Fraser’s Phrases: The Peculiar Tale Of W. Heath Robinson

See this cartoon here? It’s the work of the astonishing early 20th Century British illustrator William Heath Robinson, who specialised in drawing machinery which is made out of knotted string and candles and nailed-together wooden cogs and umbrellas and other household items. His creations are a direct precursor to most 20th Century mad professors, from his illustrations of Professor Branestawm to Wallace and Gromit to Doc Brown in Back To The Future. The strange thing is, very few people are aware of his work.

Which isn’t necessarily a cause for hand-wringing and guilt. Should you be interested in pre-steampunk steampunk – candlepunk? Stringpunk? – the drawings are there for you to wallow in and explore, and if not, well he’s no longer around to benefit from your strident critique, so it’s fine either way.

The interesting thing about Mr Heath Robinson’s fall from public awareness as an illustrator is that it corresponds with a rise in the colloquialism that bears his name.

Suppose you had a shed, in which you kept your precious lawnmower, and one day that shed started to lean away from the fence, in a manner that suggests that it will eventually fall over, possibly damaging your pride and joy, but you have no money for a new shed: what would you do?

Well you’d probably find a way to fasten some string to one corner of the shed, and then pull it across to the fence, and use the fence’s rigidity to help keep the shed upright. Meanwhile you’ve created a bit of a barrier in between the shed and the fence, so you’ll probably pull the string up and over a tree branch (there’s a tree there, obviously) to keep it out of the way when you need to get down the side of the shed to fetch, er, something that you keep down there.

Of course now the tree branch is bowing alarmingly, so you’ll need to get a big plank to prop that up. And lay down a paving slab underneath to prevent the plank from sinking into the turf. And then jam wedges under the plank to stop it from slipping, and seal the wedges into place with candle-wax. Possibly you’ll leave out the candle-wax, but you get the general idea.

The construction you have made, while effective, is preposterous. It’s been thrown together out of the bits and bobs you had lying around the house. It’s rickety and wobbly and probably won’t last through a single stormy night. It is, in short, a bit Heath Robinson. That’s what it’s called.

People use the expression a bit Heath Robinson without having the first idea whether Heath Robinson is a man, or, for that matter, a heath, or the son of a robin. It’s just become the term for a slapdash repair or homemade contraption, and not that many people know why. It just works.

In fact, as descriptive phrases go, it’s a bit Heath Robinson.

Which British phrase or expression baffles you? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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