Throughout my whole life it has been the standard British English metaphor for Sisyphean tasks, the jobs that are endless because by the time you get to the end you need to start over: It's like painting the Forth Bridge.
It is legendary that after finishing the magnificent rail bridge over the Firth of Forth north-west of Edinburgh in 1890 they started repainting it, and a hundred years later they were still at it. Every time they painted their way to the far end, which took years, the paint had worn off where they had started, and they had to go back over there and begin again immediately.
But there was a new development this week: they finally finished the job, and stopped. Now the simile's future looks bleak.
Things change, you see. Finding a paint that will offer steelwork long-term protection from the atrocious weather that the Firth of Forth can deliver was just an engineering challenge. And engineers are smart. In a hundred and twenty years, they can really come up with things. A coatings research team in Derby and a paint company in Bolton have developed a special glass flake epoxy paint that bonds to steel and is virtually impenetrable to the elements. And since May 2002 workmen have been going over the entire bridge systematically, stripping the old paint right down to the raw steel for the first time since 1890, and applying three coats of glass flake epoxy in oxide red (the original color that they have always used). And they finished the day before yesterday.
Impenetrability to the elements is no minor matter: the weather here really can be staggeringly awful. Scotland got a special demonstration of its power on Thursday. There were freezing temperatures and driving rain and winds of 165 m.p.h. in the hills. Trees and even brick buildings were blown down. Cars and houses got crushed and a double-decker school bus was blown over. A large wind turbine on which the brakes failed was driven to run faster and faster until it exploded in a ball of fire (really; there are pictures).
Of course, the story of continuous painting through a hundred years of such weather isn't quite true (I did say it was legendary). But it's fairly close to true. There has always been a permanent maintenance team attending to the bridge, with repainting as a large part of their duties, and the time taken for a full repainting and the lifespan of a coat of paint on the Firth of Forth have hitherto not been all that different. The engineers reckon their work will now change things a lot. The new paint can withstand the weather for 20 years and perhaps even quite a bit longer (it could be 40 years). Workmen will do routine checks on parts of the bridge from time to time, but the Forth Bridge really won't need any more serious attention from painters until some time after 2031.
So now the simile makes no sense. Technological advance threatens to make a piece of the language obsolete. At the very least, the phrase like painting the Forth Bridge is fated to become a dead figure of speech, in the same way that as mad as a hatter did (it is thought to have its origins in days when people in the hat manufacturing trade suffered trembling, mood swings, and aggressive behavior from exposure to the mercury they used in their work).
Tomorrow I'll take the bus out to North Queensferry and take a look at the newly painted bridge. I find it moving to look at its extraordinarily massive yet elegant structure. It does for me what looking at cathedrals does (though it's bigger than twenty cathedrals): it fills me with respect and admiration for human beings and their courage and ambition and willingness to imagine the future.
And I'll be thinking about the search for another effective simile to replace the one we're going to lose. I suspect the search will go on and on; even if we find a new simile, it too may be overtaken by future inventions and we'll have to find yet another. It'll be a never-ending task, like . . . like . . .
[Dealing with comments on all this would be like painting th . . . never mind.]