Three Oscar Winners

The Academy Awards are the premier awards for artistic and technical expertise in the motion picture industry. The awards are given annually to mark various categories of cinema excellence. The award statuettes are known as Oscars and were first awarded in 1929 at a ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The very first film to be voted as Best Picture was Wings, a first world war silent film starring Clara Bow, Charles Roger and Richard Arlen. In my DVD collection I have quite a few Oscar winners but here I’d like to look closer at three in particular. Two fairly recent films and one absolute classic.

The Shape of Water

Now, there are those who seem to think I only ever look at black and white classic movies. Not so, I like modern films too and just to prove it I picked up The Shape of Water not long ago for a few pounds on Ebay. You may remember that the film won the Oscar for Best Film at the 2018 awards and it looked pretty interesting in the various clips I have seen. Everything I had heard about the film was positive so I decided to search the internet for the DVD version. The first warning sign was the extensive availability of DVDs of the film on Ebay and the second was the rather low prices those DVDs were fetching. Anyway, I got my copy and watched it and how this film won an Oscar I really do not know.

Yes it is well acted. The photography was excellent although everything is presented in a sort of greenish hue that the director perhaps feels enshrouded late fifties and early sixties America. However the content just didn’t do it for me. It’s about a young mute woman cleaner in a top secret government installation who falls in love with a strange creature, half man, half fish, that is held captive there. She and her father rescue the fish man and take him back to their apartment high over a cinema and install the creature in the bath.

The Guardian said this about the film: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, (at the Oscars) the story of a young woman’s love for a captured sea creature — with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight.’

Don’t believe a word of it, the fact is The Shape of Water is a dismal weird film that completely failed to engage me and my copy will soon be available once again on Ebay. It was so bad it even made me hunger for one of Roger Moore’s dreadful Bond Films.

 

Nomadland

Now that I’ve retired I’ve often thought about spending more time in my motorhome and it’s only Liz’s recent hip operation that has prevented us from travelling over to France for some exploring. Could I live full time in a motorhome though? I’m not so sure. Everything is fine in the summer but I doubt if I could cope with the cold of the winter. Of course, we could always drive south towards somewhere a little warmer, even perhaps our beloved Lanzarote but van life isn’t, I suspect, as romantic as it sounds. Nomadland is a film that addresses this subject. A woman loses her job when the US Gypsum plant closes down in her town. Her husband has died so she decides to buy a van and go in search of work. She works for a while at an Amazon packing centre and when that job ends she goes off to Arizona where she heard fellow nomads will be meeting.

She makes new friends among the nomad community and has to overcome various problems, mainly issue with her van. At the end of the film she returns to her home town where all her possessions are in storage and finally sells them all before going back on the road again. After the first thirty minutes or so the film seemed like an actual documentary with real people rather than actors, so much so I had to pick up the DVD box and double check. It’s a slow film with little dialogue but even so it is original and realistic and examines the lives of a new breed of Americans, nomads who live in vans and spend their lives on the move, settling down where there is work and moving on when the work runs out. A flat tyre can be not just an inconvenience but a disaster as well as other problems which for us are merely distractions. Washing and showering for instance, not so easy when you have to consider whether there is enough water in the tank, where to do the laundry and so on. When a major van repair is needed the heroine of the film has to leave the van -her home- at a garage and check into a hotel while it is repaired.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. It’s good and well worth watching but whether it’s worthy of an Oscar I’m not so sure.

Silence of the Lambs

After watching the above two Oscar winners on DVD I fancied something a little different. The very first horror film to win an Oscar was Silence of the Lambs. It’s a gruesome film in many ways following the FBI as they try to track down a serial killer who has just abducted the daughter of a US senator. The killer known as Buffalo Bill, imprisons his victims then kills and skins them. (Told you it was gruesome!) To try and get a lead on the killer the FBI send trainee agent Clarice Starling to interview the incarcerated murderer and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector to see if he can give any insight into the murders, a new perspective that might help the FBI investigation.

Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster plays agent Starling. She wants to work in the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and Lector, chillingly played by Hopkins, finds her interesting. He seems willing to give information about Buffalo Bill but in return he wants information about Clarice herself. He initiates a quid pro quo, he gives her information and observations about Bill and in return she must reveals snippets of information about herself, her background and her life.

Clarice becomes a pawn when Jack Crawford, the head of behavioural science, makes a fake offer to Lector. They promise that Lector will be moved to a secure unit on an island with a view of nature and wildlife in return for more information. The head of the secure unit where Lector is currently held, Dr Chiltern makes a rival offer which Lector accepts but passes on fake information about Buffalo Bill.

Clarice meets Lector again and presses Lector for the real information but Lector wants only to hear about her life, in particular when she was orphaned and terrified when lambs were slaughtered on the farm where she was staying. Lector tells her that all the relevant information to find the killer is in the case file which he has been allowed to read.

Later, FBI agents approach the suspected home of Buffalo Bill. At the same time Clarice is following a lead based on some advice from Lector. The two situations are presented in alternate clips. The FBI ring the bell of Bill’s supposed home. Clarice rings the bell of her suspect. When the FBI burst in and the house is empty, Jack Crawford, and we the viewers, realise that Starling has stumbled on the real Buffalo Bill.

Much of the content of the film is terrifying but at the same time, it is a compelling film and comes together in an exciting climax.

The film spawned numerous sequels. Hopkins reprised his role as Lector twice but Jodie Foster declined to play Clarice again blaming scheduling conflicts. Clarice was played by Julianne Moore in the follow up film, Hannibal.

Silence of The Lambs won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathon Demme) Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

Do you have a favourite Oscar winning film?


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Retirement, Caravans and Some Holiday Memories

Just lately I’ve been getting an awful lot of congratulations. Some in person and others by text or email. You might be thinking what has Steve done? Won a prize, had a book published? A video getting honours in a film festival? No, none of that. I’ve retired. By rights I should be happy, after all I wasn’t so happy in my job and I’m glad I don’t have to go back in again. Of course, if my retirement had happened ten years ago perhaps, then I’d have a reason to be upset. I was a deputy manager working with a lot of colleagues who I also counted as friends and leaving was the last thing on my mind. These days, a lot of those friends have left and moved on to other things and my deputy manager status was lost when I had to reapply for my own job. So now that I am leaving, I should be feeling happy but I actually feel a little bit sad. Perhaps if I had an exciting new job to look forward to, I’d be feeling more positive but the thing with retiring, it means no new job, no new beginning, just an end.

My plan, and believe it or not because generally I don’t plan anything, my plan was to be off to Europe with Liz in our little motorhome but with her hip replacement operation coming sooner than expected and Liz still recovering, we are still here. At least I don’t have to go into work though.

When we finally get to go away there will be no checking of our route and worrying about getting back in time. Getting back in time for what? For work? A few years ago we thought about taking the ferry to Santander in Spain and working our way gradually back home through Spain and France. Covid put paid to that at the time but now that journey is once again a possibility. We could even just travel south in France until we find somewhere warm and relaxing. Breakfast in a French aire. A check of the map and then a few hours driving to a new location, preferably by a plan d’eau, a swimming lake. Time perhaps for a swim, a little relaxation in the sun before cranking up the barbecue. Yes, bring it on.

We did think long and hard before buying a motorhome. Getting a caravan was another possibility. Many years ago I used to have a static caravan. It was on a site in Lancashire, not far from Lytham St Annes and it was a nice relaxing place. There were no amenities such as a bar or restaurant but there were many good walks along the estuary and it was a short drive or bus ride into Lytham where there were, and still are, many lovely restaurants and bars.

