Weekend of a Champion

As this weekend is the start of the Formula One season, I thought I’d have a look through my motor sporting DVDs and recordings to get myself in the mood for a new season of the sport.

The official season reviews are rather expensive although I do have a few that I’ve picked up in stores like HMV when they are in the sales. I scanned through the season review for 2007 and fascinating stuff it was.

Kimi Raikkonen won the championship by 1 point after the final race of the season and McLaren were excluded from the results and fined an incredible $100 million because of the great McLaren/Ferrari espionage scandal! An employee of Ferrari was accused of passing confidential technical info to a colleague at McLaren. Further problems arose between Hamilton and Alonso at McLaren when Alonso blocked Hamilton in the pit lane. Yes, it was all exciting stuff.

Another F1 DVD I have is the Senna movie made in 2010. It’s a documentary film made for the big screen and consists of archive TV footage transferred to film. There is no commentary as such and the film focusses on Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost although it is clearly slanted in Senna’s favour. It’s quite a fascinating film to watch and it was great to relive the epic battles of the 80’s with stars like Mansell, Prost and Senna.

Senna was killed in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Senna’s Williams hit the concrete barrier at the Tamburello corner, the scene of numerous accidents in the past. I remember watching the crash, convinced Senna would be all right, after all, Piquet had crashed there years earlier and Gerhard Berger had also had a terrible crash in the same spot, his Ferrari bursting into flames. Both Piquet and Berger survived. For Senna though time had run out. His front wheel and suspension assembly had hit his head and fatally pierced his helmet. Senna was airlifted to hospital where he later died.

After I’d finished my F1 TV marathon I started searching about in my VHS video box and unearthed a forgotten gem: Weekend of a Champion, a documentary film by Roman Polanski about Jackie Stewart and the Monaco Grand Prix. I was surprised to find that the video was sharp and clear and I settled down to watch the events of the 1971 Monte Carlo event. It was so good to be taken back to my youth and see Jackie Stewart, my all time favourite driver as he once was, not an elder statesman of the sport as he is today but as a great Formula One star, cheered and hailed by the crowds at the trackside as he made his way down from his hotel to the pit lane. It was raining that weekend at Monte Carlo, much to the dismay of Stewart but the grandstands of the principality were packed with fans.

Jackie Stewart

My autographed picture of Jackie Stewart

Jackie pointed out to Polanski the relative skills of the Formula 3 drivers as they sped past, Stewart explaining ‘he had the wrong line’ or ‘he was in the wrong gear’ and so on. Later, Stewart explained his gear choices to new team-mate Francois Cevert. Cevert was eager to learn from the number 1 race driver of the day. He looked vital and fresh in the film. Sadly, Cevert was later killed in 1973, just as he was about to become the team’s number one driver as Stewart retired.

One particular scene stood out for me. Shot in Jackie’s hotel room, he is on the balcony talking to his wife Helen and director Polanksi. As they chat the camera comes back into the room and reveals Nina Rindt, the widow of the 1970 world champion Jochen Rindt, killed at Monza in practice for the Italian Grand Prix. She looks sad and ill at ease and later Helen explains that in the past she and Nina, Jackie and Jochen spent time together travelling the world as they competed in motor races. She had come to Monaco at Helen’s invitation, to spend time together and perhaps remember the happy times of the past. The Formula One of the 1970’s was no less glamorous than that of today, although perhaps tinged with a sadness for the many who lost their lives back then.

After a little bit of research I see that Roman Polanski restored the film some years ago and added a twenty minute interview with himself and Jackie Stewart. I must look out for that on DVD.

Today Sir Jackie Stewart is one of the elder statesmen of F1 racing. He speaks his mind as he always has done but I do get the feeling he is not universally popular with the fans of today. Quite a few times I have defended him in internet forums only to get into one of those annoying on-line arguments. Jackie pulls no punches and in the Senna video I mentioned earlier, Jackie took Ayrton to task for his on track actions although many of his meatier comments were not to be found on that video. I hope I will get a glance of Sir Jackie at the Australian Grand Prix this weekend although Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and co will take centre stage, and rightly so.

Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film

It’s always  a bitter-sweet experience when someone decides to make your favourite book into a film. It doesn’t always work out because maybe it was a big, thick, long book and they have cut out your favourite bit, or perhaps the cast wasn’t the one you imagined. It’s usually just the same in reverse. You see a great film and in the credits it says based on the book by so and so, then you rush out and get the book, and it turns out to be a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s even better than the film!
Anyway, here are a few of my film/book experiences.

The Horse Whisperer.
The book.
I picked up this book in a charity sale last year. This is what I said about it in Book Bag 4:

I’m not even sure why I picked up this book; it’s not anything I would normally be interested in. I bought it for a few pence at a church table top sale and I think I bought it one, because I wanted to give something, a few pence to the church fund and two, I faintly remembered the book had been made into a film with Robert Redford, although I had never seen it. The reviews on the back of the book said things like ‘a page turner’ and ‘the hottest book of the year’. Anyway, I bought it ages ago, and on a whim threw it into my book bag. I really hate having a book and not reading it.

From the beginning the book was a page turner giving a hint that something exciting and interesting was coming. I liked the idea of a horse whisperer; someone who could train a horse without hurt or pain, merely by whispering. I envisaged a native American Indian perhaps or some mystic horse guru. The fact is that the story of the horse is nothing but the background to a love story, involving a New York magazine editor and a Montana cowboy. Written in a sort of matter of fact magazine style, it turns out that writer Nicholas Evans is a screen writer and much of the novel reads rather like that, a screenplay, and each character comes with extensive background notes like the writer’s character notes on a screenplay. At the half way point this novel lost steam for me. I read it to the end but the ending was so contrived I was just glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?

