Thursday, October 8, 2009

Baby, You Can Drive My Car - But Carefully, Please!

In 1939, with the world on the brink and Great Britain on the brinkest, spirits were lifted, if only for stolen moments, by a book that gently satirized automobile drivers.

How To Be a Motorist was illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, an extremely talented book illustrator primarily remembered today for his Rube Goldberg-esque designs for bizarre machinery and wacky inventions.

“This handy, decorative, valuable, and uncostly volume... is dedicated in admiring sympathy to that badgered but unconquerable little creature, the British motorist, or Fate's football. In England nowadays it is practically impossible to be both law abiding and a car owner; try as the latter may to keep abreast of the regulations, new ones pop up at the rate of six a week to confound and abash him” (from the Introduction).

“In 1936, the year after the publication of Railway Ribaldry Heath Robinson collaborated with [novelist and screenwriter] Kenneth R.G. Browne on a little book. How to Live in a Flat. This was followed by How to be a Perfect Husband, How to Make a Garden Grow and How to be a Motorist, all with the same author. These books were most successful and it was a happy partnership as author and artist planned the books together from the very beginning. Browne obviously knew something about artists for he was the son of the illustrator Gordon Browne, and the grandson of the Dickens illustrator Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)” (Lewis, Heath Robinson, p. 181).

It’s a charming book, as all Heath Robinson-illustrated books are but I was unaware of this particular title until stumbling across a delightful site, A New Look at Old Books, curated by one thusfar known only as “Between the Lines.”
Every Sunday evening, Between the Lines takes an old book and looks at what makes it special. There's a lot more to books than the text, so along the way he discusses the illustrations, the bindings, the fascinating stories behind the books and much more. What makes a book collectable? Why does it cost so little, or so much? Who made it, and when, and how, and why?

What is most impressive about the site, however, is its design, which is that of an open book, with an article on the verso leaf and accompanying illustrations to the recto.

Between the Lines’ article about this book, Driven Mad; Or, The Modern Motorist, is Number 29 out of thirty-five in the site’s library/archive. He writes well, the books he writes about are out of the ordinary, curious, or just plain weird, and the articles often contain golden nuggets: Left-leaning readers may find comfort in his most recent piece, in which I learned that, in Britain, Tory, the classic name for a member of the Conservative Party, was an old Irish word that meant bandit.

Browne, K.R.G., and Heath Robinson. How To Be a Motorist. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1939. 116 pp., illustrated throughout with black and white line drawings. Red cloth, blocked in black. Decorative end papers.

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