How to Build a Car – Adrian Newey

A completely different kettle of fish from the last autobiography I read!  This one is written by Adrian Newey, designer of F1 cars.  The book is part autobiography and partly about how Newey designs and builds cars.

I was bought the book for Christmas 2017 and have been saving it, looking forward to finding the right time to indulge in reading it.

The autobiography part of the book is interesting.  I always enjoy finding out about people and how they get to where they are at, in whatever field.  In Adrian Newey’s case it seems to have been a lifelong passion to be able to design/draw cars and then be able to build them.  It’s somehow always uplifting to read about someone achieving their ambition, although I expect that level of drive and determination makes them a pain to live with – something alluded to in the book.

Once the author gets a job working in motor racing the autobiography parts of the book become more of a background narrative to the development of the cars and their performance.  As someone who is interested in how cars work I really enjoyed reading about the development of F1 cars and reading about the sport has become more scientific in its development methods over the years.

It’s also interesting to get a different perspective on the “names” from F1 Newey has worked with; Nigel Mansell, Patrick Head, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis etc. I hadn’t realised Adrian Newey had designed the car Ayrton Senna died in. And although it is covered in the book I can’t begin to imagine how that must feel.

The downside of the book is that it rather trails off at the end.  There is no proper summing up or ending.  I can see why; Adrian Newey is still very much alive and kicking, moving on to do other things, but I feel he could have picked a clear end point for the book and put the rest in a short “watch this space, this is what’s coming next” chapter.  Possibly the end of chapter 74 when Red Bull have just won their third Driver’s and Constructor’s championship would have been the right place to stop.

Overall though I really enjoyed reading this book and, as long as you have some interest in how cats are built and work, I’d really recommend it.

Stories of Famous Days – E S Brooks

This is another of the books that came out of my mammoth auction lot.  I pulled it out to read because the preface states “There never was a holiday but had its store of stories that might be told – if only the heroes and heroines thereof could find audience or opportunity.”  How could you not read a book that starts like that.

My best guess, based on the language, some of the stories and the binding, is that this book was originally published in the USA at the end of the 19th century. It is odd, quirky and interesting.

The book looks at the main high days and holidays in the calendar and tells a story or legend about each of them.  It starts with Christmas, continues with New Year’s Day, St Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, May Day, Midsummer Eve, Independence Day, A Great Olympiad, Michaelmas, Hallow E’en and finishes with Thanksgiving Day.

My favourite of the stories is the April Fool played on King John by the residents of Gotham whilst he was travelling to Nottingham.

I loved the fact that all of the stories and legends were new to me.  It made reading the book a bit of an adventure.

The language also made it a bit of an adventure.  It took time to get use to the odd phrasing and obsolete words.  Despite being considerably newer I find it easier to read Shakespeare than this.  It might be that it is written in American archaic language so the sentence structure and cadence are unfamiliar too.

Not all of the stories are interesting and a couple are downright dull for children, which is who this book is aimed at.  However, I plan to pass the book onto my eldest honorary great-niece, aged 11, to see what she makes of it.

I’ll report back when I’ve heard from her.


The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I have to admit that almost everything I knew about this book before reading it was garnered from reading Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.

I vaguely knew it was a religious allegory and I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it if I hadn’t acquired a copy in a box of books I bought at an auction.  And I wouldn’t have bothered reading it even then had I not been surprised by how slim a volume it was.

The book is in two parts, which I didn’t know from my Little Women reading.  The first part follows the journey of Christian who realises his life in his city is empty and meaningless and that he needs to change.  He is scoffed at by his family, friends and neighbours but continues anyway.  On his journey he gets sidetracked and waylaid and is also helped by others to find his way again and to reach the promised land.

The second part is about Christian’s wife and children who, realising the error of their ways, decide to follow in his footsteps and redeem themselves.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not a religious person but I didn’t find the book too preachy.  I feel the message about striving to be better people is about more than organised religion and is more about the human condition.

The language is a little archaic to a 21st century ear, a bit like reading the language of the King James Bible, which might be a bit off-putting but you get a lot of story in 115 pages.

I enjoyed spotting the bits referenced in the March sister’s playing at Pilgrim’s Progress although these were much fewer than I had expected.

Would I recommend others to read this book?  Probably not, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend rushing out to buy it, although if a copy ever comes your way give it a go.

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will – Eric Sykes

I always liked Eric Sykes as a comedic actor.  He was alwys funny, he was never crude and The Plank still makes me laugh.  So, when I found a copy of his autobiography at a book sale buying it was a no-brainer.

This is less of an autobiography than a series of anecdotes in chronological order.

The earlier chapters about growing up in Oldham are the most detailed, like a more usual biography.  Sykes describes growing up on the borders of poverty, his early jobs in factories and shops and then his call up into the RAF during the war.