The film.
The other day I noticed this film was showing on the Sony Movie Channel and set my hard drive up to record it. The result was an OK sort of film although a little on the slow-moving side. I’m tempted to say it was more of a woman’s film but Liz watched it alongside me and she wasn’t impressed either. I felt the casting was not right. Robert Redford just looked too smart and tidy to be a cattle rancher and cowboy. He actually looked as though he came from the Roy Rogers school of cowboying although he also directed the film. If I was casting I would perhaps have gone for someone like Kevin Costner perhaps, and the female lead, played by Kirstin Scott Thomas, needed a stronger, more assertive woman, perhaps a native New Yorker and not an English actress.

The ending was different in the film which was a good thing as the book’s ending was so poor as I mentioned above. Rotten Tomatoes report 74% positive reviews but sadly, I think I was part of the 26% negative ones.

2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film.
I first saw this movie back in 1968, which was quite a fascinating year for me. I wrote about the experience of seeing the film in a earlier post about film music and here is, in part, what I had to say:

I first saw the film in the summer of 1968. I was only 11 at the time and I remember my Mum being surprised I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, until I bought the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

2001 is a particularly visual film. Kubrick cut out a lot of dialogue because he wanted the film to stand as “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”


Picture courtesy Flickr.com

According to Wikipedia, despite the few people in the cinema with me that day in 1968, the movie went on to become the highest grossing North American movie of that year.

2001 set the pace for the sci-fi movie with its depiction of spacecraft drifting slowly and silently through space. The first Star Trek movie was heavily influenced by 2001 which made it look a little dated when the movie Star Wars was released and did the opposite thing, showing spacecraft whooshing across the screen at lightning speeds.

The book.
As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. I went out and bought the book by Arthur C Clarke and went straight into a wonderfully well written,  plausible space adventure. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story. If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. (In the movie the destination is Jupiter, as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings.)

Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extraterrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction and the movie has deservedly become one of the most influential films of all time.

The Great Gatsby.
The book.
I can’t really remember when I read this book for the first time. It was many years ago and ever since, this short novel has been in my personal all time top 10 reads. The story concerns Jay Gatsby who lost out in the love stakes because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks and not an appropriate suitor for the lovely debutante Daisy. Off he goes to the first world war, comes home to the USA a much more worldly-wise fellow than when he left and one way or another he becomes a millionaire.

Gatsby has a huge mansion in the Long Island suburb of West Egg. Renting a cottage in the grounds is the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick is fascinated by the lavish parties held at the mansion and soon meets Gatsby himself. It turns out that Gatsby’s parties are a device, a lure to attract the beautiful Daisy who Gatsby still loves and hopes will one day come to him like a moth to a flame.

It’s a simple story of love and desire but it becomes something much more in the hands of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often think of it not as a short book, but as a long lyrical poem that has an intrinsic beauty fashioned by the most wonderful turns of phrase. In particular I love the last page and this final paragraph:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . and one fine morning . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Film.
I noticed on the Internet that there was a 1949 version with Alan Ladd which I have never seen but the latest film version was released in 2013 and starred Leonardo DiCaprio with Baz Luhrmann as director. That particular film had been lying dormant on my hard drive recorder for quite a while, just waiting for a quiet few hours for me to watch. As I was part way through this post this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start it up. So, I settled down with a glass of French red and clicked the play button.

The first part of the movie didn’t really do it for me and the depiction of Gatsby’s famous parties seemed more like a music video than anything, especially with the strange substitution of modern techno music for the jazz music of the time.

Later on, the picture comes into its own. Leonardo DiCaprio is good, indeed very good as Gatsby. Overall, tone down the special effects and the music video feel and this could have been an outstanding film adaptation.

The film version I adore though is the one from 1974 starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as the fragile Daisy. I may have written above about Redford being miscast for the Horse Whisperer but he is perfect as Gatsby, so much so that now, whenever I re-read the book I always see Redford’s face in my mind.

The screenplay was by Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and there are some memorable moments in the film. One of the ones I like particularly is the one where one of Gatsby’s associates is introduced to Nick, thinking him one of Gatsby’s dubious business connections. Redford as Gatsby, firmly but politely indicates a mistake has been made and we get a hint at something questionable behind Gatsby’s facade. Is he a gangster or a bootlegger perhaps? Another is the moment when Gatsby and Nick meet at one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick doesn’t realise he is talking to Gatsby himself when he says he doesn’t even know who is Gatsby is!

Verdict: Brilliant book and a lovely film.

Lost Horizon.
The Book.
I picked up this wonderful gem of a book at charity shop years ago for the bargain price of twenty-five pence and if I could convert the pleasure this book has given me into pounds, shillings, and pence, it would be a figure that far eclipses that initial outlay. James Hilton has become one of my favourite writers and one of my personal writing heroes. (Check out my blog about him here!) This highly original novel reflects the fear and sadness that many must have felt in the days before World War 2. There must have been a feeling then that with new technology, the approaching conflict could be the end of civilisation.

In this wonderful book, a group of Lamas in a monastery, hidden from the world by a chance of geographical fate, decide to look ahead and make sure that the riches of the world, not gold or silver, but literature, art and music, should be preserved should a holocaust engulf the world. To ensure that their creed of respect and compassion endures they kidnap a British diplomat, Robert Conway, to carry on their work and set about bringing him to Shangri-La. Shangri La is a small community in Tibet insulated from the world by mountains on all sides and the people here enjoy unheard of longevity.

Despite his capture Conway is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and given his task of continuing the community and its traditions, but his fellow captives have differing ideas, especially Mallinson, his young vice-consul who is desperate to escape.
The story is told in an interesting way, one that enhances the mystery by a chance meeting between civil servants, one of whom is anxious to talk about Conway and his mysterious disappearance. The story is told about how Conway is found in Tibet with a loss of memory and how his memory suddenly returns and Conway tells of his abduction and escape from Shangri-la. I have to admit that this novel is one of my top ten books of all time, and one I return to time after time.

