A Gay Colourful Read (Tootles the Taxi and Other Rhymes, by Joyce B. Clegg)

The Beauty of Transport isn’t just here to celebrate transport’s positive impact on the built environment. That’s a big part of the job because it’s one of the main ways that transport has made the world more beautiful. But as I’ve tried (usually unsuccessfully) to explain to people, transport has seeped into wider culture arguably more than any other industry. Take a look at the number of children’s books which are about transport (including Donald Crews’ Freight Train), or the number of children’s board games in a toyshop. Yes, other industries are represented, but not anything like to the same extent. The same goes for music.

So this week’s transport beauty is a book. It’s a children’s book, and it’s the ultimate book of transport poetry. It’s Tootles the Taxi by Joyce B. Clegg (with lovely illustrations by John Kenney, who also worked on some of the Thomas the Tank Engine books). I can’t imagine a similar book about other industries, and that’s why I say that transport has a unique cultural impact.

Tootles the Taxi (from the author's collection. Ahem)
Tootles the Taxi (from the author’s collection. Ahem)

Tootles is unusual in that it covers more than just the typical train-bus axis of public transport that most children’s books/games concentrate on. Each eight-line rhyme takes a different vehicle and gives it a little story, and the subjects range from Tootles the taxi himself (itself?) to Terry the tanker, via such diverse vehicles as Biffo the bulldozer, Colin the cattle-truck, Monty the motor coach, and others.

Today’s children would probably be confused by some of the vehicles featured within, such as Timbo the trolleybus (at least until Leeds completes its New Generation Transport trolleybus scheme and reintroduces these splendid vehicles to Britain), Ronnie the railway dray, Cuthbert the coal cart, Stumbles the steam-roller, and Billy the baker’s van (eh? what? a van that delivers bread to you? Isn’t that what supermarkets are for? Just bread? Do they mean Oliver the Ocado van?). Tootles was first published in 1956, when such transport modes were common sights.

As with much children’s literature and films from decades ago, half the fun of reading Tootles these days are lines which can now be taken as absolutely outrageous double-entendres, all of which I’m sure were quite innocently written at the time, but which have since taken on some potentially additional layers of meaning that passed me by when I first read it.

That said, one of my friends is absolutely convinced that there is an intentional gay agenda running through Tootles, and theorises that public transport then (as now) was an attractive industry to gay people, and that at the time it was the only way of saying so. My friends say a lot of mad things though, so who can say for sure?

I would only point you (as my friend did to me) to the introduction, which rhapsodises the “gay colourful illustrations”, and Maurice the motor (that’s a car to you and me) who assures us that we’d, “be surprised at the things I can do…everyone says: “‘Twas such a nice ride!””. Not to mention that there’s a water cart called Willie who sprinkles water on the road (that’s more detail than we really need, thank you). As for “Ike the ice cream van / Looking so gay; / You hear my hooter / When I come your way”…I bet you do.

There are other double-entendres (be they gay or straight, I’m not sure I can really work it out), which are actually too rude to quote out of context on this blog. We do have some standards here, after all.

Confusingly, there are two quite separate versions of Tootles the Taxi available, as this website on differing versions of Ladybird books explains. Do not confuse the version we’ve been talking about with the more recent one (Audrey Lynn Bradbury, illustrated by James Hodgson, 1985) which does away with all those glorious vehicles that children today would have no hope of encountering outside a transport museum, replacing them with vehicles like helicopters. There’s no need to patronise children with modern vehicles when they can have their eyes opened to transport history! I’m going for a lie-down now…

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