Probably the thing I used to really like about it was how much it reminded me of the many family holidays we used to have as a child. We always stayed in a caravan in places not too far away like Blackpool, Morecambe, Rhyll, Prestatyn or sometimes we’d go further afield to the east coast of England. My mother always arranged those trips. We didn’t have a car so we would travel on a coach. There was mum, dad, me and my brother and Bob, our old dog. Bob was always a bit of an attraction to the other kids on the bus and we were always proud to tell them that Bob was ours. Frequently on those trips, Bob, who was not a good traveller would throw up. Then we disowned the dog and pretended he was nothing to do with us. Mum, who came armed for every eventuality always had some cloths ready to clean up the mess although once I remember her going forward to the driver who stopped and produced a mop and bucket from somewhere which she took from him and expertly mopped up.

Today I can still remember the smell of the calor gas stove. The thrill of renting a bicycle that was much better than my old tatty bike back home and racing round the camp. Sleeping in bunk beds and fish and chips for tea from the camp chippy.

My last caravan was really pretty well laid out. It had a central lounge, kitchen and dining area. At one end was the guest bedroom and small toilet, at the other end was the master bedroom with a connecting door to the pretty spacious bathroom and toilet. There was a nice garden and a shed where we kept our lawn mower and outside table and chairs. When I eventually sold the van there was a clause in the contract which said I could only sell back to the camping site unless I removed it and the price was much less than I thought it was worth. The only alternative was to take the van away. To do that would involve hiring someone to move it and then, move it where? I would have had to have found another site and pay the usual costs, transport of the van, new site fees, site tax and so on. After some haggling I gave in and sold the van to the site owner. Funnily enough, only today I read a blog about caravanning calling caravan site owners the New Robber Barons of the 21st century!

In England, motorhome owners have no choice except to stop at private camping sites, all of whom charge fees, some fair, some not so fair. One thing we have started doing is stopping for the night at pubs that allow campervans to park in their grounds free as long as you use the pub facilities, buy beer and food which I have always been happy to do.

In France, there are many free parking sites for motorhomes. Most are municipally owned with small charges for emptying your toilet and filling up with drinking water and I must tell you this story about one particular parking site and Bob the dog which I know I’ve told in an earlier post but it seems to fit in so well here.  A few years ago, Liz and I were motoring through France in our motorhome and we stopped in a pretty big town where they had a large municipal stopover for motorhomes.

We found ourselves a spot in this busy place and the parking bays backed onto a grassy area with picnic tables. It was really quite a lovely spot. Liz began to sort out our food while I took plates and cutlery over to the table. As I approached, I had a sort of odd feeling that something was about to happen and there was a really friendly dog who greeted me like a long lost friend. He wasn’t jumping up or anything but he was pleased to see me. Anyway, we brought the food and wine over and sat down and the dog sat just by me.

I looked at the dog and held out my hand and said ‘Gimme your paw’ just like I used to say to Bob our old family dog. Now I’m not sure what I expected to happen but the dog gave me a doggy smile and placed his paw in my hand, just like old Bob used to do. It was rather satisfying to have the dog there by my side while we ate. Occasionally I slipped him some food just like I used to do with old Bob. Later when I took the plates and things back inside the van, the dog was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished into the warm evening and I wondered whether it really had been Bob, reincarnated and come back to check on his old master.

Just writing about these things has got me all geared up ready for our future trip. Driving is a pain in the neck these days in places like busy Manchester. On the much quieter roads of the Loire for instance, driving is still a pleasure. I look forward to chugging along watching for the road signs and the names of the French towns. I like the quiet stopping places and the peaceful aires where we can stay for the night. I like too the sleepy French villages and the small markets where we buy local bread and cheeses. Of course, who can forget those wonderful restaurants and eating in the open air. The small starters of cold meats and crudités. The appetising mains, le plat de jour and the cheese course. The glass of rosé to start with and the pichet of vin rouge.

Hopefully, I’ll be seeing all those again soon.


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The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the 60s TV show the Time Tunnel. I used to love that show when I was about 12 years old but watching it these days it isn’t quite as good as I remember. If the time tunnel was real and I could sneak inside and send myself back in time the place I’d like to go would probably be the early days on cinema in Hollywood.

Back then when the cinema was new and the job of film director was something that didn’t require a degree, I reckon I might have been in with a chance of getting to direct a film. These days I have to content myself with being an amateur video maker. Anyway, I may not be a director but I can certainly write about film directors if nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin

I’m going to start off with Chaplin because he was one of the very first to give actual direction to a motion picture. Charlie came to Hollywood after a career in Fred Karno’s musical halls in England. Karno was a successful impresario and producer and when his productions became successful, he decided to export them and sent various troupes on tours of the USA. On one of those tours Chaplin was spotted by slapstick film maker Mack Sennet and Chaplin began to appear in early Hollywood comedy shows. In those days there were no scripts. The actors and directors threw a few ideas about and then the cameras began to roll. The short films were made quickly and then sent off for distribution across the USA and even the world.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films, he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essanay because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever thought of Chaplin as a genius but he was clearly one of the first to realise a film needed a structure and that comedy films didn’t need to be gag after gag after gag. They needed a story, the audience needed to sympathise with the characters and so on. Whatever you think of Charlie Chaplin, his contribution to the film world was immense.

Billy Wilder

My favourite Billy Wilder story goes like this: In his later years he wanted, as usual, to make a movie. He approached a studio and was invited in to make his pitch, as they call it in the movie world. The executive who met with Billy was a young man. He said to Billy, “I’m not familiar with your work could you tell me about it?”

Wilder replied, “of course, after you!”

Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria. He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin but left when the Nazi party began their rise to power. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood where many artists and film makers fled to escape the Nazis. Wilder wrote numerous screenplays with his co-writer Charles Brackett and in 1942 made his directing debut with The Major and the Minor.

A big hit for wilder was the film Double Indemnity. Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and the film was nominated for 7 academy awards as well as becoming a classic of film noir.

By far my favourite Wilder film though was Sunset Boulevard. The film follows William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis who is down on his luck and is about to have his car repossessed. To escape the repo men, Holden drives into what he thinks is a deserted house on Sunset Boulevard. To his surprise he finds reclusive film star Gloria Swanson living there. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent era who is planning her return to the screen.

Norma engages Joe to edit a script she has written herself and Joe soon finds himself seduced by the affection and money she lavishes on him. Some of Swanson’s own silent films are used within the production and one of her old directors, Erich Von Stroheim plays the part of her butler and former husband. The final scene of Joe floating dead in Norma’s pool took was a difficult shot to film. Wilder eventually did it by putting a mirror in the bottom of the pool.

Wilder died in 2002. He is buried in Los Angeles and on his grave is inscribed. ‘Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then, nobody’s perfect’, a reference to the final line in Some Like It Hot.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences.