The Film.
Directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon was shot in 1936 and went seriously over budget. Issues that contributed were scenes shot in a cold storage area, used to replicate the cold of Tibet. The cold affected the film equipment and caused delays. There was also a great deal of location shooting and scenes where Capra used multiple cameras shooting lots of film. Wikipedia reports that the first cut of the film ran for six hours! Studio Boss Harry Cohn was apparently unhappy with the film and edited it himself, producing a version that ran for 132 minutes. Further cuts were made and as a result, Capra filed suit against Columbia pictures. The issue was later resolved in Capra’s favour. The film did not turn a profit until it was re-released in 1942. A frame by frame digital restoration of the film was made in 2013 and various missing elements of the film were returned, including an alternative ending. Sadly, some of the visual elements were so poor that they have been substituted with stills as only the soundtrack was useable.

Ronald Colman is superb as the hero of the film, the slightly world-weary diplomat and politician who finally comes to believe in the ideas of Father Perrault, the High Lama, who wants to keep safe the treasures of the world until the famine of war has passed by.
This movie adaptation is nothing short of wonderful, in fact it is one of my favourite films of all time.  If you see this movie on DVD make sure you take it home and settle down for a wonderful film experience.

A book written by the author which sadly has yet to be made into a film is Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

F1: Looking back to 2017 and forward to 2018

F1 testing has been in the news lately and as usual that got me thinking about the new season. Firstly, I have to start by saying that I was under the impression, apparently erroneously, that Formula One racing was to be the exclusive property of Sky TV in 2018. Apparently the exclusive Sky deal begins in 2019 so terrestrial TV viewers like me still have another year in which to watch Formula One without paying for a Sky TV package. Formula One is not what it was, well, not for me certainly but it is still Formula One, the highest level of the sport and it is difficult to give up the habit of a lifetime and stop following the F1 teams and their worldwide races.

Let me start this post by looking quickly back at the 2017 season. Lewis Hamilton won the 2017 world championship taking his tally of championships up to four, joining Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel, two other four-time champions. Lewis may be a great F1 champion but his efforts in the field of social media have not been so successful. He released a video berating his nephew for dressing up as a princess and as a result released a storm of social media controversy. I’m not sure why because it was a completely innocent fun family video but one quite funny response was a Tweet showing a picture of Lewis in a tartan jacket twinned with a picture of Princess Diana in a similar jacket. All good fun you might have thought but it apparently led to Lewis deleting many of his social media accounts. Oh well, stick to the motor racing Lewis.

Lewis’ new teammate for 2017 was Valtery Bottas who had a reasonable season, scoring his maiden F1 win and first pole position but the main challenge to Lewis came from Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari who quickly won the opening round in Australia. Later, his campaign for the championship self destructed after not only car reliability issues but a major disaster when Vettel and team-mate Raikkonen collided with Verstappen’s Red Bull in Singapore. Vettel self destructed in more ways than one because in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, cars were running behind the safety car and Vettel bumped into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes. Thinking Lewis had given him a brake test he decided to drive alongside and bump wheels with the British driver in a decidedly unsporting gesture. As it happened, despite heavy criticism, he managed to escape a race ban.

The only other winners in 2017 were the Red Bull duo who scored a win in Azerbaijan for Daniel Ricciardo and wins in Malaysia and Mexico for boy wonder Verstappen.

2017 was the year in which McLaren lost patience with Honda and decided to end their fruitless partnership. In 2018 McLaren will be using the Renault engine and Honda will be working with the Torro Rosso team. Looking back at the success Honda and McLaren have had in the past, it’s hard to understand how this new partnership has failed but then again, I read an interesting article in the racing press last year about technology ‘cross fertilization’!

Let me explain. You’ve heard of Silicon Valley no doubt; it’s a place in the USA where computer and technology companies congregate. Companies working in a similar business and congregating in the same location is not a new idea. For instance, in the early 20th century movie makers set up shop in Hollywood, California, making it the centre of the movie making world. In the Formula One world a large majority of the current Formula One teams are located within 80 minutes drive of Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire and the area has been nicknamed ‘Motorsport Valley’. The result of this closeness means that the staff of these teams live nearby and when they seek pastures new, just like their F1 driving counterparts, they move to another nearby racing team. This results in a broadening of the general F1 knowledge base as ideas move from team to team with each exchange of staff. In an article on the BBC website, I read that now almost 3,500 companies associated with motorsport are based in Motorsport Valley, employing around 40,000 people. That represents around 80% of the world’s high-performance engineers.

Paddy Lowe left Mercedes for Williams last year and no doubt the technical knowledge he brought with him will mean a step forward for Williams with their new 2018 car. Anyway, here’s my point: the exception to this rule of course is Honda, who reside on the other side of the world in Japan. No ‘cross fertilisation’ there! Perhaps that fact has played a part in their lack of success.

Fernando Alonso was relegated to the sidelines in 2017 but he has broadened his wings by competing in the Indianapolis 500 and has made plans to race in the Daytona 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours this year. He has made it known he wants to emulate the feat of Graham Hill; the only man to win the so-called triple crown of motorsport: the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 hour race. Of course, once he starts to be competitive in F1 again, perhaps those plans may go on the back burner. Still, part of his thinking must be to leave his mark on the motor sporting record books. If he cannot do this in F1 then of course he has to set his sights in another direction.