As with many comics of his generation it was the people he met during the war who influenced him to become an actor, comic and writer after the war rather than to settle down back into a steady job in a factory or shop again.

The show-biz years parts of the book are a series of stories about Sykes work or about his family rather than telling the reader much about Sykes the man.  I suspect that like a lot of autobiographies there is a lot that has been left out or swept under the carpet.

Generally though Eric Sykes comes across as a modest man who was interesting and interested.  A man driven to keep working and who also enjoyed what he did.

I’m really pleased I read the book.  And that writing this has taken nearly 3-times as long as a review usually does because I’ve kept been side-tracked into watching YouTube videos.  It’s not often I spend more time laughing than typing when writing!

Click here to find out more about the Plank

Click here to watch The Plank

Click here to watch other Eric Sykes clips


Recording Britain – Edited by Gill Saunders

A couple of years ago we went to visit friends in Eastbourne.  One of the things we went to look at was an art gallery that had an exhibition of some of the Recording Britain watercolours.

I enjoyed looking around the exhibition so much I bought a book to find out more about the Recording Britain project.  Typically for me the book got buried in the pile of books waiting to be read and has finally surfaced as part of my “reading the coffee-table books” drive.

The Recording Britain project was set up in 1940 with the dual aims of recording typical English and Welsh scenes (Scotland and Northern Ireland weren’t included in the scheme) that were likely to disappear either through Luftwaffe bombing or modernisation and to provide employment for watercolour, landscape artists who were struggling to find work because of the war.  The project was sponsored by the Pilgrim Trust and subject to a lot of political wrangling behind the scenes.

The book explains various aspects of the project and its subsequent history.  It explains the variable quality of the paintings, the very randomness of the subject matter and the overall lack of interest in the paintings once the project was completed.  It is a mixture of text and reproductions of some of the paintings.

I enjoyed reading about the project and the paintings but I found the layout of the book quite frustrating.  The chapters started with a chunk of text and were followed by the paintings.  This meant a lot of flicking back and forth when trying to see what the editor was talking about.  It would have been much better if the picture was close to the text.  I also found it a bit annoying that some double pages had a picture on each page whilst others had 1 picture and a blank page.  No rhyme or reason and it felt like wasted space, which could have been used to show another of the paintings.

I wouldn’t recommend buying this book to find out about the Recording Britain project; I think you can out about it much more easily online.  I am, however, pleased I bought it.  It has such a wide variety of pictures in it, well reproduced and I expect I will leaf through it and day-dream, curled up in front of a nice fire, when it’s raining and cold outside.

Click here to find out more about Recording Britain


1971 never a dull moment; rock’s golden year – David Hepworth

This book was my partners and he read it in two sittings, which is unusual, so I thought I would give it a go.  It is a history of 1971 told via 12 albums that were released during the year and is written by a music journalist and former presented of The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Hepworth goes through the year month by month telling anecdotes about the making of the albums he chooses, the music scene and the way pop-royalty was learning to live its new millionnaire lifestyle.

This is definitely a book for music lovers of a certain age; mainly, I think, blokes in their 60s who lived through the period and were into prog rock.  I enjoyed reading it and recognising things I lived through but I was only 6 in 1971 and didn’t recognise a lot of the things Hepworth talks about.

What the book did make me do though was think and wonder about a couple of things.  Firstly, does the current fad for “kidulthood” start with the rebellion of “not growing up” in young men in the US in the 60s and 70s, trying to avoid thinking about the Vietnam draft?  Secondly, why do most of us live our lives as affluent zombies, drifting along without thinking what is going on beneath the surface of our lives?  And have both of these things led to the Western world floating complacently along to the point where extreme politics and isolationism are increasing?

For a book I found “ok” it has certainly provoked some deep thoughts!

And, chaps of a certain age, I’d recommend it to you as a good read about music.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Thomas Hughes

It is years since I last read this book and decided to reread it on a whim having spotted it on my bookshelf.

I think the book is from a holiday with my parents, staying at my aunt’s house in a rainy and windswept Whitley Bay.  My parent’s kept me amused with a constant steam of books and, concerned that I was devouring books at a rapid rate of knots, decided to start me on some books meant for older children.  This was one and Hans Brinker was the other.

I really enjoyed re-meeting the characters in the book and there was so much I don’t remember.  I also don’t remember the social commentary and the way the book highlights what were then seen as desirable traits in young English gentlemen.  I suspect I didn’t notice these things when I was younger because although I had the vocabulary and reading ability for the book I didn’t have the emotional maturity.

I enjoyed reading about how Tom stood up to Flashman and I’d forgotten just what a horrible person Flashman is.  It has completely put me off reading George MacDonald Fraser’s books.