He followed up with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. In Wall Street Stone first developed a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

George Stevens

George Stevens made many memorable films and I’ve including him in this handful of directors because if I was a director, I reckon I’d make my films the way George did. George directed the classic western Shane starring Alan Ladd. Shane is one of the great film westerns and one that tried to show the west as it really was. Stevens also directed Giant, James Dean’s last film. Giant is about Bick Benedict, a Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson and Dean plays Jett Rink, a surly ranch hand who is fired by Benedict. Benedict’s sister however, has a soft spot for Jett and when she is unexpectedly killed in a fall from a horse, we find that she has gifted a small piece of land to Jett. Bick wants to keep the ranch together and offers Jett a large sum of money for the property but he declines and goes on to strike oil on the land. Stevens filmed his actors with many cameras and liked to shoot everything he could then sit back and work his way through the resulting footage and slowly figure out how to edit it together, which is pretty much what I do with my short amateur YouTube videos.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a British director who began in the days of silent films and came to be known as the master of suspense. Blackmail made in 1929 was the first British Talkie and 10 years later producer David O Selznick lured him to Hollywood where he made many films that are now regarded as classics, films like North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Birds and Pyscho. Hitchcock might also be seen as one of the first celebrity directors. He became popular because of his habit of appearing, however briefly in all of his films, sitting on a bus for instance, just missing the bus in another. He also became well known by introducing his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

There are some directors who have tried to make films that show events the way the human eye sees things. Roberto Rossellini was one. Another surprisingly was Hitchcock himself.

In 1948 he made the film The Rope. It was an unusual film in many ways, especially for Hitchcock. The length of a film magazine back then was ten minutes so Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in a series of 10 minute takes each take morphing smoothly into the next one. The set was built with moveable walls which were able to be moved swiftly out of the way by the prop men to accommodate the very large film camera of the time as it moved about the set.

Making a film without the usual cuts and edits would create a viewer experience more akin to the way a human being sees things, or so Hitchcock thought. My personal view is that we see things with our mind more than the eye. The human eye is constantly scanning the scene before us and these scans are used by the mind to put together an image for us. Some of that image will be up to date, especially whatever it is we are concentrating on. Other elements, things in our peripheral vision for instance may be seconds out of date because that element of the image we are seeing was scanned seconds or even minutes ago. That’s my theory anyway. For me the director who films in the way the human eye sees things is Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

I’ve written plenty about Woody before so I won’t go on about him here too long. The great thing about Woody’s films is that they don’t follow the usual film school format of close up, medium shot and wide shot. Woody usually makes a one or two camera set up with few if any close ups and that’s it. In one shot in Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine is talking to someone, it might have been Mia Farrow but I can’t remember off the top of my head and the Mia character goes into the bedroom but continues to talk with Caine. Michael expected there to be a second set up filming Mia in the bedroom but there wasn’t. He asked Woody why not and Woody answered why do we need to see the other person in the bedroom? We can hear their voice that’s all we need. If the character was hiding a gun in their purse or pocket or something pursuant to the plot then we need to see that but otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about Woody’s films, their economical use of film and the lack of multiple set ups.

Those then are my handful of film directors. Who are your favourites?


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The Story of My Life (Part 3)

As usual when I’m stuck for a blog post I tend to look back on my old posts for a little inspiration. I’ve already produced parts 1 and 2 of The Story of my Life (In less than 2500 words) so I thought it might be time to crack on with part 3. To be fair I’ve not had the most exciting life but as a writer with a good 500 blog posts behind me, I’m hoping that with a bit of effort I can produce something of some interest to the reader, however small. My novel, Floating in Space is to a great extent, my own life just jazzed up a little so let’s see if I can make it interesting enough for a blog post. I find that a lot of the episodes in my life have already been made into a blog post so I have added the links which open up in another page if you want to read about things in a little more detail.

Looking back, I seem to have spent a lot of years working for a bus company when really, I should have pulled my finger out and tried to get a job doing something I really enjoyed. Alas, it’s always easy to look back and see where we have made mistakes but at the time things are not always so clear. I had a lot of fun working as a bus conductor and then a driver but later when I wanted to move on, I wasn’t sure how to do it, plus I had a mortgage and bills to pay so I couldn’t afford to just jack everything in.

However, that day did eventually arrive. I had just split with my girlfriend and it was time for a completely new start and so I resigned. I was a great Formula One fan and I decided to start my own business selling motorsport memorabilia. I rented a small place in Manchester City centre in the Corn Exchange which was a grand old building that housed various small units selling all manner of things; books, records, pottery and clothing as well as a lady who read palms.

In my small unit I was selling motor sport books and videos, posters and model racing cars. As time went on people came to me to sell their motoring memorabilia and I realised that my second hand items were doing better than the new stuff. My customer base gradually built up and I noticed that as well as selling I was doing a great deal of talking. I had regular customers that came round just to talk about Formula One rather than buying books on the subject. I kept a diary and spent the quiet moments in my little shop writing away. One of my customers Tom, used to pop in, tell me to get him ‘booked in’ in my diary then he would nip round the corner for two teas. He and I spent a lot of time drinking tea and chatting and I’m pushed to remember if he ever bought anything.

Another customer was an ex-soldier who told me all about his adventures in various parts of the world. He was always asking me to go with him on various wild camping expeditions to the Scottish Highlands but it wasn’t for me. There were many others and looking back there seemed to be an awful lot of people looking for a little companionship and chit chat. Perhaps I should have opened a pub rather than a shop.

One gentleman who bought a good number of things off me was someone who owned his own company. His name was Bernard (once again, names have been changed to protect the innocent) and he was a great Ferrari fan. I sourced a number of Ferrari books and videos for him. We talked a lot too. Not only was he a great fan of the Scuderia Ferrari, he also told me that he drove a Ferrari himself. One day he arranged to bring his car for me to see. Now I don’t know about you but I had, and still have, a firm idea of what a Ferrari should look like. My favourite Ferrari has always been the Ferrari Dino 246GT, the one Tony Curtis drove in the TV series The Persuaders.

The author and his, well ok not his actually, just some random Ferrari!

Bernard arranged to come by at about 12:30 to show me his car. At the appointed time I put the closed for lunch sign up on the door and nipped outside. I suppose I wasn’t really expecting a Ferrari Dino to turn up and there were no Ferraris to be seen but there was a nondescript green saloon car and the occupant was beeping his horn and waving. Yes, it was my customer and he was driving a Ferrari and not all Ferraris are red sporty models as Bernard soon pointed out. I managed to hide my disappointment reasonably well, at least I think so.

I loved that little shop and I loved spending my time chatting F1 to everyone who wanted to chat F1 which was pretty much everyone that came in. The big problem was that I wasn’t making much money so eventually I put the entire business up for sale. That advert ran for a week and only one person answered. Luckily, he was the guy who bought my entire stock. I was really sad to see my business go but not long afterwards the IRA exploded a huge car bomb on the street outside which, had I still had my shop, could easily have blown to me to pieces so maybe there was a silver lining after all. In 2022 the Corn Exchange houses the Triangle, a posh shopping centre and various restaurants, all far too up market for the likes of me.

I was unemployed for a while. The two things I remember about that period was taking a video production course and going to the ‘Job Club’. I was hoping that I could claim something while I was on the video course, you know, travel expenses or something or at least not having to sign on. The DWP took a different view though; according to them if I was on a course, I would be unavailable for work and therefore, not entitled to any benefits at all! I told the people who were running the course and they just said, don’t tell the DWP and we will let you nip out to sign on, which is basically what happened.

I enjoyed that course so much. I really did. We were split into various groups and we had to choose a subject for making a film. My group batted various ideas about and eventually we went for my idea which involved making a documentary about taxi drivers. We had tuition on working the camera and then we were off to the city centre to film taxis and interview taxi drivers. I think we made a pretty good film although I remember having to defend part of it when we had to show our rough cut to the other students. One of the taxi drivers mentioned that certain parts of the city were dangerous to go to and he mentioned Moss Side, only five minutes away from our training location. Moss Side is a predominantly black area but I didn’t think the taxi driver was racist, he was just not happy about going to Moss Side and having his customers run off without paying.