Talking of motor sporting record books, Lewis Hamilton, the current World Champion, has made major inroads on those records recently. In 2017 he became the man with the most pole positions, 72 at the time of writing, beating Michael Schumacher on 68 and Ayrton Senna with 65. Only two men have won more world championships; Fangio who won 5 and Schumacher who won 7. Schumacher also holds the record for the most F1 race wins with 91 victories and Lewis is now in second place with 62. Alonso has only 32 wins; still a great tally but he has a long way to go to get close to Lewis Hamilton. No wonder the triple crown looks so sweet.

So what does 2018 hold for racing fans?

F1 cars will look pretty different this year with all cars required to use the halo device, a sort of extension of the roll bar that extends all around the cockpit. Some drivers like it, some don’t but if it saves lives everyone should be giving it the thumbs up. Here’s what it looks like from a driver’s perspective:

Robert Kubica is a name you might remember from a few years back. Robert was an F1 driver, tipped as a future world champion, who was badly injured in a rallying accident in 2011 in which his arm was partially severed. Happily, the arm was sewed back on but with reduced mobility. Since then, Kubica has inched his way back to fitness and has completed numerous tests in an F1 car and has been in the running for a place in the Williams F1 team. Williams have run their quest for their 2018 drivers something like a TV talent show and their deliberations have been constantly in the racing media. Who is in the running? Who will get the drive? Well, it turns out it isn’t Robert Kubica but perhaps if something goes wrong for the main drivers, he might get a chance to fill in because he has been announced as Williams 2018 reserve driver. Not quite sure if I understand that decision because Robert Kubica as well as his undeniable talent, brings a lot of press attention to any team he is in, which is just what the team sponsors need. Can he cope with a modern F1 car? Hopefully, yes. The other two drivers, Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin bring new talent and a great deal of financial backing to the team. Wonder what the main factor was in employing those two?

As I said earlier, 2018 will see a Renault engine in the back of a McLaren so hopefully Fernando Alonso will be up at the front of the grid again. If he isn’t, this season will be a disaster of epic proportions for McLaren who of course have dumped Honda because their engine wasn’t powerful enough. Toro Rosso will have the Honda strapped to the back of their cars so it will be interesting to see just how well they do in 2018.

One thing missing from the F1 grid this year will be grid girls. You know, the female promotional models who have been present on F1’s starting grids since -well, since forever really. New F1 owners Liberty Media say grid girls ‘do not resonate with our brand values’ so don’t expect to see pretty girls on the grid this year.

Will the racing be better or closer? The answer is anyone’s guess but Liberty Media also announced a revamp of its TV production this year. Apparently lower camera angles, improved on board footage and slightly later start times will improve the TV broadcasts. Liberty also have a much better appreciation of social media than predecessor Bernie Ecclestone which is why F1 video clips are much more prevalent on the internet today and why I can even link a few of them on this post.

So, F1 is improving the TV coverage and reaching out to internet users. Will the drivers and cars provide the excitement and competition we want? Well, to find out, make sure you tune in on the 25th March for the Australian Grand Prix season opener.

Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. You can find the book at amazon by clicking here.

Cars, Codes and Coming Home

The end of a holiday is always a sad time, even more so when you’ve been away for a whole month. Our flight to Lanzarote was pleasant and comfortable but the return journey was on a different sort of aeroplane, one in which far too many seats were crammed in together and the flight was very, very uncomfortable. They just don’t make planes suitable for big people like me.

Anyway, our flight arrived in Manchester 20 minutes early and just as we passed through passport control we picked up a call from our lift; he had arrived and was in position at the drop off point just outside the Jet2 building. Happy days! A quick visit to the toilets and we made our way over but guess what? Our driver was nowhere to be seen.

We waited and waited and eventually gave him a call. The police, who are very sensitive regarding parked cars around the airport these days, had moved him on and he was about to turn round and come back. The big problem was that just up the road, a host of roadworks were in place denying traffic access to the roundabout. The only alternative was to carry on ahead on the M56 motorway so Jay, our driver was forced to carry on to the next exit and then turn back, a diversion that took him about 20 minutes to negotiate! When he finally arrived back we were cold and shivering, unused to the current February UK weather.

My lovely old motor, my Renault Megane convertible had been parked up for a whole month and I did notice, last I time I drove the car, that it wasn’t starting quite as promptly as it usually does. When I returned home my faithful motor was there just as I had left it, ready, or so I thought, to go. I sat down, felt the comfy leather seats, slipped in the key and everything lit up just as it should do. The only thing was that when I pressed the starter a groaning noise issued forth from under the bonnet and after a brief turn of the motor a red battery light began to flash on the dashboard.

There was nothing for it but to put in a call to the RAC. It was, they told me, a day of exceptional demands on their staff so my recovery agent would be on scene with me in anything up to 4 hours! Luckily, I had parked on a neighbour’s drive a few doors down the road so I went home to await the call from the RAC man who promised to call me when he was a few minutes away.

Almost three hours later, it was dark and cold and the RAC man arrived, promptly diagnosed a dead battery and offered me a deal on a new one with a five-year guarantee. I coughed up my credit card and not long afterwards I was back on the road. Later that evening I decided to take a run down to Manchester and spend some time with my elderly mother. Now one of the things I love about my car is the perfect opportunity it offers to listen to music. In fact, I think that listening to music in the car is really the only way to listen to music; clear and uninterrupted and driving seems to somehow put one in the perfect frame of mind to listen and enjoy music.

Driving to Manchester is a good 90 minute drive, mostly on the motorway and like any long journey I popped in a CD, slipped into first gear and settled down ready to chill with some of my favourite music, in this case a compilation I made myself from the Kate Bush double album Aerial.

Nothing appeared to be happening and I glanced over at my radio screen only to see not ‘CD loading’ as I expected but a flashing message saying ‘input code’! Yes, as the battery had been disconnected the radio had reverted to that regrettable situation, one I had not experienced for many moons, of requiring a security code to be input. By this time I was just joining the motorway and could only emit a silent scream of agony, compelled to continue my journey in silence instead of the musical interlude I was so looking forward to!