It was also good to read the ending where Tom hears of the death of Dr Arnold and contemplates how much influence he had on his life.  I’d also completely forgotten about this ending too.

All in all this was an excellent re-read and I would recommend it.

101 Damnations: dispatches from the 101st Tour de France – Ned Boulting

I like Ned Boulting’s commentary during the Tour de France.  I also enjoyed reading his first book, How I won the Yellow Jumper so I was delighted when I received this as an unexpected Christmas present.

The book is mainly about the 101st Tour, as the title suggests, and covers the Grand Depart from Yorkshire.  I was a Tour Maker for the Grand Depart so I was interested in what Boulting had to say about it; I enjoyed it hugely and thought the people who turned up at the patch I was looking after were great and made all the waiting around an enjoyable occasion.

I enjoyed the way the book covers not just the cyclists but their support teams as well during the defining moments of the 2014 Tour.  It’s good to see people other than the superstars getting recognition for what the superstars achieve.  Ned Boulting has a great way of describing the people he comes across and he usually seems to find some interesting quirk to comment on.

The book also looks at some of the personalities from past Tours; the various stars caught up in doping scandals and promising riders who died in road traffic accidents.  It’s a gloomy thought though that people like Marcel Kittel aren’t recognised and rewarded in their home nations.  He also comments on cycling related industries.

The most dispiriting parts of the book though relate to the presence of doping in cycling and the fact that because of past misdemeanours people question the integrity of Chris Froome, who I would like to believe is a clean rider.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that cycling will ever outlive the drug scandals it has gone through in recent times.

This is an informative and witty book.  I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas present and really enjoyed reading it.

Cruel Crossing; escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees – Edward Stourton

This is a history of some of the escape routes out of Nazi occupied Europe open to people trying to flee the horrors of the Nazi war machine, avoid capture as POWs and get useful information out to the Allies.

The book tells the stories of some of the people involved working the lines, the stories of some of the escapees and about the routes themselves.  It also tells of how the Chemin de la Liberte is commemorated today.

Whilst this book is a celebration of the escape routes it is also sad to learn of the brave people who were betrayed, tortured and killed for running the routes or for trying to use them to escape.  It is almost unbearably sad to learn about those who were so close to freedom but didn’t quite make it over the dangerous and treacherous paths.

I knew, from previous reading, that crossing the Pyrenees was a route out of Nazi Europe but until I read this book I had no real understanding of the difficulties facing people trying to achieve it.  Nor did I know anything of the people who were involved in helping to get people through to Spain.

Edward Stourton has done a good job in uncovering facts and bringing them to life in this book.  He uses a good mix of personal testimony from survivors, hand-me-down stories from the descendants of those who are no longer alive to tell their stories and documented records and accounts. This means the reader gets a many-sided view of the history of the Chemin de la Liberte.

I’m also impressed that Stourton completed the Chemin.

A book that is emotionally difficult to read in parts and one well worth reading.

Click here to find out more about the Chemin de Liberte

Seven Deadly Sins: my pursuit of Lance Armstrong – David Walsh

I remember reading David Walsh’s early articles in The Sunday Times, at first with disbelief and then with a growing sense that there might be something in what Walsh was saying.  I’m not sure anyone was really surprised when the truth finally came out that Armstrong had been doping for years and had, essentially, bullied others into covering up what was happening in the sport.

This book is the story of David Walsh’s transition from Tour de France fan to cynical journalist to crusader trying to expose the corruption at the heart of the cycling fraternity.

Walsh tells not only of his own consignment to “troll” status within the TdF press pack but also of the terrible pressure and horrible stories spread about the Andreus, the LeMonds and Emma O’Reilly when they tried to expose the cheating going on in the US Postal team and by Armstrong particularly.  I am left with enormous admiration for Betsy Andreu for continuing to stand up against Lance Armstrong when he tried to destroy her and her husband for exposing him as a cheat.

The book isn’t just about the pursuit of Armstrong though.  It also tells the story of how doping affected the health of other cyclist.  One story that sticks in my memory is about a 21-year-old cyclist who damaged a leg during the Giro and needed an operation.  When they opened him up in the operating theatre they found his blood was thick sludge from the performance enhancing drugs he had been taking.  I find it shocking that people are prepared to do this to themselves.  Perhaps I’m naive or just not very competitive but I can’t believe that any race or sport is worth damaging your health to that extent.

It was good to read the book as it brings together all Walsh’s articles and research into one place to read at one time, rather than The Times articles that I read over a number of years.

It’s dispiriting though to find that Walsh feels the story of doping in cycling isn’t yet finished, especially on top of the recent allegations about Wiggins and Froome.