The best bit was working in the editing suite and putting together our video. I loved that and in fact, still love video editing to this day. Back in 1992 we were still using video tape, in fact we shot our film on Super VHS. These days in the digital world, editing is different. I remember once back in the 1980’s, editing a film about Manchester Airport. I had to fade in some sound effects and mix in some background music then fade all that down to read a short narration then fade in a helicopter sound effect before bringing in some more music, and I had to do that all in ‘real’ time. Today that kind of edit is a matter of adding the different audio layers one on top of the other.

I had hoped that afterwards I might have got employment in a video production company but it wasn’t to be. A few companies offered me work but it was work of the unpaid kind. Later I found that unpaid work is a recognised way of getting into film and TV. Sorry but unpaid work wasn’t and isn’t for me.

Back at the DWP they decided to send me to the ‘Job Club’. I didn’t fancy it but it was a case of either go or lose your benefit. The first day I went, the club was so busy all I could do was go in and register and that was it. Next week was quieter and so was the next. By about week three, the attendance had thinned out and I was finally able to make some headway towards getting a job. Someone helped me to put together my very first CV. My unemployed mates and I checked the newspapers for jobs, wrote spec’ letters, were given interview advice and generally had a nice chat and supped endless cups of tea. Eventually I got employment as a coach driver, not one of my favourite jobs. I did get to travel about the country and on one occasion got to go to the Black Forest in Germany. Most of the time I was driving school buses.

One school run that I remember was one week when they gave me a really nice coach instead of an old banger bus for a change. It was a junior school and the kids were only young but they were an unruly lot. The coach had a video player so I brought along a VHS copy of the Gerry Anderson TV show Thunderbirds and the kids loved it. They sat glued to the TV but the only problem was that they didn’t want to get off the bus. Someone complained on the return journey because their child nearly missed their stop so I had to stop playing the video. I remember the delighted faces of the kids when I got the same job again, a few weeks later and they saw me and said look, it’s the driver that plays the Thunderbirds video and then the look of misery when the school assistant who travelled on the bus forbade me to play it.

The coach company I worked for was owned by GM Buses, my former bus company. One day I saw a job advert on the notice board for a job in Metro Comms, the GM Buses control room. I applied, got the job and said goodbye to coaching.

Working in the enquiry section of the bus control room was actually a pretty fun job. The job itself wasn’t great but we had a lot of laughs. I could spend all day telling you stories about our control room in fact I wrote a blog post about it a few years ago but here’s the funniest thing that happened there. One of my friends was called Norm and Norm had a particular dislike of the identity badge we had to wear. When it was time for a break, Norm would pull off his badge, slap it down on his desk and go off to the canteen.

One day, some of the guys decided to cut out a shapely pair of breasts from that day’s newspaper page three model and insert the picture into Norm’s badge. I couldn’t stop laughing and this was even before Norm came back to the office. Everyone was calling for me to shut up and be quiet but I couldn’t help it. Thirty minutes later Norm returned, sat down at his desk, put on his headset, switched on his phone and clipped on his badge. I must have looked ready to burst and after stifling my laughter for about ten minutes Norm got up to get a brew. He happened to glance over at me and asked what was wrong and I couldn’t hold the laughter in any more. He eventually found the offending picture and removed it convinced that I was the practical joker.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post because I had a lot of fun writing it and looking back on some of my old jobs. Working in Metro Comms wasn’t the best job I’ve ever had but we had a lot of laughs there and believe me, if you get the chance to laugh at least sometime during your day, that day will go down a whole lot better.


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TV, Julia and Chopping Onions

Not so long ago I published a post called A Kind of Foodie Sort of Blog Post. It was about cookery and food and brought me in quite a few new readers as well as some new subscribers. A lot of those subscribers were food bloggers and to a certain extent they must be feeling a little short changed with their new subscription as I haven’t written much on the food and drink subject since. Anyway, at least they have had some different content for a change, stuff about 60s and 70s TV shows, classic films and secondhand books and so on. A change is a good as a rest as they say. Anyway, perhaps it’s time to redress the balance and thank those new readers for their support with another foodie sort of blog.

I’ve not been at my best this week. I tested positive for Covid 19 and at one point I felt so bad I thought I might have picked up Covid 20 and 21 as well. I’m feeling much better now and another positive lately has been in the bread making department. A few weeks ago, I made a loaf of bread without the assistance of my bread maker. I’d read somewhere that it’s best to make a wholemeal loaf using a combination of white and wholemeal flour. I found a recipe in one of my numerous cookery books which called for 500g of flour so I thought I’d use 250g of each. As it happened, I only had a little wholemeal flour so I made up the shortfall with white. I added my yeast and salt and olive oil, mixed it up and gave the result a good kneading and left it to prove for thirty minutes.

It rose quite well so I gave it a second kneading and then found I didn’t have a tin in which to bake it. After a rather frantic search I came across one of my mother’s old cake tins and used that. My bread later came out of the oven looking wonderful and tasted just as good. I do love warm bread with a good lashing of butter. Now you might be thinking well done, he’s managed to make himself a loaf of bread, bravo! Yes, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself but could I reproduce that feat, could I make another?

Only yesterday I made another loaf using a 50-50 white and wholewheat flour mix. It wasn’t quite as good as the first one so I reckon in future I might use a 40-60 mix, even so, I’m already looking forward to the next loaf. Also, the thing is, once you have some great bread you need something equally as good to have with it, great cheese or pâté or great soup even. Perhaps it’s time to take a look in my cookbooks or see what my favourite TV chefs have to offer on the small screen.

Talking about TV chefs I want to talk about a TV show, a current TV show. Yes, not from the 1960’s or 70’s like I usually write about but an actual current mainstream TV show. It’s Julia, the story of American TV chef Julia Child.

These days a lot of new TV shows always seem to be on some TV channel that I don’t have access to, Disney+ or Netflix for instance but happily, Julia is currently showing on Sky Showcase which, thanks to Liz’s Sky subscription I can actually get to see.

Those of us in the UK are probably not that familiar with Julia Child. In the 1950’s she lived in Paris with her diplomat husband where she embarked on a training course to be a French chef. She learned all the tricks and techniques of French cookery and she was so keen about it, she decided to write a cookery book called Mastering The Art of French Cooking which she hoped would bring the excellence of French cuisine into the American home.

The TV series picks up Julia later living back in the USA when she gets invited onto a local TV show to talk about her book and rather than just talk about cookery she took into the interview room a hot plate, a pan and some eggs and proceeded to cook the interviewer an omelette.

Julia is played by Sarah Lancashire, a British TV veteran. She started her career in TV soap Coronation St where she played the dizzy Raquel. She played the character for five years but then left to do other things as she apparently tired of the relentless fame of being a TV soap star. Since then, she has starred in many other TV productions and series. In 2000 she signed a ‘golden handcuffs’ deal binding her exclusively to the TV channel ITV. The deal was worth 1.3 million pounds and made Sarah the highest paid UK actress at the time.

It’s hard to say why I like Julia so much. Lancashire is excellent as Julia as is David Hyde Pierce who you might remember from the US sitcom Frasier where he played Frasier’s brother Niles. It appears to be a faithful reconstruction of 1950s America. It’s gently humorous and it’s interesting to see the dynamics of TV production in the 1950s, what the TV executives of the time thought would and would not work and also how the idea of a TV chef came about. There are no car chases and explosions but instead there is plenty of food.