A few days later, back in St Annes I scoured through my collected motoring invoices and came across my original purchase note for my car. Was there a car radio code? No! A search on the internet provided various hits for people who would find my code for a price, the cheapest was in the £30 region. I did come across a forum where someone said Renault main dealers were happy to supply radio codes but the next comment was ‘no they won’t’

Anyway, undaunted I called the Renault dealer where I had bought my car some ten years ago. The lady who took my call transferred me to another lady and lo and behold, within moments I had the radio code! So, thanks to Blackpool Renault dealer Arnold Clark and that very nice lady, I was able to take my next journey with the chilled out sounds of Kate Bush playing on my in-car stereo. Pity I was on my way back to work!

Enjoyed this post? Why not try my book, Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977? Click the links at the top of the page for more information.


Holiday Book Bag 2018

There’s nothing I love more than a good book and as usual, here’s a quick round-up of the books I’ve taken on holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. As I’m flying I’ve not brought any hardbacks, just four paperbacks. All my books are usually sourced from the Internet or second-hand book shops but the ones below, with one exception, were gifts.

Lennon, the Definitive  Biography by Ray Coleman.

This is a book first published in 1984 that has been revised and updated. It’s been subtitled the ‘definitive biography’ although that’s not a phrase I’d use to describe it. It’s a decent enough book don’t get me wrong but as for ‘definitive’, that’s another matter. The writer has known Lennon as a journalist since the heady days of the early sixties when the Beatles had their big breakthrough in the pop charts so has had the opportunity to talk with Lennon first hand regarding many events in his life.

The first part of the book appears to be the new revised section and details what has happened to Lennon’s work and image in the years since the book first appeared although really, this section would be better placed at the end of the book.

The writer has no time for music journalists who waxed less than lyrical about later Beatles’ records released in the last thirty odd years, things like The Beatles at the BBC released in 1994 or the Beatles Anthology. Reviewers who gave those records a poor reception get short shift indeed and the reader is quickly reminded of their chart topping sales. In their defence though pop music journalists tend to look forward to new music, not back to the old. More scorn is saved for Albert Goldman who wrote the book The Lives of John Lennon. Personally I thought that was rather a good book; it’s certainly more compelling than this one although it tends to focus on Lennon in a negative way whereas this book is very generous towards Lennon. It’s the book of a Lennon fan and focuses on the events in Lennon’s life in a very positive way.

Another annoying aspect of the book is that when Lennon and the Beatles achieve fame, the book drifts off into a lot of general observations about Lennon’s life and music and the narrative tends to lose the thread of his life story. A similar thing happens when discussing John’s son Julian when the narrative jumps forward to discuss things that have not yet happened in the story’s timeline. Sorry but I like my biographies to stick to a certain amount of chronological sequence.

Both John and Yoko emerge from this book as whiter than white although the truth of John Lennon is, I suspect, somewhere between Albert Goldman’s critical book and this work of praise.

After writing this review, here in Lanzarote, we went for a meal at the Casa Carlos restaurant. As I scanned through the menu I could hear something familiar playing in the background. I couldn’t recognise what it was at first. It was an instrumental version of something, then I realised what it was: Love me Do. I’m sure the sharp-tongued John Lennon would have some choice words for the restaurateur after hearing an easy listening version of his work as background music.

Being Elvis by Ray Connelly

Subtitled A Lonely Life, this is a biography of Elvis Presley by another music journalist, Ray Coleman. Elvis became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll who inspired Lennon, McCartney and a whole host of others to become musicians and pop stars. I’ve read quite a few biographies of Elvis, all much thicker than this one but this is a great holiday read being both interesting and informative. The foreword to the book was particularly insightful regarding the impact Elvis had on other musicians. The author recounts two phone calls, one to Bob Dylan and one to John Lennon where he happened to mention that he had been to Elvis’ 1968 comeback concert. Both those highly regarded stars bombarded Coleman with a series of questions about Elvis showing that despite their own success and achievements, they were still at heart Elvis fans.

The book goes on to recount Elvis’ beginnings as a poor white boy in segregated Mississippi who became an incredible phenomenon; revolutionising pop music, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and yet at the end of his life was dependent on loans from his bank to keep going as he had made few investments with his money.

Time and time again, Elvis was disappointed at the poor standard of the songs that he was presented with, especially in his films, however the book reveals that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted music in which the writers were willing to use Elvis’ own music publishing company and who were willing to give up a percentage of their royalties for Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis just appears to have put up with this intrusion into his artistic life as he didn’t like confrontations with his manager. The result was that he went from the cutting edge of pop music to somewhere at the back. It was only after his comeback concert in 1968 that he decided ‘enough is enough’ and decided to sing whatever took his fancy, no matter who wrote or published it.

In his later years Elvis was fat, bloated and addicted to amphetamines, sleeping tablets and diet pills. He worried how his fans would react to a tell-all book written by former members of his entourage. A final confrontation appeared with Tom Parker. Elvis threatened to sack him but Parker demanded back payments of 2 million dollars. Free of Parker, Presley could have got himself a new manager who perhaps could have sorted out his personal issues and engaged a new record producer, more in tune with the times. Sadly, he decided to stay with the ‘Colonel’.

Elvis died in 1977 of a heart attack. At the autopsy some months later 14 different drugs were found in his body, some in toxic quantities. It seems clear that drug abuse was a significant factor in his death.

