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Interview: Christopher Awdry, author

28 August 2015

‘I haven’t travelled on a train for many years’

This is the 70th anniversary of the first book in the Thomas the Tank Engine Railway Series begun by my father, Wilbert — the Revd W. Awdry. There has been a party in London, a film première of a Thomas film for children, and a new Thomas theme park, Thomasland, opened in Edaville, near Boston, in Massachusetts, a fortnight ago. And there will be a special edition of the first Thomas the Tank Engine book.


The series all began with a little toy engine, built from bits and pieces, which my father gave to me as a Christmas present in 1942.


The model engine was of no particular type. It was made out of pieces of wood which father had lying around. We had no model railway then, and do not have one now.


Railways were an interest generated by his father, who, born in 1854, had grown up with them. It inspired an interest which had continued.


It wasn’t my own life that inspired me to write. My own books have been for adults on railway history, as well as for children. Writing was something I had wanted to do from the age of 15 or 16.


My favourite lines are the Welsh narrow-gauge railways, and my favourite engines are those of the Midland Railway. I admire the grace of their design.


I was glad when the opportunity came to continue the Railway Series, and the chance to talk to children about Thomas wherever my wife and I have been privileged to visit. That’s my proudest achievement.


Father wrote 26 in the Railway Series, and three or four other books. I wrote 16 in the Railway Series, and 20 or so others. I retained the characters, but obviously wrote in my own style, also adding characters of my own.


There were several illustrators throughout the course of the series. I only worked with the latest illustrator, Clive Spong, who retained the original style.


I thought, as a child, and think now that my father was as good a clergyman as he could have been, both then and now. Brian Sibley’s excellent biography of him was first published in 1995, and has been revised and reprinted now.


We grew up in a splendid family atmosphere. There were three children in our family: myself, Veronica, and Hilary. We lived in parishes in Birmingham and East Anglia.


My two sisters were not interested in the railways. One sister became a teacher; the other was in home economics.


My wife and I now live in retirement. My son and daughter each have two children, and my stepdaughter and her husband live near by.


We travel very little now, except to visit friends or for occasional holidays. I haven’t travelled on a train for many years. We would like the chance to revisit Canada, but I’m afraid long journeys are difficult nowadays.


Now that I can hear them again, thanks to the wonders of modern science, my favourite sounds are the sounds of the countryside: birds, the sea, and suchlike.


The last thing that made me angry was when the publishers insisted that a series which has sold 201 million copies over 70 years should be allowed to go partially out of print in its 70th-anniversary year. I’m glad that Kaye & Ward were happy for the series to continue. We presume the merchandising must be profitable, since it is continuing.


I see no reason why the series will not remain popular. Children seem to find it easy to relate to Thomas and his friends’ characteristics, and they obviously enjoy the stories. Girls seem to relate to Thomas more since the advent of the TV series in 1984.


I’m happiest when I’m relaxing at home, and spending time with our horse. No, I don’t ride: it’s a rescued racehorse. Our horse is a thoroughbred called De Welsh Wizzard — Wizzy — who is stabled near our home. All ex-racehorses need a good home in retirement.


My parents and my family have been the greatest influences on my life.


I pray most for peace in the world.


My favourite passage in the Bible is the opening of St John’s Gospel.


If I found myself locked in a church, I’d choose my wife as my companion.


Christopher Awdry was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Brian Sibley’s newly updated biography The Thomas the Tank Engine Man: The life of Reverend W. Awdry is published by LionHudson (£18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.10)). The film is Thomas and Friends: Sodor’s legend of the lost treasure.

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