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Heath Robinson

(Duckworth Overlook)

Pleasantly Pointless

In the annals of cheerfully irrelevant idiocy, there are few figures as distantly and obscurely illustrious as the illustrator William Heath Robinson, England’s half-forgotten counterpart to Rube Goldberg.

Robinson, who began his career at the turn of the 20th century and continued to draw until near the end of the Second World War, specialized in fanciful drawings of spindly, risibly impractical, jury-rigged mechanisms designed to accomplish hardly anything at all.  In this, he resembled his near-contemporary Goldberg, though Robinson’s imaginary contraptions were less complex than the American illustrator’s, if every bit as absurd. 

For example, in Robinson’s “elegant and interesting apparatus designed to overcome once and for all the difficulties of conveying green peas to the mouth,” a stuffy-looking (is there any other kind?) servant feeds a spoonful of peas into a steam boiler that deposits the peas one by one onto a rickety conveyer belt that a plump, self-satisfied (is there any other kind?) English bourgeoisie cranks, so as to deposit said legumes into his gaping mouth. 

What is this point of this mechanism – and, more to the point, of the illustration depicting this mechanism?  Well, there is none, none whatsoever and that is, in fact, the point.  The humor here, as the editor and author of the book’s introduction, Geoffrey Beare, notes, “…lies not in his strange machinery, but in his observations of ordinary people, especially those who take themselves too seriously.  The contraptions were just one way of illustrating the absurd lengths to which they would go to achieve the most trivial of ends.  He set out to deflate the pompous or the pretentious by exaggerating their folly to the point of absurdity…”

Not all of his drawings are reminiscent of Goldberg.  The Rene Magritte-like “In the Pressing Rooms of a Lemonade distillery” depicts a massive boulder, made heavier still by some lead weights positioned on its flat top, poised above a single lemon, which in turn is held in place above a barrel filled with the juice of some previously pulverized citrus.

Again, as Beare notes, the real humor is in observing the terribly serious expressions and postures of the lemonade-factory workers.  There are 12 in this illustration, some steadying the boulder, some poised to cut the cord that attaches the boulder to the winch above the doomed lemon, even one oiling the winch itself in order to ensure that the rock descends with maximum obliterative speed and power. 

Many of Robinson’s drawings gently satirize the age’s newfound faith in machinery and technology.  Why bother skating on a pond, for example, when one can simply arrange to have a man in a full diving suit, supplied with oxygen by an associate above the pond wielding bellows, trudge through the frigid waters under the pond and push you and your fellow skaters forward by means of gigantic horseshoe magnets pressed to the ice’s underside?  Whole economies are built on inventions hardly less unnecessary. 

It’s not surprising, as Beare mentions in passing, that “(t)he Second World War saddened Heath Robinson, filling him with a sense of weariness and futility…”  His reasons were likely no different than those of millions of ordinary citizens, but it’s still difficult to imagine what this gentle artist must have thought of a monomaniacal self-important regime whose mechanisms were not only infinitely more pointless than his own, but actually horrifying.  It is a pity that Robinson did not survive to see the end of the Second World War, much less the latter half of the ‘60s, when his antic English spirit and gentle contempt for conventional existence was echoed in the likes of Yellow Submarine and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

But this amusing book seems, if not exactly (or at all) relevant to contemporary culture, at least an interesting commentary on our own overly complicated civilizational arrangements.  If you’ve ever witnessed a self-satisfied young person yammering obliviously into a Bluetoothed cell phone or jabbing at a Blackberry while listening to a cranked-up Ipod and fiddling with a My Space or Facebook account on a precariously perched laptop, the blank, complacent and sated look on the faces of the people in this book will begin to look eerily familiar.  Some things never change.


Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman

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