Off the tourist track: Fantastic Machines

Sunday, November 19, 2017

It’s been a busy time here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters aboard the Lucky Nickel. For the last month I’ve been doing some quite extensive interior renovations on the boat, which has taken up 99.4% of my time and energy. I’m quite pleased with how it’s all going, and will unveil the results in a post soon. However, even the most committed renovator (and I am certainly not the most committed renovator) needs a day off every once in a while, especially when living in the same 200 square foot space one is renovating (the logistics… oy!). So I was very pleased to take up an invitation from my friend Piran who’s a regular blog reader and a Jedi Master in the field of Quirky London Things To Do. When Piran invited me out to see a mysterious, recently opened “cog and gear (kinda) museum", followed by more fantastical machines at another mystery location, I happily hung up my tape measure and blew the sawdust out of my hair to meet him at Pinner Station, not sure of what to expect but primed for a Grand Day Out.

It was a short walk from the station to a nearby park, where all was soon revealed:

I think I may have done an involuntary “happy clap hands” sort of gesture when I saw this sign.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live will remember a short entry in our humble glossary on the Heath Robinson Device:
"Heath Robinson Device = Rube Goldberg device.  An absurdly complicated and overdesigned machine to achieve a simple result, named after the British cartoonist.  I imagine these to involve lots of old boots on the end of levers knocking over buckets of water... that kind of thing.  And I love that they have a whole different guy for that over here. (Except that I keep mistaking myself and saying "Heath Ledger Device" which is not right at all.)”

And of course I was entirely right. Heath Robinson was an illustrator and cartoonist born in 1872 in London (Finsbury Park). As I said in the glossary, he’s best know for his drawings of absurdly complicated devices designed to achieve simple tasks. They generally involve a lot of pulleys and bits of knotted string, and are surrounded by chubby bald men in overalls who tend the machines with great solemnity. There are, however, two things I didn’t realise about Heath Robinson. First, I didn’t know that aside from his best-known black-and-white cartoons, Robinson was a talented illustrator and a trained artist. And second, for some reason I sort of thought there would be actual machines, which in retrospect is a bit stupid. Because if you spend approximately one nanosecond properly contemplating any of Heath Robinson’s fantastic machines it becomes apparent they were never meant to leave the page.

Tooth Tester
Not entirely practical Tooth Testing Machine. Ingenious, overly complicated and makeshift - the hallmarks of a Heath Robinson Device

The Heath Robinson Museum (great logo!) is tiny, and it’s in Pinner because Robinson lived in a house on nearby Moss Lane. And, despite my assertion that it’s not really possible to build any of his devices, there is actually a fairly impressive Heath Robinson Device on display at the museum.

Piran contemplating the Ribbon Cutting Machine, which definitely fulfills all three of my above criteria, and was built by members of the Heath Robinson Club at St. Helen’s Girls School. (Why did my school not have a Heath Robinson Club? Come to think of it, why doesn't every school have a Heath Robinson Club? Imagine how much mayhem could be avoided if kids spent more of their time devising ways of making a cup of tea using a water balloon, a clothes peg, an empty yogurt pot, 50 popsicle sticks, a rubber band and a half mile of knotted string.)

This device not only cut the ribbon for the official opening of the museum in 2016 (eventually, with a guillotine-like blade on the right) it also moved the hands of a large clock and (sort of) played the Harry Potter theme tune. Or at least that was the idea. As anyone who has played Mousetrap will know, you almost always need a helping hand to get things moving somewhere along the way. One of the volunteers at the museum demonstrated the machine for us, and had to employ a few judicious nudges to keep things moving, as was the case during the official Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, depicted here.

But back to Heath Robinson. The museum is small, and displays examples of Heath Robinson’s work on the walls of one room, arranged in chronological order working through his time as an illustrator of children’s books and moving on to his very popular First World War cartoons. These mostly depict the Germans employing dastardly but absurd means of attack, and illustrate the sort of gentle satire that typifies Heath Robinson’s work. As Robert Endeacott said, "He took a stand against war by taking the piss out of Germany's horrendous war machinery"

Laughing Gas
"Huns Using Laughing Gas to Disable British Troops before an Attack"

It was during WWI that Robinson started drawing the outlandish machines that would literally make his name an entry in the dictionary. Generally poking fun at modern living, his plans for a wart removing chair, pancake flipping machine and potato peeler led on to the first in a series of “How To” books, entitled “How to Live in a Flat”. As more and more people began moving into less and less space, Robinson (as illustrator) and K. R. G. Browne (as author), presented an utterly engaging handbook for life in tiny spaces. No wonder then, that as a tiny-space-dweller myself, I snapped up my very own copy in the museum gift shop and devoured most of it on the tube ride home later that night.