I’m not a great cook myself but I do like watching food programmes, especially those that highlight the skills of a particular chef and how we, the great food eating, TV watching public can try to emulate them.

Now this isn’t the first time Julia has been portrayed on the screen. In 2009 Nora Ephron wrote and directed the film Julie and Julia. It was based on two books, My Life in France, an autobiography by Julia Child and a memoir by Julie Powell based on her blog, in which she decided to cook all 524 recipes in Julia’s cookbook, in a 365-day period. Meryl Streep played Julia Child in the film and I’d be hard pushed to name another film based on a blog, if indeed there are any. Meryl’s version of Julia Child was quite unsurprisingly very similar to Sarah’s and I’d be hard pushed to say which I prefer.

In the film Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, the blogger who decides to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes, all 524 of them for her blog. She experiences a number of disasters and frustrations but she finally pulls off her task and to her surprise, her blog ends up with a huge amount of followers and becomes a great success. The film also looks at the other Julia’s life in France and the trials and tribulations of learning to be a French chef. I mentioned earlier about the skills of a chef and I do love those moments in TV cookery when the celebrity chef will dazzle the viewer with their incredible chopping skills on an onion or something. For me it’s just chop, chop, chop, gradually getting through the onion. For the experts is one quick superfast ch-ch-ch-chop with an entire onion reduced to slices in seconds and in the film, Meryl Streep as Julia goes on a great chopping spree to hone her chopping skills.

I can completely identify with the disasters and frustrations experienced by blogger Julie as can most amateur cooks. Sometimes I have made a fabulous meal, other times I’ve produced that same meal using the same recipe and it’s been a little tame to say the least. What made the difference between the outstanding chilli from last week and the insipid offering from today? What did I do wrong? Was it the meat or the seasoning? Did I miss an ingredient? Usually, I never manage to work out why my food went wrong which is really annoying.

So, shall I look in my recipe books for a soup recipe to go with my fabulous fresh bread or just make a sandwich? Maybe it’s time to settle down with Julia Child’s book? I was saving it for a holiday read but what the heck, I think it’s time for a cheese sandwich, a cup of tea and a good read.


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Writing, Tapes and Chocolate Biscuits

Once again, it’s Saturday and time for me to entertain my small band of readers with a new blog post. Just lately, having produced over 500 blog posts, I’m starting to feel a little pleased with myself. I started blogging in 2014 but now I think of it, I’ve been blogging a lot longer than that. As a schoolboy I used to publish a blog every week. OK, it wasn’t digital, it wasn’t called a blog and it wasn’t available on the internet, in fact the internet itself wasn’t available either.

My ‘blog’ was very low tech. It was written on the middle pages of a schoolboy exercise book and passed around to my fellow pupils. It was called ‘The latest from the Perverted Press!’ It was mainly a spoof on the then current news stories from the late sixties and early seventies. They were things along the lines of, President Nixon issues apologies after visiting the nuclear command centre and saying ‘time for launch’ when in fact he had really said ‘time for lunch!’

I used to bill myself as the celebrated author of that great trilogy, the ‘Master’ novels. There was the first one, ‘Master Smith’, the follow-up, ‘Master Jones’, and the one that caused a great deal of unwarranted attention to the Perverted Press, ‘Master Bates’.

I had a friend called Jeff Langdon who, as far as I know, was the only pupil from my rough and ready suburban high school who ever made it to university. Jeff created a blog, sorry, I mean pamphlet, called simply The Steve Higgins Story, so I was forced to reply with The Jeff Langdon Story.

My pamphlet was rather popular, far more popular than Jeff’s and he always complained that my popularity stemmed from the fact that my pamphlets looked better because of the liberal use of coloured pens and drawings. Alas Jeff, art always was one of my top subjects. Even so, I thought my blog -sorry, pamphlet- was much better anyway, coloured pens or no coloured pens. Jeff, I’m sure, would disagree.

Talking about The Perverted Press has made me look at my blogs and videos in a different way. One of my regular blogs is my Holiday Book Bag in which I review the books I’ve taken on holiday. Back in my teens I used to make a similar review about the records I used to buy. I still have a few of those tapes. One was called simply Tape Review and in it, I played excerpts of records and tapes I had bought and talked about the best ones. I remember on one of them I chose my favourite guitar solo of the year and if I remember correctly the winning guitar solo was one from One of These Nights by the Eagles.

Another one was Self Portrait in Tape, a possible precursor to my podcasts or perhaps my Life Story blog posts. In it I rabbit on about myself and play some favourite music tracks.

Those tapes were the forerunners of my book reviews and podcasts. Back in the 1970’s there was a show on Radio 1 called My Top Twelve. It was actually a straight rip off of Desert Island Discs in which someone would choose their top 12 tracks and talk about them. My old friend Steve and I decided to interview each other and we both introduced our own top twelves. A few years ago, I digitised my copy but I changed some of the tracks as in the intervening 40 years my tastes have changed a little. Neil Sedaka’s Laughter in The Rain was a pleasant enough track but hardly Top Twelve material so that had to go as did a couple of other tracks that are no longer my cup of tea. Barry White got a bit of a slagging off from my younger self so I felt compelled to add a few interjections from the present day -actually 2017- to redress the balance and explain my changed attitude towards Barry. (What would my younger self think if he knew I had a copy of Barry White’s Greatest Hits in my car?)

I play the resulting Top Twelve CD in my car quite a lot. It’s nice and perhaps a little surreal to hear my old self from 1974 and my somewhat older 2017 self, chatting with my old friend Steve, sadly no longer with us, once again.

Now I think of it, my past life has been the inspiration behind quite a lot of my writing. My early life inspired a lot of Floating in Space and many of my blog posts. I like to take something, some incident from the past and make it into a funny story or compare the situation to one in today’s digital, internet, mobile phone 21st century world.

As I’m looking back and getting nostalgic, I thought I’d throw in the following story from when I first started work. It’s nothing whatsoever to do with blogging but now I think about it, I bought my tape recorder with my very first wage packet so I must have made the Top Twelve recording round about the time of the following events so there is a faint connection.

When I lived at home with mum and dad and my brother, I occasionally might have got to eat a chocolate biscuit. My brother and I would have had to have been good, done our homework, tidied our bedroom and eaten all our dinner and so on. Then and only then would we be offered a chocolate biscuit with our after dinner cup of tea. Even today I find it hard not to have a biscuit with a cup of tea; old habits die hard.

One day at work I went out for lunch with our company surveyor and on the way back he nipped into a small shop nearby. He emerged with a large pack of chocolate biscuits. Back in the office he offered a biscuit to me and my colleagues. Most people said no but I took one thinking that if I was offered one later by my mother, I would have doubled my chocolate biscuit intake for the day.

Coming back from the tea machine with a cup of tea I watched Dave the surveyor, settle down at his desk which was on a slightly higher level than mine. Dave took a biscuit and quietly scoffed it. Then he took another and then another, and then another! I remember watching wide eyed as Dave ate the entire packet of chocolate biscuits, one after the other. I felt I had witnessed an act of unbelievable gluttony. A grown man eating an entire packet of biscuits. What would my mother have said?

Looking back, I reckon that was the moment when I decided to leave home. Away from the constraints of my family I would be free to stay up late, drink alcohol, invite women home and spend as much time as I desired on my writing projects.

