Are you sitting comfortably? Well, I’m going to start anyway. I’ve got things to do.
One week ago, in a land not so far from you, a girl called ‘me’ was given a surprise present by her mum– a copy of children’s book The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Released in 1930 by Platt and Monk (Penguin) this was a book that had been read to her in her own childhood by my grandmother.
It’s likely that you’re familiar with the story. I only had a vague recollection of it, though I was delighted by the present with its 30s style illustrations (mum knows I love all things from the 1930s, especially book-related). But the reason my mum had bought this book for me was its message.
Again, perhaps you already know what it is as I’ve since found out that The Little Engine is something of an institution, certainly in America. There have been animated versions. It has its own website.
There’s even a song sung by Burl Ives!
Stop fidgeting, pay attention, the story continues….
The tale involves a train that must be pulled over a mountain. The train (in most versions) contains toys and presents for children and is populated by speaking toys and animals. Large engines, elegant engines and frankly, snot-nosed snobby engines, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they refuse being too busy, too tired, and just too damn uppity. Then a little blue engine agrees to try. The plucky little engine succeeds in pulling the train up and over the steep mountain while repeating its motto: ‘I-think-I-can, I think I can, I think I can.’
What did Watty mean, big boys and girls?
Of course it’s a great old fashioned morality tale about the power of believing in yourself – basically of the triumph of optimism over defeatism – it’s about try, try and trying again. We want our children to take these messages to heart, to believe they can do anything they dream they can – that their only limitations are in their own mind. So why had my mum given me this book? Because, as adults we turn away from such simple optimism. She was trying to reinforce the message she gave me as a child, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’
Look out – here’s a bad and grumpy lady!
Why now? Because she knows I’m trying to finish my third novel and she knows how long it took me to write the first two, then to get them into print. And she knows that sometimes I feel like a tired old engine chugging up a whopping hill. How does she know? Because mums know these things, of course (and also, probably, I moan about it a lot more than I realise.)
This writing lark’s hard sometimes. You have to force yourself to sit down and write knowing no one else can finish it and make it good in the hope that one day you’ll have scratched the itch you had to tell that story and then that someone will read it and enjoy it ( and maybe even buy it!) There are days when you think ‘Who will ever want to read this drivel’ (especially if you read certain reviews!)
Yes it’s easy to approve of heart-warming stories like The Little Engine but harder to take the message on board after the age of eight! Do as I say, not as I do, right?! And if at first you don’t succeed, go drink some Merlot!
Wait! The heart-warming bit’s coming next!
A few days later, feeling defeated, I took a break from writing and popped into a gift shop in Llantrisant town. Browsing around I spotted a nice enamel bangle. Imagine my surprise when I picked it up ad read the words inscribed around the outside – ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’
I’m not particularly superstitious but I thought – hang on, is someone trying to tell me something? Like that scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey thinks life has got it in for him. He cries out for God to send him a sign as he’s driving in his car – then a highway truck with a big flashing message veers in front of him bearing the words,‘Go back. Danger ahead,’ but he’s so busy whinging he ignores it. Now I’m not saying God was speaking to me in a shop in Llantrisant….but I bought the bangle. And when I next find myself predisposed to whinging I’ll try to say, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’
So the moral of this tale is?
Well, you work it out, you’re a grown-up and I aint no Watty Piper, but probably it’s, ‘Stop whining and write something.’ And, ‘Maybe mum really does know best, even when you’re in your thirties!’
And I lived happily ever after? (Yeah, if I ever finish this bloody book….I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…)