A pocket-sized introduction to Elvis but nevertheless, an interesting and fascinating read.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

This is the only novel I’ve brought with me on this holiday. I particularly chose it because I’ve read two of Elloy’s non fiction books on previous book bags and I wanted to read some of his fiction. This is a detective story set in 1940s Los Angeles and is a fast-moving story of cops and murderers and how to get on in the LAPD of the time. It’s written in the first person and is laced with LA jive talk and slang that really evokes the time and place. A good read but a little gruesome for me and I didn’t like the ending when you think the case is solved and then something else happens, and after that, something else.

A Daughter’s Tale by Mary Soames.

This is a memoir by Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary. I had it down on my reading list as I supposed it was a biography of her father, however, it’s not a biography at all but a personal memoir of her life as Churchill’s daughter. It starts off with her early years living with her family in Winston’s famous house Chartwell. It’s a record of life in a different time and the writer talks about her retinue of animals, her nanny, the servants and all the things you might imagine surround her in an upper class home in the 1930’s. One interesting observation is that in 1935, Churchill, strapped for cash after the Wall Street collapse of 1929, considers selling Chartwell and his daughter quotes a letter he has written to an estate agent saying that his family has mostly flown the nest and that his life is probably in ‘it’s closing decade’. How wrong he was! The portrait the author gives us is an oblique one, Churchill seen from a different angle.

The early part of the book is not so interesting and the author constantly quotes from school girl diaries giving us a sort of Enid Blyton world of lunch and dinner menus, dog walks and pony rides and debutantes balls and a time when ‘coming out’ meant something far removed from what it does today.

The later part when Hitler plunges the world into war was when the book finally began to interest me. On the back cover the Sunday Express is quoted saying the book is a ‘delightful memoir’. I don’t think I can sum the book up any better.

As usual, here’s the video version below. I shot a couple of versions, one was too dark and another had problems with wind noise. I should have gone for take 3 really but the lure of the swimming pool was too much . .

One final book, Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. You can buy the book by clicking the icon below to go straight to Amazon!

Floating in Space

Walks with and without my Dad

As you read this post my winter holiday will be over and I’ll be back in cold old England. It’s been a nice break though, a month in Lanzarote and it’s been sunny and warm for the most part. There were a number of things I wanted to do in Lanzarote including  working on my new book and other writing projects but sadly I’ve not been completely successful in that area.

Another thing was to improve my fitness which I think I have achieved, at least in part. I’ve swum in our pool almost every day and I’ve tried to make up for missed swimming days by doing extra lengths on the next day. The tight trousers I brought with me are now slipping off me so I must have lost weight, unless I’ve just stretched them! I’ve also done a fair bit of walking here which has also helped in the fitness area. A favourite walk for me is going from our rented villa in Las Coloradas down to the sea front and then on along the coastal path down to the Marina Rubicon. There’s a lovely view of Fuerteventura, a lovely sea breeze and sometimes you can see the ferry going across.

As I’ve walked along the sea front I’ve thought about my old Dad and how he would have enjoyed this walk. He was a great walker and when I lived at home, not having a car, we walked everywhere. When he retired he used to get up, have breakfast and then take the dog for a walk. He walked for miles and Mickey, who was a pretty old dog then, used to be worn out when they returned home. Mickey would have a long drink of water and then drop down on the floor somewhere to recuperate, oblivious of everyone having to step over him as he dreamed his canine dreams.

Once, my Dad and I went for a drink together. Dad said he’d take me to the Griffin for a pint. ‘The Griffin?’ I asked. ‘Where’s the Griffin? There’s no pub round here called the Griffin?’

‘Oh yes, the Griffin. It’s not a bad pub. It’ll be a nice walk.’

Well, off we went, out of Wythenshawe where we lived, past Peel Hall and down towards Heald Green. Heald Green was a good thirty to forty minute walk and I remember saying, ‘look Dad, let’s go into the Heald Green hotel for a pint.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘The Griffin’s not far away now.’ So we walked and walked, past Heald Green and on towards Cheadle and eventually, after about an hour’s walk if not longer, we came to the Griffin. Inside there were a bunch of fellas who nodded to my Dad and he nodded in return. Up at the bar the barman came over and said ‘pint of mild Ralph?’ He’d been here before, apparently.

I was exhausted and gasping for a drink and I was probably hanging onto the bar for dear life when my dad asked me what I was drinking?

‘Pint of lager please,’ I said. Dad nodded to the barman then looked back at me. ‘Not a bad stretch of the legs was it?’ he said.

Wythenshawe is supposed to be the biggest council estate in Europe, at least I remember reading that somewhere. When my Dad left school at 14 during the Second World War the estate was small and was surrounded by farms and market gardens. Gradually as the estate became larger the farms were swallowed up and built on. Dad worked on a farm in those early days and on one walk he decided to show me the first farm he’d worked at. I doubted there would be much to see but he took me through some unfamiliar streets and we came to a green with a few trees and there, just at the head of the green was an old house. The house was surrounded by the council estate which had been built around it. This used to be the farmhouse where he once worked. The green had once been part of the orchard. As we looked closer I could see that the trees were pear trees and I tried to imagine this place in a rural setting, instead of the urban one it had become.

Getting back to Lanzarote, it’s about a half hour walk to the beginning of the marina. The footpath comes in from high up on the rocks and you get a great view of the marina before you drop down and walk past the yachts and boats, their masts jogging slightly in the breeze. The picture above is one of me surveying the harbour.

After that it’s down to the marina proper and it’s nice to walk past the elegant restaurants and watch the boats bobbing about on the sea. Finally we arrive at our destination, the Cafe Berrugo and our waiter, Oscar, mimes the pouring of beer to us as we get seated. We mime back the thumbs up sign and the drinks quickly arrive along with our nibbles; nuts, olives and popcorn.

I reckon my Dad would have liked it here.

Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Some Hints and Tips from my Adventures on YouTube

I was checking my YouTube page the other day and noticed that I have eighty four videos there. That figure was quite a surprise to me. Eighty four videos? I have to admit, some of those are in my private file and are for production use only. (That makes me sound like a real film producer – production use only!) By that I mean some were uploaded so I could use the soundtrack on another video, some were uploaded without a soundtrack so I could add YouTube music later and some were promotional videos that use the old Floating in Space cover and were made before I introduced the newer version and rather than delete them I have just taken them offline.

By far my most popular video is this one, Trucking: The life of an HGV driver, 1980’s Style! I’d like to be able to tell you what a cracking video it is and that it is well worth watching although, in fact, it isn’t. It’s one of my first videos made before I even went on a media course at the Manchester WFA. I spent a few days with my friend Brian who was an HGV delivery driver and I made a short film about him at work.

I think people watch the film because of the nostalgia factor. I can see perhaps former HGV drivers watching it because that’s how things used to be, no sat navs or other gadgets, just get your map out and get trucking. They are certainly the ones who leave comments. Apart from that it has no particular merit. Pity I didn’t remove the title sequence, done on my old Sinclair Spectrum with music from Elton John, because if I had, the 35,917 views I’ve had at the time of writing could be making me a few quid in royalties. Instead the video is subject to a copyright claim by the owners of Elton’s music.

That’s probably the best lesson I’ve learnt from my time on YouTube; if you made a video years ago and used your favourite tracks from your record collection, replace them with royalty free music which you can download free from YouTube.

One of my favourite videos is another I made in the 1980’s, A Welsh Journey, Manchester to Porthmadoc. It’s a short documentary made about a rail trip which was inspired at the time by a documentary film presented by Michael Palin called Confessions of a Train Spotter. It was part of a Great Railway Journeys series and unlike some of the travel films made later by the former Monty Python performer, it was a great little film full of enthusiasm for the subject.

My old friend Steve and I wanted to recreate Palin’s journey but instead decided to do something cheaper and easier, a rail trip from Manchester Victoria to Porthmadoc. I did a great edit with a documentary style voice over and some top notch sound, music and effects mixing, courtesy of the new sound mixer I had just picked up. The big problem with that video, as regards YouTube, was that I used music from a great album by the Crusaders called Images. Now, that was fine in 1986 when the video was viewed just by me and my friends. Fast forward however to the 21st century digital age, upload it to YouTube and suddenly you have a whole lot of  musical rights owners who are not happy that their music is playing on my video. Result: YouTube have muted the entire soundtrack. You can still watch it but you cannot hear it.

The only thing to do was to take my original VHS video, slip the digitised version into my Windows Movie Maker and then re-edit and add some royalty free music provided by YouTube, in this case a little track by a guy called Kevin MacLeod called Local Forecast. I re-did some of the commentary, faded in Local Forecast in place of the Crusaders and even tidied up the video as a whole.

Some time ago videos could be edited on YouTube using their on-line video editor, hence the reason for uploading videos for ‘production use only’ as I mentioned earlier. You could trim videos, use the soundtrack from a different video and so on. Alas, the YouTube editor is no more, so it’s important to have your video all ready for viewing before you upload it.

One handy little thing on YouTube are YouTube cards. They are just that; a little card that appears in the top right hand corner in which you can add a link to other videos or even to your website.

Just going back to my Trucking video, two other reasons why that video does so well might be as follows.

a) The title is very SEO compatible. It’s straight to the point and tells you all you want to know and it also has a pretty good thumbnail or icon. That’s the image when you see when you first find a video on YouTube. If you look at the railway video above, you can see the icon has all the basics, a simple but relevant picture, the title, and a little explanation that it’s the updated version, not the one with the sound muted!

b) Thumbnails are important as a  good one can pull the viewer into watching your video.

A lot of my more recent videos were made on the Animoto web site. Animoto is a video editing website that comes with templates so you can easily upload your photos and video clips and the template will do the rest. You can even create a whole slide show video with just a collection of still images. Here’s one of my favourites, even though it’s just a little advert for my book:

Here’s another one, this time a collection of photographs of Lytham St Annes :

Right, so so far we’ve got documentaries from the 1980’s, promo videos, and slide shows. Not only that but I also have my book reviews on YouTube. Yes, I’ve always added a video version of my Book Bag series. Here’s the last one, filmed in sunny France in 2017:

Just as I’ve finished this post and pretty much finished re-editing my Airport 1986 video by adding royalty free music, I’ve had an email from YouTube advising me that because I have under a 1000 subscribers I can no longer ‘monetise’ my videos! Oh well, the Internet is a fast moving and ever changing place. Perhaps I should look at shifting my videos over to rival video channel Vimeo.com! Anyway, here’s my updated airport video, split into two parts for ease of uploading.

So, just to finish, here are three points that are key to developing your YouTube channel:

1. Use royalty free music!

2. Think carefully about your video title.

3. Add a simple but effective icon for your video; that and your video title can be the key to bringing in your viewers and subscribers!

4. People have very short attention spans these days. If they are not interested in your video in the first few seconds, they will navigate away from your video to something else so make those first few seconds count.

Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information or watch the short promo below.

The Giorgio Factor and other Dining Stories.

I really do love dining out. I think it’s one of life’s great pleasures, not that I’m a food gourmet or anything, in fact I’ve got pretty simple tastes in food. Give me a nice bottle of red, tasty food and good service and I’m a happy man.

Some years ago Liz and I used to frequent a lovely Italian restaurant in St Annes. It was a great place. It was only small and a little basic and I got the impression that in a former life it used to be a small shop. It was called, well, I won’t say the name but the owner was a guy called, actually, I’m not going to say his name either.

It was a lovely rustic place and when it was quiet the owner would say to me, ‘Steve, tell me what you want, whatever it is I’ll make it, even if it’s not on the menu. If I have the ingredients, I’ll make it for you.’ That was rather nice of him and I hope his offer was because we were friends and not because I was difficult to please.