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A sample of Browne’s sparkling prose.

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Robinson’s combination Dining Room Bedroom, the Dibedroom. Perhaps I should consider this handy device while I’m doing renovations! (Actually, this is not so crazy...)

After a thorough examination of the permanent collection, a spin through the temporary exhibit about illustrations for the children’s classic “The Water Babies”, and a polite ransacking of the gift shop, Piran and I retired to a nearby cafe for lunch before the long trek into the centre of town for Grand Day Out, Part Two. In fact, it turned out the Part Two was a time-sensitive event, so Piran deftly directed us through an impromptu interval at Somerset House that involved an engaging video installation, and then through a very large exhibit over many many floors of an empty building on The Strand that would take a whole other blog to talk about, so let’s skip lightly over that, pausing briefly for a nice bowl of noodles, and fast forward to the next instalment of fantastic machines.

Oooooohhhh… this is going to be good!

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will remember I once visited a tiny seaside town called Southwold and encountered the fantastic Under the Pier show of wacky coin-operated machines. Novelty Automation is the London outpost of the Southwold show. Unlike the usual coin-operated arcade machine like the claw-grabber, novelty automation machines have their mechanical tongues planted firmly in their greasy little cheeks, which made this visit a perfect companion to the Heath Robinson Museum, both being sort off-beat but warm-hearted mechanical offerings. Sometimes clunky, always home-made, and an utterly engaging antidote to our current slick digital existences

The Novelty Automation arcade is open every day, but only opens in the evenings once a month, so timing for the visit was crucial. (In the evening events they serve beer!) We arrived not long after opening and invested in a couple of drinks and a handful of tokens and then hit the machines.

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Here's me having a mini vacation, which involved sitting in an armchair while a video screen in front of me displayed a fast-forwarded trip through an airport, flight, hair-raising hotel transfer, 5 seconds of beach time and then the reverse journey, while the chair bumped and rocked along with the video.

Fantastically, most of the machines there were invented and built by one guy, who was there in the shop that night. Tim Hunkin is an engineer and cartoonist who's probably best known for drawing a long-running series in the Observer called "The Rudiments of Wisdom".  It wasn't until I started looking into Tim Hunkin to write this post that I realised how perfect the link was between our afternoon trip to see classic cartoons of fantastic machines and the evening visit to see fantastic machines made manifest by a cartooning engineer. Well played, Piran!

Many of Tim Hunkin's machine's had a familiarly wry bit of social commentary served up alongside the fun. For instance, "Pet or Meat" depicts a tiny papier mache family and a little lamb, and a spinning needle determines whether the lambs is... well you get the idea. And appropriately for London, there was a money-laundering game involving high-rise real estate.

Piran played one that had him flying a "drone" camera around a model mansion snapping candid pics of celebrities that then appeared on a video tabloid front page. (The drone actually reminded me of the old Verti-bird toys from the 70s!) 

Along with the wry social commentary, there were some games that were just fun, and almost all had an unexpected twist.

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This one required you to hold onto the handle for as long as possible while the vicious dog snorts and pants and dribbles spit on your hand. It's more fun than it sounds like, really.

One of the more clever machines was called i-Zombie. After placing your phone in the designated spot on the machine, you're confronted with a never-ended parade of tiny phone zombie characters endlessly advancing towards you (very clever use of the classic "Pepper's Ghost" effect). Handles allow you to move your mechanical avatar back and forth to avoid them, but eventually they speed up too much and run you over. Once you're run over and the game is done you reach down to recover your phone only to discover it's gone! I was seriously taken in by this, genuinely thinking someone had nicked my phone while I'd been totally engaged in dodging plastic zombies. Then the machine informed me I'd been judged to be an i-Zombie and it had confiscated my phone for three hours! It was just the kind of unexpected twist that typified the machines at Novelty Animation. And equally typically, the machine gave me an out and produced my phone after I'd admitted to my addiction.

I could go on and on - the photo booth whose seat lurched unexpectedly as the shot was taken to capture your expression of shock, the personal nuclear reactor that dispensed a little boiled sweet as a prize for successfully containing all the spent fuel in the reactor, the Cycle Pong game that made you ride an exercise bike forwards and backwards to move your pong paddle up and down on the screen. I was complete rubbish at this, though I did get pretty good at safely storing the spent nuclear fuel, (which I think is a far more important skill, plus I got a candy.)

