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Heath Robinson’s Great War

Mike Webb & Geoffrey Beare
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3 Mushroom Heads
‘Eccentrically-constructed airport without terminal rejects third of drones (5-8)

Daily Telegraph ‘Toughie’ crossword, 17 September 2015 (pity about the hyphen)

A piece of practical work rather badly finished and held together with string and chewing gum is sometimes described as ‘a bit Heath Robinson’. The Bodleian Library here offers, in one volume, reprints of three books of cartoons produced by William Heath Robinson in 1915, 1916 and 1917. This book, presented by Mike Webb of the Bodleian and introduced, with a brief biography of WHR, by Geoffrey Beare of the William Heath Robinson Trust, shows you why.

The thrust each time is about being totally ridiculous, often by means of a typical ‘Heath Robinson’ contraption of bizarre design. The pickelhaube hat is often key to the plot. The essentially escapist humour, depicting the Germans as reasonable, civilised, delicate and humane when everybody knew they were just the opposite, was well received at the time. The actual message is of utter, crashing contempt.

Each cartoon is partnered on the facing page by a satirical silhouette. Both styles show what a consummate draughtsman the artist was. Skimming through his cartoons is wrong; there can be tiny bits of enchanting detail, too easy to pass over. This is a book to go back to, and dip into - there will always be some subtlety you missed.

WHR, born in 1872, died in 1944. He had been performing the same service in the second German war; one of my treasured possessions, purchased with a prize book token when I was about eight and long disposed of (which I now regret), was his 1940 ‘How to Make the Best of Things’ in a world of blackout, rationing and so forth. If the Bodleian move forward to repeat this exercise for the Second World War I, and I am sure others, will be much pleased.
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