William Heath Robinson was famed for his cartoons of ludicrously intricate and complex contraptions
Q – Can you tell me who Heath Robinson was? When I put up two fence lights my son Patrick looked at them and said: “That’s a real Heath Robinson effort.” I’d like to know where that expression came from.
Jill Saward, Cambridge
A – Artist and illustrator William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was famed for his brilliant cartoons of ludicrously intricate and complex contraptions, apparently designed to carry out the most mundane tasks or sometimes no tasks at all.
Some of these were even made and displayed in public places to hugely amusing effect.
The term “Heath-Robinson” came to be applied to anything that looked outrageously complicated and was even used for an early computer designed to crack the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
There’s a delightful compilation of Heath Robinson’s cartoons and designs called Very Heath Robinson by Adam Hart-Davis which gives many examples plus lots of information about the man himself.
James Grout, who died aged 84 in 2012, did national service with the RAF
Q – In the Inspector Morse series James Grout plays Chief Superintendent Strange and within his office there are many photos and memorabilia about the Royal Navy, with special reference to Her Majesty’s RN Submarine Service. Did James Grout serve in this service as the pictures might suggest?
Andrew Vaughan, Doncaster, South Yorkshire (25 years’ service in Her Majesty’s submarines)
A – James Grout, who died aged 84 in 2012, won a scholarship to Rada (the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art) after leaving school but his dramatic training was interrupted by national service with the RAF.
He trained in Wiltshire as a radar mechanic but also performed in amateur theatricals, touring other service camps with short plays and comedy sketches.
On leaving the RAF he developed his acting career at the Old Vic, playing supporting roles in a number of major productions.
Prolific on stage and TV, he acted with his old friend John Thaw in Inspector Morse from 1987 to 2000.
PT Barnum’s Jumbo the elephant
Q – I have always been fascinated by the story of Jumbo the elephant and his life and death in America while owned by PT Barnum. I have recently done some research into his keeper Matthew Scott but I can’t seem to find any information about what happened to the grieving Scott after Jumbo’s death in Canada, other than that he stayed on with the circus for a while. What did he do after this and when did he die?
John Thorpe, by email
A – There’s a fine book about Jumbo revealing a great deal about his sad life and death called Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography Of A Victorian Sensation by John Sutherland, which was published in 2014.
The book reveals that Matthew Scott appeared to go mad with grief and lived a life of near destitution at the circus’s winter quarters in Bridgeport, Massachusetts.
Barnum gave him a small pension but this came to an end following the showman’s death in 1891.
Scott is thought to have died a few years later in the local almshouse.
He is said to have spent his final days talking despondently to an imaginary Jumbo, perhaps begging forgiveness.
Despite his extraordinarily close relationship with Jumbo, first at London Zoo, then with Barnum, Scott does not seem to have been a very nice man and there is a strong suggestion he connived in bringing about Jumbo’s death when he was struck by a train.
New Year’s Eve fireworks in London
Q – On New Year’s Eve I understand that tickets are required to view the fireworks in London. How do you apply and are they free? If there is a cost, how much is it?
Audrey Arnold, Southampton
A – Tickets last time cost £10 each and were not released until September 29 so I think we have a long wait for this year’s tickets.
Last time they were available from the london.gov.uk website.
I imagine this year the arrangements will be much the same but you’ll probably have to wait until the end of September to find out.
It is estimated that 14,000 tons of rubber wears off vehicle tyres worldwide each year
Q – Every year thousands of tons of rubber wears off vehicle tyres on to roads. Where does all this rubber go?
Ivan Westmoreland, by email
A – As Bob Dylan said: “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” But that’s only part of it. As you say, thousands of tons of rubber are lost in the way you describe – I have seen one estimate that it amounts to 14,000 tons a year worldwide – and the smaller particles are indeed light enough to be blowing in the wind, so they end up as atmospheric pollution and may find their way into our lungs.
The larger particles however are too heavy to be blown away and are washed into drains by rain, eventually making their way into our oceans, seas and lakes.
Although this problem has been with us for more than a century serious research into its detrimental environmental effect has only begun recently, probably because other ill-effects caused by cars are even more serious.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the New Year’s day concert
Q – One of my pleasures on New Year’s Day has long been to watch the traditional concert from Vienna. But I’ve always wondered why members of the audience join in the Radetzky March by clapping along to the music. How and when did this custom start?
Jeanne Kick, Hove, East Sussex
A – Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March was first performed in Vienna in 1848 and dedicated to Austrian Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Custoza.
The chorus was based on a popular song of the time and when it was first played in front of Austrian officers they recognised it and clapped and stamped their feet in time to the music. Since then that tradition has been maintained.
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