By the time we'd had a couple of drinks and tried all the machines we were some of the last people to leave the shop. I was utterly charmed by the place, and though it had been long, the whole experience really had been a Grand Day Out which is actually very appropriate, since Wallace and Gromit certainly belong in Endearing and Eccentric Inventor's Club, alongside Heath Robinson and Tim Hunkin. All that, and we still had time for a quick pint. Perfect.

Remember remember the 5th of November

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Remember remember the fifth of November,
the gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”
Halloween has mostly caught on over here, though it’s not really an English tradition. Halloween is an import from America, like McDonald’s instead of Wimpy’s. These days it's common to see people dress up in Halloween costumes and have parties and you even get the occasional trick-or-treater. But the truly English autumnal festival is Guy Fawkes day, now generally called Bonfire Night. I’ve been here for for seven years now and finally this year, for the first time, I managed to take part in a proper bonfire for the occasion.

First, for less-astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers, a primer on the eponymous character. Guy Fawkes was part of a group of English Catholics who planned the famous Gunpowder Plot, a plan was to blow up the House of Lords on the opening of parliament on November 5, 1605, thus killing the king and paving the way for the installation of a Catholic head of state. Led by Robert Catesby, the scheme involved placing 36 barrels of gunpowder in an underground cellar below parliament. Because of his military experience, Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the explosives, which left him guarding the barrels. However, the entire plot was discovered through an anonymous letter and Fawkes was found during the resulting search of the parliament buildings. Interestingly, the Houses of Parliament are still searched once each year to make sure no modern-day Fawkesian miscreants are hiding in the cellars. Yeomen of the Guard conduct the largely ceremonial search before the State Opening of Parliament. (One can only assume that there are also more frequent and diligent searches conducted with slightly more rigour and less silly looking outfits.)

How nefarious he looks! He's also the inspiration for the Guy Fawkes mask, popularised by the movie "V for Vendetta" and those hacktivists at Anonymous.

Guy Fawkes (and any conspirators who fled and survived a later battle) were put on trial, convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. With anti-Catholic sentiment running high, and to celebrate the foiling of the plot, parliament declared a public holiday on Nov. 5 by passing the catchily named “Observance of 5th of November Act” (see what you can do with that one, Hallmark!).

As you might guess from their origins, the celebrations historically had a strong anti-Catholic tone, with Fawkes becoming a bogeyman and a pretext for Catholic repression for hundreds of years. Thankfully, that’s mostly gone now. In modern tradition, the 5th of November is commemorated with a bonfire and culminates in a fireworks display, apparently to reference the “fireworks” that failed to destroy Parliament. Effigies of Guy Fawkes - complete with pilgrim style hat and ruffled collar - are processed to the site of the fire and thrown onto the pyre for burning. However, while a Guy Fawkes-like “Guy” may be traditional, these days any reviled public figure is fair game. Donald Trump pops up frequently, and this year Harvey Weinstein made at least one appearance.

The biggest Bonfire Night events in the UK (and, therefore, the world) happen in the small town of Lewes south of London, which has six different Bonfire Societies that each hold elaborate processions of Guys and light their own fires and attracts thousands of people. So many attend that they shut down some roads and all train service to the town for the day, making it a bit of a mission to participate. I thought it would be fun to go see Bonfire Night in Lewes, but had nothing like the level of commitment needed to travel the day before, find lodging in the over-crowded town on the busiest night of the year, and fight through the teeming throng. Instead, accompanied once again by the Intrepid Raul, I attended a very nice little community celebration in the bucolic suburb of Barnes, southwest London, which turned out to be just the right combination of tradition, size, and ease of access.

The Barnes Bonfire Night is a bit special because they actually have a bonfire. This may seem to the uninitiated like a prerequisite (the clue is in the name…) but actual bonfires are dishearteningly rare these days. Fireworks displays are a-dime-a-dozen (or perhaps I should say ten-a-penny?). Honestly, it seems like every night for the last two or three weeks I’ve been able to hear fireworks going off somewhere (this is partly because it was just Diwali, but honestly I’m so over the fireworks these days. I can hear fireworks right now as I write this.) But a bonfire? Bring it on! I suppose modern safety regulations make it more and more difficult to construct an enormous pile of tinder dry fuel and set it ablaze while hundreds of people stand around watching. In the days before “Elfin Safety Gone Mad” it was common for families or neighbourhoods to have their own bonfire and set off a small display of fireworks. Children would make their own Guys and parade them through the streets, soliciting donations to buy fireworks from passers-by with the phrase “A penny for the Guy?”. Raul confirms that as a child he remembers making a Guy in school and once even getting together with friends to construct and light their own bonfire. Innocent times indeed.

