Friday, March 6, 2015

‘Railway Ribaldry’ (Book Review)

Like most American children, I was first introduced to engineer Rube Goldberg’s wacky machines through Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and other vehicles of modern culture. However, unlike most American children, I was also introduced to Goldberg’s British counterpart, W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944). My parents had a book of his illustrations, and I spent way too many hours during my formative childhood trying to make sense of it rather than struggling through my McGuffey Readers. So when I recently received a reprint of Railway Ribaldy, Being 96 Pages of Railway Humour (Old House, 2014), sweet nostalgia was in the air.

In 1935, the Great Western Railway (GWR), which linked London to west England and Wales, celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. Well-known World War I illustrator Robinson produced Railway Ribaldy to commemorate the occasion. His cartoons are political and cultural commentaries on the railroads in general and the GWR in particular, suggesting in a highly imaginative way how they evolved into efficient and comfortable means of transportation. That is, with fantastic contraptions that defy physics and the adaption of some of strangest social practices that have been giving laughing readers belly-aches for close to a century.

So if you’re in the mood for some entertaining visual stories documenting railroad “history,” check out this new edition of Railway Ribaldy. I’ll admit the book suffers from an unattractive cover design. The colors and lettering especially scream “outdated” rather than “timeless.” I feel that Robinson deserves something with a bit more posh. I also fear that too many readers will give up too easily on it. Some of the jokes are sure to be lost on today’s American readers, as there are no notes explaining some of the nineteenth century public’s concerns and the GWR’s dilemmas. Yet that can be seen as another opportunity for the reader’s imagination to take over. All flaws aside, I hope your family will enjoy this volume just as much as mine did.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.