And eat chocolate biscuits of course.


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Those Pesky Ruskies (Update)

I was watching television today, one of my usual pastimes and I settled down to watch the old 60’s TV show The Saint starring Roger Moore as adventurer Simon Templar. In this week’s episode Templar is sent by British Intelligence to intercept Colonel Smolenko, a top ranking KGB officer who is in danger of being murdered. The murder will be blamed on the British so Templar has to stop it happening and find out who is behind it all.

The colonel it turns out is a beautiful, cool blonde of the female variety. She takes some convincing that Simon Templar is out to save her but finally goes along with everything despite Simon being a bourgeois capitalist adventurer. As the action takes place in Paris, Simon decides to show the Soviet era colonel some pretty bourgeois restaurants, bars and western style night life. All of this has an effect on the colonel because at the end of the episode, despite a liquidation order coming her way for Simon, she declines to obey and Simon lives on to fight another day.  Ahh, that old rogue Roger Moore, he did have some charm!

One reason why I’ve mentioned The Saint is because that tongue in cheek 60’s TV version of Russian spies contrasts sharply with the news, back in 2018, about the Russian father and daughter involved in the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. The March 4th attack on Sergei Skripal, once an informant for the UK’s foreign intelligence service, and his daughter, Yulia, exposed local people to risk around public places in Salisbury. Traces of the poison have been found at a pub and a pizza parlour visited by the Skripals. Prime Minister Theresa May said in the House of Commons that “It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” The Russians naturally deny any such attack. Back in 2018 when I first published this post, claims and counter claims were still going back and forth across the media. It seems clear to me though that the Russians, despite giving Communism the boot, are still not fully converted to the ways of the western democracies. Indeed, Mr Putin’s suppression of opposition in the Russian Federation must surely have brought forth complimentary murmurs from Stalin and Brezhnev in the Soviet afterlife.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the man who brought Russia kicking and screaming into the democratic world. He did not end the Soviet era though, in fact what he wanted, I think, was a democratic communist union. That idea though was ruined by Boris Yeltsin who must have smiled inwardly when events brought him to power. Here was the man exiled from the Communist party by Gorbachev who then managed to return to power because of democratic initiatives instituted by the same man. Mikhail Gorbachev made himself President then found the Soviet Union disappearing underneath him. Yeltsin took over the fledgling Russian Federation and Putin, the Russian leader today, became acting president when Yeltsin later resigned. Putin appears to be happy to duck and dive in his attempts to stay in power just like his predecessors of a hundred years ago.

Lenin by the painter Brodskiy

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his revolutionary alias of Lenin was another man determined to grab power out of the ashes of the Russian Revolution. Winston Churchill described his return to Russia from exile, facilitated by Germany in a sealed railway train, as “like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.” Lenin presided over the October Revolution and took power from the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. After doing a deal with Germany, Lenin extracted Russia from the First World War and later consolidated his Bolshevik empire by emerging victorious from the Russian civil war. In his later years poor health prevented him from removing his would be successor, a man Lenin felt unsuitable as Soviet leader, and so Joseph Dzhugashvili came to power beginning a reign more terrible than any of the deposed Romanov Czars.  Dzhugashvili of course preferred the alias of Stalin.

Stalin ruled over the Soviet empire until his death in 1953. Even as he lay crippled by a stroke, his aides were too scared to move him in case they incurred his displeasure. It was Khrushchev who finally emerged as Stalin’s successor, consigning potential successor security chief Beria to imprisonment and death. Khrushchev initiated a number of reforms in the Soviet Union, opening up the gulags and freeing prisoners but he became increasingly unpopular with his colleagues in the Politburo until he was finally removed in favour of Brezhnev in 1964.

The coup was a quiet and bloodless one, Khrushchev later commenting “I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia as we all know. Putin was a former KGB agent who resigned from the KGB after the attempted coup of Gorbachev in 1991. He began working for the mayor of St Petersburg and became the deputy chairman of the St Petersburg government, resigning when Anatoly Sobchak lost the election in 1996. He moved to Moscow and got himself a job as the deputy chief of the Presidential Property Department. Putin moved up through the ranks of government and in 1998, Boris Yeltsin appointed him as director of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Later, Yeltsin made Putin his Prime Minister and when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Putin became the acting president. He later won the next two elections. The Russian constitution prevented him from running again but Dimitry Medvedev became the president and he appointed Putin as prime minister in a sneaky power switching operation. In 2012 Putin ran again for president and was elected despite protests across Russia and allegations of electoral fraud. Will Putin step away from power after his final term? I doubt it.

I was surprised recently after seeing the Russian parliament, the Duma, on TV. All the delegates seemed to be in favour of Putin’s war on the Ukraine. Is there no elected official over there that doesn’t want war? Perhaps they are all scared of Putin in the way Stalin’s colleagues were scared of him. Over on YouTube I recently saw an interview with Gorbachev where the great man himself, revered as someone who ended the Cold War, brought down the Berlin wall and initiated Glasnost (Openness) in Soviet society, declined to criticise Putin.

Ian Smith, the prime minister of that long vanished country Rhodesia once said this about democracy: “Democracy is a very delicate thing, perfected by the British, but that does not mean you can transplant it elsewhere.” In some ways, especially when you look at the Middle East, perhaps Smith was right, after all the fundamental thing about democracy means that those who are defeated at election time are obliged to hand over power to the newly elected winner. Some people, President Mugabe for example, were not inclined to do so or to even allow anyone to challenge them. Still, everyone votes for a dictator, or so they say.

Back in my coach driving days, I drove a coachload of Russian shop stewards to various meetings with UK union representatives of British Gas. I’m not sure what they were discussing but they all seemed pretty nice, in fact later on they complained to their hosts that I was sitting on my coach, reading a book and eating sandwiches, when they were being wined and dined in a swanky hotel. This inequality so disappointed them that they insisted I went inside and be served the same lovely meal that they were served. Very nice it was too!

Surely then, wasn’t Ian Smith being just a little snooty? Don’t those same Russians deserve the same democratic rights that we tend to take so much for granted in the west?

What is the situation in the Kremlin today I wonder? Will anyone dare to tell Mr Putin that he doesn’t suit them anymore?


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A Series of Random Classic Film Connections

Back in the 1960’s I was a big fan of the Apollo moon missions and on UK TV one of the presenters was James Burke. Burke also did a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode that stands out in my memory was one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. I thought that in today’s blog, I’d try and do something similar but relating to film so here are five fascinating connections.

Casablanca.

Casablanca is one of my very favourite films, in fact a while back, I did an entire blog post dedicated to the film. Humphrey Bogart starred as Rick who runs a popular café in the city of Casablanca. Set in the 1940’s during the second world war, refugees are everywhere, fleeing from the Nazi menace. Certain letters of transit have disappeared guaranteeing the owner free travel out of occupied lands to freedom and various people want them, in particular freedom fighter Victor Lazlo and his wife Lisa played by Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman.

The Chief of Police, Captain Louis Renault, is out to stop them and perhaps even out to make a little money for himself on the side. The film was made in 1942 entirely at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood apart from one scene at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. The film won the Oscar for best picture, best adapted screenplay and also one for best director for Michael Curtiz. The film has grown in popularity ever since and always ranks highly in any list of the greatest ever films.

Captain Louis Renault was played by Claude Rains. Rains was a British actor who became one of the screen’s great character actors. He died in 1967 but one of his last films was Lawrence of Arabia, made in 1962.

Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence is another great classic of the cinema. Filmed in 70mm and directed by David Lean, the films tells the story of TE Lawrence played by Peter O’Toole and like Casablanca it is a classic of the cinema. The film was made in 1962 on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.

There are numerous stars in the film as well as Claude Rains but the one I want to highlight is Alec Guinness. Guinness made his film debut in another David Lean film Great Expectations made in 1946. In 1955 Guinness was in Hollywood having been nominated for an Oscar. One night he went out and was struggling to find a table in a restaurant. At one establishment where he was turned away a young man came after him and asked him to join him for a meal. That man was James Dean. Dean insisted on showing Alec his new Porsche Spyder and when he saw the car Guinness was apparently overcome by a strange feeling and told Dean never to drive the car and that if he did, he would be dead by the following week. Guinness was not someone who regularly made predictions of the future and was probably as taken aback by this feeling as Dean was.

A week later, Dean was driving the Porsche to a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car crash.

Giant

James Dean had just finished the movie Giant only weeks before his death. Giant starred Rock Hudson as Texas rancher Bick Benedict with Dean playing the third lead of Jett Rink. Rink is a no good cowboy who works for Bick Benedict. Bick and Jett don’t get on well but Luz, Bick’s sister has a soft spot for Jett and re-employs him after Bick has fired him. Later, Jett Rink inherits a small piece of land after the death of Luz. He goes on to find oil on the land and becomes a millionaire. The film’s other lead star was Elizabeth Taylor. She plays Leslie who marries Bick Benedict.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in 1932 and began her career as a child actress in the 1940’s. She was one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars and was married eight times including twice to Richard Burton. Her second husband was Mike Todd. He was an entrepreneur and producer who decided to try his hand at film production. His company developed the Todd AO Process, a widescreen film process that was based on Cinerama, a technique that used three projectors. He was sadly killed in a plane crash after completing Around the World in 80 Days, a film that showcased the process.

Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 days was a film version of the novel by Jules Verne. David Niven starred as Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman who takes part in a bet at the London Reform Club, in which he wagers that he can successfully circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. The film was shot in 70mm using the Todd AO process mentioned above. The film starred numerous celebrities in small parts and was filmed all over the world.

David Niven was perfect for the role as Phileas Fogg. He was an English actor and former army officer who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s. He worked as an extra and was one of the few people who went from extra to film stardom. He was put under contract by Sam Goldwyn.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In 1936 Niven starred with close friend Errol Flynn in the Hollywood film version of The Charge of The Light Brigade, transferred by Warner Brothers from the Crimea to India. Flynn and Olivia De Havilland were the main stars and Niven writes about the production in his wonderful book, Bring On The Empty Horses.

The book was named after a phrase uttered by the director to begin a scene calling for a number of riderless horses. The director was none other than Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, which makes our film connections complete.


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Blogs, Video and a Social Media Marketing Mix

The lockdown of last year didn’t really affect me that much. It was a bit of a pain not being able to go out and I did miss the pub quiz night as well as my visits to my favourite restaurants. Essentially though, I’m not an outdoor kind of guy. I like my TV and my laptop and I’m pretty happy sitting outside in the summer reading a good book. This last week I’ve been experiencing a more personal kind of lockdown. Liz has just had a hip replacement and I’ve been off work tending to her every need.

Even people who are close can have their differences. Liz likes to be challenged by word games and I like my challenge in the form of a good documentary film.

‘Not another quiz show’ I usually say when she has got the TV remote.

‘Not another Kennedy documentary’ she tends to say when the remote is over on my side. Oh well, recuperation is important and if she can put up with the occasional JFK documentary I can deal with another Countdown, I suppose.

When I’ve had a brief moment to myself, I’ve been looking at my book, Floating in Space, and wondering what more I could do to promote it. This entire blog is about promoting Floating in Space, at least that was the idea when I started. Every blog post, whether it’s about books, films, my life or any other random subject that comes to mind always ends with a little plug for Floating, right down at the end of the post. It usually comes in the form of a short video with the prime intention of making the viewer wonder if their life is worth living if they haven’t got a copy of my book. Most people and I’m talking a good 90% plus of people who decide to watch decide that life is worth living without a copy of Floating in Space and decline to buy. Pity, especially as I went to a lot of trouble making those videos.

A lot of people ask me about the title, Floating in Space. Why is it called that? Is it a sci-fi book? No, it isn’t which makes me wonder whether changing the title would be a good thing. The title comes about because of the way the main character, Stuart Hill, looks at his life. Sometimes it’s a good thing to look at your life not in little segments but as a whole. How could you possibly do that? Well Stuart does it like this.

Updated version of Floating In Space available now from Amazon!

This technique, for want of a better word, is best employed in the summer. Find yourself a quiet outdoor place. Lie down on the grass facing towards the sky. A clear blue sky isn’t much good for this. What you need is a blue sky and a good selection of white fluffy clouds. Now relax. A good way to do that is start at the top of your head and relax your scalp, then go down to your eyebrows and relax them. Then your eyes, nose and so on, all the way down to your toes.

Now, I don’t know if you can remember those visual teasers you used to see in comics years ago. For instance a line drawing of a cube which by an effort of will you could make into a solid box or, again using only your mind, see the box as an open box and look inside. That’s the thing to do now looking up at the sky. See the curve of the sky bending down towards the horizon at the extreme end of your peripheral vision? Well turn that around so instead of looking up at the sky you are looking down. Imagine you are floating in space, seeing the blue, not of the sky, but of the planet Earth and down below is you and your life, going about it’s everyday cycle of work, sleep and relaxation. Down there on the Earth are moments of enjoyment, moments of happiness, moments of sadness and sadly, moments of horror.

Most of my promotions for Floating tend to focus not on the process I’ve described above but on the city of Manchester where the book is set. I’ve only visited my home city once since the pandemic and it’s looking good. New towering skyscrapers seem to be going up with every month that passes by, at least according to the small group of Manchester photographers that I follow on Instagram. Manchester’s nickname is the Rainy City because of course it rains a lot and one of my favourite photographers makes a habit of photographing the puddles of the city, either with the city’s new buildings reflected in the water or low angle pictures with a rainy puddle in the foreground and some Mancunian architectural delight in the background.

When I visited Manchester a few months ago I took my camera along and made a bit of a walkabout video. I had my selfie stick and walked around chatting to the camera. I looked at some of the new hi rise towers and then walked round to the old end of town and took a stroll down the Rochdale canal which was completed in 1804. Instead of writing a narration I just stayed with the video of me chatting to the camera and added a few voice over comments and snippets of info. That video is currently one of my most watched videos so if I had any sense I’d probably make more of the same but it so happens I’m just not that comfortable walking around chatting to my camera. I much prefer my usual videos, many of which have voice-over narrations which originate in many cases from my blog posts. Like a lot of my blogs and videos, I can’t leave them alone, I’m always tinkering with them and here’s a case below, another edit of my favourite Manchester video.

I am of course an old school video producer. I like videos that open up gradually and have titles and an introduction. That technique, I am reliably informed, is very old hat indeed. In the 21st century social media world, videos need to be straight to the point. Quick introductions, a quick statement of your credentials, perhaps a brief exhortation for the viewer to subscribe to my channel and then wham, straight into the subject. That is internet video in a nutshell because there are thousands of other videos out there that are just a click away and can instantly nab your viewer if you fail to grab and keep their attention.