Apparently "the penny for the Guy" tradition lasted right into the 1980s, when children were banned from buying fireworks. Now it’s mostly died out, which is too bad because it is adorably instragrammable.

While it certainly wasn’t the massive all-out effort you’d get in Lewes, the Barnes Bonfire Night was just excellent. The weather was crisp enough that it felt properly autumnal, and the event was held at a community sports ground, where they’d assembled an impressive pile of fuel for the bonfire to one side of the cricket pitch. There were lots of families participating, and the whole thing had just the right home-grown vibe, with lots kids running around and overly friendly announcers on microphones with just a touch of feedback, and the season’s first mulled wine. It was, in a word, charming.

Here’s the giant pile of fuel. I estimate it was about 25’ in diameter.

There were also few carnival style rides and games and a couple stalls of food and drink and lots of vendors selling different light-up LED toys and sparklers. Again, sparklers are traditional, but I guess LEDs cause fewer life-changing scars, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. It was heartening to see a few sparklers at least.

Blurry Arty shot of kids with light-up toys

Barnes also had a contest for the best Guy - several families had made effigies and they were all set up on a park bench to be judged by a local councillor. The family who won had clearly made a real effort and their Guy, including requisite pilgrim hat with comedy-sized buckle, was quite rightly judged the winner. After the winner was declared, all the Guys were processed to the bonfire area and placed on the pile. Even better, the family who made the winning Guy were given the honour of lighting the bonfire.

The Guys, including the clear winner standing literally head and shoulders above the others.

The bonfire itself was bloody impressive. It was lit from a series of pyrotechnics buried in the pile and contained a lot of tree branches with dried leaves that burned ferociously at first, sending plumes of sparks into the air like an erupting volcano.

The volcano effect.

There was a ring of fence surrounding the bonfire to keep people back, but the heat was so intense that people instinctively backed away more and more as the flames grew. You just couldn’t be that close.

The bonfire in all its glory, with the winning Guy silhouetted against the flames.

Watching a real fire is always a bit hypnotic, and the scale of this multiplied that effect. Raul and I just stood in the crowd feeling the waves of heat and the brilliant orange light and chatting and occasionally checking to make sure any outer clothing was not melting.

And taking a selfie of course!

Here’s the crowd, lit by the glow of the fire. It's truly the only light source in this photo.

The fire went through stages - first the sparking volcano, then the intense leaping flames, then the flames died down some and you could start to see the outline of the blackened fuel in the pile, and then the heaps of glowing coals. Periodically, some local committee member with a hosepipe would creep forward to spray down a patch of grass that had caught light around the periphery, though I think that the poor Barnes Sports Club cricket pitch will be quite worse for wear for some time.



And of course there were also fireworks, an impressively lengthy display that we turned to watch with our right sides still baking from bonfire heat.

Photos of fireworks taken on an iPhone are even worse that photos of a bonfire taken on an iPhone.

And then the fireworks were done and we turned back to the fire, which had progressed to the heaps-of-coals stage. Apparently with smaller bonfires it’s traditional to put potatoes in the coals to bake. I  realised that I regularly have lovely coals in my stove and tried this trick myself which did result in a potato that was basically edible, though half the skin had to be abandoned after turning into something with the consistency of a roofing tile and the colour of Donald Trump's heart. Other traditional Bonfire Night foods include Bonfire Toffee (made from black treacle) caramel apples, and gingerbread-like Parkin, none of which were in evidence in Barnes (damn). I briefly considered trying to make Parkin cake the next day, but decided to spend the time blogging instead. Lucky you.

The bonfire looked set to burn on for hours longer, so Raul and I finally left the sports ground and walked along the Thames back to the station. The boat is parked back at my marina mooring these days which is pleasant but about as conveniently located as the dark side of the moon so I was keen to start the long trek home. When I got there the stove seemed to be filled with the spirit of Bonfire Night, lighting easily and quickly progressing to the glowing coals stage, so I went to bed in warmth and comfort, with the smell of the bonfire in my nose and the satisfaction of finally having ticked that little item off my list. Next year: Parkin!