whose ‘Children’s Hour’ Diana was already writing. (She had a refined ear for how stories sound, and many of her tales were assembled in books like The Wild Cherry [Faber, 1942], which she illustrated herself as ‘Gri’ [one of her cats], and, for younger children, Nursery Tales [Faber, 1944], illustrated by Nancy Innes. They deserve to be brought back into print today.)
And where they went:
Mundane places like Newbury were passed over in favour of a roundabout journey through the ruminative countryside that lies around Taddlecombe junction: Dodge, Mazy, Callington Humble … and ten level-crossings (‘uur, uur, uuur’) to Dumble. That was the daily trip that featured memorably in Diana Ross’s Story of the Little Red Engine (Faber, 1945), and although that sounds like the opening of a series it was actually preceded by a 1942 volume The Little Red Engine Gets a Name. That’s where he gets up steam with an altogether more dramatic adventure (for him), being summoned to carry the King to London. Calamity had befallen the Big Green Engine, whose job it should have been. He’d hit a tree on the line (‘Boom’). Likewise the Big Black Engine who’d run into a snowdrift (‘Hooosh’). So despite Royal Doubts – ‘Is this the best you can do?’ – the Little Red Engine was hitched up to the seven first-class carriages and the ten luggage vans of the royal entourage and carried the lot to town. ‘A very fine performance,’ said the King, ‘not a moment late,’ and he settled the name of Royal Red on the Little Red Engine – although that was liable to be forgotten in the ensuing nine, sometimes rather laborious, sequels.
Colouring up the Black.
Apart from its obvious attractiveness to small children, the engine’s redness was deliberately intended to bring some cheer amid the uniform blackness of the 1942 scene, and better to enhance it Diana Ross enjoyed the collaboration of two remarkable emigré artists from Poland: Jan Lewitt and George Him, who worked together as Lewitt-Him. They were experienced graphic designers with a nice portfolio of pharmaceutical ads (‘Herbopurgol for constipation’) and photomontages (‘the Coronation of Stalin as Emperor of the Proletariat’), and while they were in Poland they had illustrated Juljan Tuwim’s Lokomotywa, one of the defining icons of the modern picture book. The book had already been translated (London: the Minerva Press, 1938), so thus practised in the matter of engines, and with another book completed for Faber ( The Football’s Revolt, 1939), what more natural than that Lewitt-Him should have the commission for Royal Red? And they did him proud: winning curvaceous graphics (look at those big, eager headlamp eyes), subtle use of offset lithography. It was a notable achievement, and when, in 1945, they were too preoccupied with other matters to illustrate the second book, they were followed by Leslie Wood who based his designs closely on their model. (A year later Wood also illustrated Ross’s racy story about flying underwear in Whoo, Whoo, the Wind Blew.)
Courage and consolation on the Branch Lines:
Royal Red was not by any means the first heroic locomotive on the tracks. The fashion was started by America’s famous tale of the Pony Engine (‘I think I can, I think I can’) whose authorship is still disputed. But Royal Red was the first namer** in the English succession, preceding the Rev. Awdry’s shed-ful of wallies by at least three years and Graham Greene’s lugubrious, and somewhat plagiaristic Little Train by four. All of them though shuffled along the accustomed metals of folktale, with their obscure and under-powered heroes triumphing over the powerful and imperious for all their Walschaert’s valve gears. And, by extension, they offer their small readers/listeners a paradigm of the rewards of hope and perseverance: ‘I’m a Main Line Engine and I’ve carried the King … Whoooeeeeeooo.’
* Two engines coupled together to pull a heavy train (as every train spotter knows…).
** ‘Namer’ was a term used by youthful trainspotters.
While this piece was being written, news came through of the death of Diana Ross, aged 89, on 4 May (see Obituary).
The main picture and those at the top of the page are taken from The Story of the Little Red Engine (André Deutsch, 0 233 99402 5, £6.99 hbk) which, together with two other Red Engine titles, has recently been reissued with illustrations re-originated from Leslie Wood’s artwork (see review in BfK No.121, March 2000).
The illustration to the left is by Lewitt-Him from the 1942 edition of The Little Red Engine Gets a Name.
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times.