One of his waiters was a guy called Giorgio. He was a really nice fella but as a waiter, pretty useless. More than two people in the restaurant and he’d start to flap, big style. He’d bring us a menu and then, well that was all he could do really. We’d order a bottle of wine and when it never arrived we’d have to prompt him by waving empty glasses at him. The main course would come and there’d be no cutlery. One time they had this other waitress who was Italian and spoke no English. Another couple would enter the restaurant and before Giorgio could get himself together the trainee waitress seated them and had taken their drinks order. Giorgio ambled over, asked what could he get them to drink just as the drinks were actually arriving! We do miss Giorgio and that lovely restaurant. Ever time you spoke to him he would say, in a strong Italian accent, ‘you’re welcome.’ He rarely did anything but he always said ‘you’re welcome!’

One day the restaurant sadly closed down and the owner started up a new place in Blackpool. When we visited a while ago I noticed Giorgio had not made the transition to the new premises. Pity, he did make us laugh. Anyway, when we dine out these days at somewhere new we sometimes try and spot which waiter has the Giorgio factor.

In Casa Carlos this week in Lanzarote, the main contender for this week’s Giorgio award was a lady that was determined to pour our wine. One of our pet hates is the waiter who tries to pour our wine when we are not ready. In fact, we don’t want the waiter pouring our wine at all. OK, he, or she, can do that initial pour after the opening of the wine and the tasting ritual but after that, leave us alone. We pour the wine only when we are ready and not before. Well, in Casa Carlos we fended this lady off a number of times when she made a raid on our table in a vain attempt to pour our wine. No, ‘get back’ we told her. Liz tried to fool her by hiding our bottle on the low window sill behind our table. Ha, we thought, try and get our wine there!

However, just as we were chatting and I had shovelled in a mouthful of barbecued steak the waitress homed in from our blind side, swerving silently towards us like a ninja but just at the last second Liz spotted her, grabbed the wine and said ‘no thank you’ firmly. You have got to be firm with these Spanish waitresses.

Tapas at the Blue Note Restaurant, nice but a little on the small side . .

When we first arrived in Lanzarote some years ago our first restaurant port of call was a place called the Blue Note, a classy jazz bar restaurant in the Marina Rubicon area of Playa Blanca. We were pretty starving so we ordered a few tapas. Sadly they were of the rather small minimalist type, you know, three meatballs to a plate. We had ordered six tapas but they were so small when we had eaten them we were still hungry. Next port of call was Cafe Berrugo. OK, we get the picture we thought, tapas plates are small in Lanzarote. We ordered four plates of tapas and two beers, then, thought, is that enough? Waiter, portion of fries please. Ten minutes later, the tapas arrive and guess what? They are massive plates! How can we eat this lot and the fries?

We have since become regulars at Cafe Berrugo. The waiters know us and what we like, for instance they always give out complimentary nuts to the English and olives to the locals. However, we have gradually shown them that some English people actually eat olives. Oscar, our favourite waiter looks after us and always serves us the vino tinto at room temperature. Our other favourite waiter is a guy we just call Good Morning as he always bellows out ‘good morning’ when customers arrive, whatever the time of day! It’s always nice to finish the night here with a complimentary shot of ice cold vodka caramel before getting our coats on and waving goodbye with a cheery ‘good morning’!

One final dining story: Here in Lanzarote the last few days have been a little stormy, however one day the heavens cleared and the sun shone again. The forecast had said heavy rain but what the heck! We were in barbecuing mood so we cranked up the coals and prepared the meat and salad. Yes, it was a lovely barby. Just at the end, literally as I was taking my last bite of a lovely burger and despite the sky in the west being clear and blue, the sky above and to the east darkened. It reminded me, like a lot of things in life, of a film I’d seen years ago. It was a space disaster movie from the seventies or eighties. The one where the crew need to launch to save the guys on the space station but Cape Kennedy is hemmed in by a storm. Well this hurricane passes directly over and the rescue mission launches through the eye of the storm, just like how we had our barbecue in the nick of time before the heavens opened.

What the heck was that film? If you know, answers on a postcard please!

If you liked this post why not try my book, Floating in Space available from Amazon as a kindle or a paperback.

The Long and Dusty Road of Life

A short road, a long road,
A travelled-only-once-road
It’s the long and dusty road of life
It’s heartache, happiness, and strife

A happy road, a clean road​
Is the road that I desire
A cheerful road, a sweet singing music road,
Free from muddy mire

Let my road be a long road,
A fondly remembered high road
And don’t let me detour at a crossroads,
Or linger on a lonely road

One day I’ll need a fast road, a rushing road
A quickly time is running out road
And I’ll breathe my last in a quiet road, a by road
An end of the line side road

For journeys end is a sad road
A goodbye and thanks for all you’ve done road
A cul de sac, an avenue, a long gone distant road,
And as time passes it soon becomes a travelled-long-ago road.

Photo credit: unsplash.com


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. The book is available in Kindle or paperback formats. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Tap, Tap, Tapping my Way

I’m caught up in the fog

I’ve got my hands out

Feeling my way like a blind man in a haze

Tap, tap, tapping my way along,

Through life.

I don’t really know what I’m looking for

But I keep searching

I’m like a blind man fumbling in the dark

And I sometimes think I need an instruction book

So I can be flick, flick, flicking,

Through life.

There are times; I guess it’s my lot,

When I don’t understand the plot.

I’m going backwards and forwards

Trying to understand.

Fast, fast, forwarding

Through life.

One day there’ll be a break in the fog

And I’ll see the sun,

But when the answers won’t come

I’ll dream harder,

Borne back to the past by memories

Back, back, back,

Through life.

Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.