Monday, August 16, 2010


GRAHAM GREENE'S SECOND PICTURE BOOK The Little Red Fire Engine was published by Max Parrish in 1952 some four or five years after its composition. When the book had been written in 1947 or 1948, Greene was living in London with the book's illustrator Dorothy Glover (published as Dorothy Craigie) during the week, living with his wife Vivien and their children in Oxford on the weekends, and carrying out a passionate love affair with a married woman Catherine Walston. He worked for the publishing firm Eyre & Spottiswoode who had published his first children's book The Little Train and was scheduled to publish the second. But in the intervening years, Dorothy learned of his affair with Catherine, which led to a prolonged, painful end to their relationship (that included Dorothy once hiding all of his pants to prevent him from leaving the house to see Catherine, or even more dramatically, burning him with a cigarette), and Greene had a falling out with Eyre & Spottiswoode's co-director Doublas Jarrold, causing him to take The Little Red Fire Engine elsewhere. He also became one of the biggest English authors in the world with the runaway success of his novel The Heart of the Matter, a story of a married man tormented with guilt over his affair with another woman. And with all of that in the background, Greene and Glover created this book.

"HERE IS SAM TROLLEY, the fireman of Little Snoreing..."

"Here is the little fire engine."

"Here is the pony who pulled the little fire engine. His name is Toby."

Toby was born on Farmer Coote's farm, which is located between Little Snoreing and the market town of Much Snoreing. The mayor of Much Snoreing has it in for Sam and the little fire engine, because he feels that Sam doesn't pay him the right amount of respect. So he writes to the Lord Mayor of London:

"'Send us a real motor fire engine to Much Snoreing,' he wrote, 'and we'll put out all the fires in Little Snoreing too.'"

The Lord Mayor of London complies. So on the eve of Fire Brigade Day, the day when Sam and Toby and the little fire engine parade the streets collecting money for the Firemen's Orphanage, Sam receives a note: "You and the little fire engine which is out of date will not be wanted anymore..."

The new fire engine with its five professional firemen arrive and are celebrated on Fire Brigade Day while Sam tries to figure out what he is going to do with his life now that he is out of work. He considers returning to the sea, his original calling, but he feels a responsibility to Toby and the little fire engine. He decides he will become a peddler.

They travel the countryside through the summer, Toby suffering hay fever and the little fire engine nostalgic for fires of the past.  Autumn comes:

Then winter: "Winter in the old days meant warm fires--fires to sit by and sometimes fires to put out. Now...Old Sam Trolley suffered badly from rheumatism...The little fire engine suffered badly from rust...Toby suffered from boredom."

As if this weren't enough, the new firemen go out of their way to ridicule the former fire team.

This final insult causes Toby to kick his way out of the stable and return to Farmer Coote's farm, where he was born.

New Year's night arrives. A huge party is held at the new firehouse in Much Snoreing. Everyone attends but Sam.

A fire breaks out in Farmer Coote's farm. Toby awakes to the smell of smoke and automatically goes into his training. He breaks out of the stable and runs to fetch Sam and the little fire engine. The old fire team rushes to the farm. "Farmer Coote heard the beat of hoofs coming down the road. 'We are saved,' he cried."

In light of their disgrace, the new firemen and their engine return to London. The mayor of Much Snoreing loses his post. And Sam, Toby, and the little fire engine are reinstated in a brand new firehouse.

AFTER DOROTHY GLOVER'S DEATH, all four of Greene's picture books were reissued with new illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

If there was any question about the motive for reprinting these books, Greene makes it clear by rewriting the opening of The Little Fire Engine:

Still, Ardizzone was a master.

Background material for this post comes from Norman Sherry's three-volume biography of Graham Greene (Volume Two in particular) and Brian Alderson's article The Four (Or Five?... Or Six?... Or Seven?...) Children's Books of Graham Greene, which appeared in the December 2005 issue of Children's Literature in Education.

For my post on Graham Greene's first picture book see: The Little Train.

Coming Soon: Graham Greene's Little Horse Bus

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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