Slightly off the Rails
By Philip Blake
A neatly wrapped parcel was delivered the other day to Rowland Emett's cottage in the Sussex village of Ditchling. Its contents: a particularly handsome door handle filched from the toilet of a German express.
Emett, while appreciative of this tribute from an admirer, now tends to flinch at the postman's knock. People have long sent him photographs of improbable trains from all over the world; but when it comes to pieces of trains, anything may happen.
Still, that's one of the penalties of success. If, twelve years ago, he hadn't started drawing Nellie and the other eccentric, knock-kneed locomotives of the Oyster Creek and Far Tottering Line, then today he might still have been an anonymous commercial artist, instead of a man whose name has become a synonym for bizarre trains and machinery.
As, for instance, in the report by an R.A.F. fighter pilot on his return from a strafing mission over Normandy, during which he blew to pieces a comic little locomotive scurrying for shelter in a forest. The report took just four words: "Shot up an Emett."
A truly modest character, Emett has never quite got over his surprise at the popularity of his spidery drawings. "It's extraordinary, really," he says, "drawing nonsense and being paid for it. . . . "
The nonsense began in the margins of his school books with doodles of master riding penny-farthing bicycles, and was strictly unpaid for a long time after he left Birmingham Art School to work in a commercial studio.
Then, spurred by a friend's success in selling an article to Punch, Emett submitted a cartoon.
"The rejection slip was a masterpiece, with the Editor's desolation couched in the most courtly language."
But at the bottom of the slip was a pencilled note: "Not quite, but very ingenious. Try again."
He did: and in December 1939, sold his first cartoon. Soon his work was appearing every week, and in 1944 he became the magazine's deputy Art Director, a post he held until he decided four years later to freelance.
The first Emett train chuffed across the pages of Punch in 1941, and immediately touched off a flood of fan mail from railway enthusiasts.
"It was amazing, Bishops, bankers, stockbrokers, and generals began to write to me. Every train I drew seemed to remind someone of something they had seen."
By 1951, when Nellie was actually built for the Festival of Britain and ran up and down a crazy stretch of railway in the Battersea Pleasure Gardens, Emett was getting to feel somewhat haunted by trains, and decided to stop drawing them before he became known as a one-track artist. It is five years now since he closed down the Oyster Creek and Far Tottering Line, but still the fan-mail comes in.
Today, Emett - the son of an inventor - not only draws cartoons but applies his own brand of frenzied logic to the kind of machine which sends pop-eyed engineers away gibbering to themselves. The first of these, which he dreamed up for the Battersea Pleasure Gardens in the year following the Festival, was "The Plane," designed, he said, "to travel on the road, at sea, or in the air. It is steam propelled when seaborne, petrol-driven on land, and has a jet-propulsion unit based on entirely unknown principles." Fortunately, perhaps, The Plane never flew, drove, or sailed farther than Battersea. "We had teething trouble in the pilot's personal toaster," its creator recalls sadly. "There were some gravely burned buns."
Next came the "Hogsmuddle Improved Rotatory Niggler and Fidgeter" - and alarming contrivance 60 feet long, which would have brought automation to the farm with a vengeance, had any farmer been steel-nerved enough to install it. Built for an engine manufacturer, the Fidgeter was shown at county agricultural fairs and pretty well disrupted more serious exhibits. One of its less frightening gadgets not only picked turnips, but scrubbed them and applied a final polish with a feather duster.
The latest Thing - Emett built it just recently in his sitting room, and practically had to tear the cottage down to get it out - is the Domestic Home Nucleus, which has been touring various exhibitions, scaring the wits out of anyone unexpectedly coming across its lunatic tangle of flailing components in action. Among its other talents, it does the washing up, cooks a chicken electronically, plays records, and keeps the cat amused.
Emett and the United States first made contact five years ago, when he went to New York with an exhibition of cartoons. The surprise was mutual. He has been back to the States each year since. Television viewers still talk of the time when he appeared on Alistair Cooke's "Omnibus" programme as the misunderstood inventor of a steam TV camera.
All this has brought him an international reputation. Strolling through a New York shop not so long ago, he saw some wallpaper and china decorated with his drawings of the venerable Nellie. Stopping to look, he explained to the salesman who promptly appeared at his elbow that he wasn't a prospective customer: simply interested to find Nellie so far away from home.
Within two shakes of an order book, the manager was on the spot, vigorously shaking Emett's hand.
"I want you to know, sir," he said, "that you have captured the gentlemen's washroom market of America!"
And no one, feels Emett, could receive a more handsome compliment than that.
- o - 0 - o -
JON PERTWEE: ". . . He was mean. The only thing he ever gave away was a homing pigeon."
Midday Music Hall.
GEORGE MARTIN (on women's fashions): "Have you seen that sack lark? They're converting the built up areas into flats!"
Leslie Adams: "I'll never forget the day I asked her father if I could marry her. . . . He said: 'Can you support a family?' I said: 'Yes.' He said: 'Are you sure; there are ten of us?' "
GWEN LEWIS: "I've given my husband bed socks every Christmas for years."
Yvonne Arnaud: "So have I. My husband is beginning to wonder whether he's a man or a centipede"
Wilfred Babbage (as unwelcome guest): I'll turn in now, if you don't mind. You know the old saying, 'Early to bed . . .' I mustn't miss my beauty sleep."
Vic Oliver (bored host): "No, you need every minute of it."
Spoken in Jest.
WALTER JACKSON: "I said to her: 'Come on and we'll gather bluebells.' When we got there, there were so many couples gathering bluebells that we had to gather bluebells!"
CHARLIE CHESTER (in Russia before the Revolution): "Here we are at the Czar and Garter Hotel. What a lovely red carpet! Aren't these peasants soft to walk on?"
A Proper Charlie.
GEORGE COLE: "When you're shy it's like . . . it's like . . . "
Diana Churchill: "Like having a tin of sardines without the key."
A Life of Bliss
KATHLEEN HARRISON (as Ethel Huggett to husband who has received mystery letter): "Who's Mamie Webb?"
Jack Warner (Joe Huggett): "Let me see. . . Webb . . . Webb . . . "
Kathleen Harrison: "Never mind the Webb. What about the Mamie?"
Meet the Huggetts.