Getting back to blogging, I have probably written more words, in my blogs and tweets and other social media posts promoting my book, than are actually in the book itself. Oh well, that is one of the facts of the self-publishing world: Writing a book is one thing but marketing is an entirely different ball game altogether and of course the competition is fierce with more than 5000 new books released on Kindle every day! Is it worth it you might ask? Why do I do it? Well, quite simply I do it because I like doing it and when the enjoyment has gone, I’ll start thinking about doing something else with my spare time.

Nothing improves and hones your writing skills more than the writing process itself and as a blogger with a deadline of 10am on a Saturday morning I have even started to feel like something of a professional writer. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to log into WordPress and find that someone has liked one of my posts, or better still has left a comment. I’ve always thought that an intrinsic element of the human condition is finding that out that there are others in the world who think the same way as you do and like the things that you like.

I do tinker quite a lot with Floating in Space and some time ago I added a version which hopefully corrected the book’s various grammatical mistakes and I also added a small index to help explain 1977 to my younger readers. So, what else should I do to market my work? Another Tweet? Another Facebook post? Another YouTube video? Perhaps I should go further afield in the social media world and do more on Instagram or sign up for Tik Tok?

Actually I think I might just give marketing a rest for a while. Liz is still in bed so I think I might just relax for a while with Oliver Stone’s new Kennedy documentary.


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The Triumph and Tragedy of F1 Racing

This weekend the new 2022 Grand Prix season kicks off in Bahrain. I’ve been reading all about the testing sessions in the various F1 blogs I follow as well as catching up with some of the testing action on YouTube. Will Hamilton and Verstappen commence battle again? Will Ferrari be contenders for the win? How will George Russell get on at Mercedes? All these questions will soon be answered. Having got myself fully into Formula One mode it was time to take a look back at some bygone racing to get myself fully hyped up and ready for Sunday’s Grand Prix

A few years ago I wrote a post about the Weekend of a Champion. It was an old VHS video I had unearthed about the F1 weekend of racing driver Jackie Stewart at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1971. After watching the video I went onto the internet to do a little research and found that director Roman Polanski had recently remastered the film onto DVD. I went to my other old internet friend, eBay, and quickly got myself a cheap second-hand copy.

I put that DVD onto my shelf and pretty much forgot about it until the other day. I had been doing some work, writing and editing, and it was time to settle down and relax with some TV. As usual, there was nothing much on terrestrial TV to catch my eye so it seemed to me to be a good time to slap in that unwatched DVD and give it a go.

I do love watching old F1 films and documentaries. In the 1970’s I knew every driver and every car. Back in those days drivers chose a distinctive design for their helmets and stuck to it. Today in F1, drivers have a new helmet design and a new helmet for almost every race so fans can buy, if they so wish, a replica of their hero’s British Grand Prix helmet 2021, or Italian Grand Prix helmet 2020. More memorabilia for us fans and more income for the modern driver of course.

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart

The Weekend of a Champion is a documentary that focuses closely on Jackie; we don’t see the work the mechanics have to do or the decisions made by the team manager but we do see Jackie setting up his car and deliberating about gear ratios and tyres and so on. A nice moment for him must have been strolling down into the circuit and having all the fans call ‘Jackie’ as he walked down towards his pit. Afterwards Jackie walked round to the first corner and watching the F3 cars, pointed out to Roman who was taking the corner properly and who wasn’t.

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.

Later Jackie is seen engaging in some 70’s style PR with fans who have won a competition to attend the event, then in the evening he and Helen are at a gala dinner evening.

Jackie drove for the Tyrell Team owned and managed by the affable Ken Tyrell. Ken worked with the French car company Matra and they produced a car for Ken in 1969 which, coupled with the Ford DFV engine, won the world championship for Jackie that year. For the 1970 season Matra wanted to run the car with their own engine so Ken and Jackie, fully committed to the Ford engine, parted company with the French car manufacturer. In 1970 they used a car produced by the then new March team but after disappointing results, Ken decided to build his own car for Jackie and mid-season the Tyrell 001 made its appearance.

Matra had always asked Ken to run a French driver in the second car and perhaps because of the sponsorship of French oil company Elf, they continued to do so. Johnny Servoz-Gavin was Jackie’s French team mate but when he retired from racing after an eye injury Ken recruited François Cevert.

Francois Cevert

Cevert was a good looking Frenchman who was eager to learn from his senior team mate Jackie Stewart. The film shows the two working closely together talking about the lines that they use around particular corners with Jackie advising François which gears to use around the Monaco street circuit.

Seen fleetingly in the film are the other star drivers from 1971, drivers who were once familiar figures to 1970’s race fans like me: Graham Hill, Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. Siffert and Rodriguez were both killed in racing accidents. Graham Hill later started his own racing team and retired from driving but was killed in a light aircraft crash when returning home from abroad. Fittipaldi went on to win two world championships, retire then make a comeback in the USA racing Indycars.

Ronnie Peterson was a driver who I always thought would become one of the F1 greats. He won 10 Grands Prix in his career and was the world championship runner up twice. He was known as the Superswede. After some bad career choices he returned to the Lotus team partnering Mario Andretti. In the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Ronnie was involved in a first lap crash in which he was trapped in his car when it caught fire. Other drivers involved in the incident helped pull Ronnie from his burning car and his only injuries seemed to be just broken and fractured legs.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill

There was no regular TV coverage in the UK at the time and I used to tape record a radio broadcast about the race. I was shocked to hear about Ronnie but at least I went to bed that night knowing that he was ok. However, Ronnie’s broken bones produced a fat embolism and during the night his condition worsened. He died the next morning. His wife Barbro, never got over his death and she took her own life some years later.

Jackie Stewart won the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix and the World Championship that year but decided to retire at the end of 1973. He had a wife and family so I suppose his personal safety must have been high on his list of priorities. Jackie even had his personal doctor present at all his races, as immediate medical care in the aftermath of a crash was a big issue back then. He was close to François Cevert and glad that he would take his place as Ken’s lead driver. The US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen would have been Stewart’s 100th race. He must have been feeling confident. He had already tied up the ’73 world championship, he had a great car and was ready to retire. In the practice session Cevert had a bad crash. By all accounts he hit a kerb on the left side of the track which caused him to swerve over to the right where he bounced off the barrier and back into the barrier on the other side. Photographs show the car upside down on the barrier and poor François was killed instantly. The Tyrell team withdrew from the event and Jackie never raced again.

Towards the end of the DVD Jackie and Roman Polanski are filmed together for a present-day epilogue. They talk about the events of the 1971 race and it is clear that the death of Cevert still weighs heavily on the former champion’s shoulders.

Once, a few years ago, Liz and I were holidaying in the Loire and as usual were rummaging about at a vide grenier, a French car boot sale. I don’t usually look at the book stalls there as my French reading is even worse than my French speaking but I spotted a book with a familiar face on the cover. Liz asked who it was and I replied that it was François Cevert. Straight away the book stall owner mentioned that Cevert was a local man and was still popular in the region. Others heard us talking and they too came forward with their Cevert stories. After his death in the USA his body was returned to France and he was laid to rest in the village of Vaudelnay, Maine-et-Loire.

The 1970’s was a sad time for motorsport but today’s hi-tech F1 is a much safer environment despite being infinitely faster. Hopefully Lewis Hamilton and his fellow drivers will never have to deal with the death of a racing colleague unlike their counterparts in the 1970’s.


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